What to Expect From China’s Annual Legislative Sessions
Further controls over Hong Kong are expected to be formalized at this week’s meetings, which showcase Chinese Communist Party power.
Welcome to Foreign Policy’s China Brief.
The highlights this week: China’s legislative two sessions begins with new Hong Kong controls expected, strange flights continue from Myanmar to southern China, and Alibaba’s Jack Ma falls down an annual rich list.
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Rubber Stamps at the Ready
Thursday marks the start of China’s annual two sessions, the gathering of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), where representatives meet in Beijing to rubber-stamp agreed legislation. While the NPC is technically China’s legislature, it meets for less than two weeks each year, largely to sign off on the state’s agenda. Some stray delegates used to attempt to raise off-message topics each year, but that has diminished under President Xi Jinping’s growing control.
In some ways, the CPPCC is more interesting. The advisory body brings together a wide range of the Chinese elite, from soldiers to business leaders. It is a classic example of the Chinese Communist Party’s so-called united front system, which attempts to control all elements of civil society to work together toward the party-state’s ends.
While united front actions abroad, like influencing Chinese-language media worldwide, have captured attention in the past four years, the majority of the work is domestic, such as control over religious institutions, ethnic minorities, and public intellectuals. The state doles out membership to both the NPC and CPPCC as a reward for public figures who follow the party line. The Hong Kong movie icon Jackie Chan is a faithful CPPCC delegate, for example.
Reading the two sessions is like an exercise in Kremlinology. How long do delegates have to clap for particular figures? Which preset proposals will be put through? Last year’s NPC introduced the national security law that kicked off a crackdown in Hong Kong. Increased restrictions, possibly including travel bans and internet controls, are likely to be formalized this week.
Another big takeaway: China’s family planning policies could be seriously loosened—that is, outside of Xinjiang, where forced sterilization and mass arrests have caused birth rates to plummet by half since 2017. Elsewhere, the state has universally allowed families to have two children since 2015, but that policy hasn’t produced the baby boom officials hoped for. China’s long-term demographic figures remain dire, with last year seeing a record low number of new babies.
If restrictions are loosened or eliminated altogether, that will leave the vast family planning bureaucracy—which still enforces regular pregnancy checks and other coercive measures, especially in the countryside—in need of a new role. Over the long term its purpose may shift, as in other communist states, toward a coercive natalist policy.
What We’re Following
Beijing’s image in U.S. hits record low. Gallup polling shows that a higher percentage of Americans have an unfavorable view of China than ever before, with just 20 percent holding a mildly or strongly positive view of China—a 13 percent drop from last year’s strikingly low figures. At present, China is less popular in the United States than after the bloodshed in Tiananmen Square in 1989. The pandemic has clearly driven the shift, but China’s genocidal actions in Xinjiang, crackdown in Hong Kong, and increasingly aggressive rhetoric also seem to factor in.
As a result of this unpopularity, and also in part because the Republican Party is attempting to paint President Joe Biden as weak on China, lawmakers are pushing record number of bills on U.S. business with China at the state level. Florida’s HR 439 bill, for example, would prohibit any state agency from dealing with Chinese services, especially tech ones.
Similar bills in other Republican-controlled legislatures may prove an unexpected hazard for U.S.-China business relations, just as new technology controls come in at the national level.
Midnight flights to Myanmar. Rumors among Myanmar’s opposition about strange flights from China have turned out to be true, according to data obtained by researchers in Australia. Since taking power in a coup on Feb. 1, the military has halted almost all international flights to and from Myanmar, but regular night flights continue between Yangon, its largest city, and Kunming, in southern China.
There is plentiful speculation on what could be on the planes. It’s possible the flights could be carrying ammunition, weapons, and crowd control equipment, or that some trade deal mattered too much to important people on both sides to be halted. If it does turn out that China is supplying the regime’s security forces, who killed 38 people on Wednesday, anti-Chinese sentiments among Myanmar’s people will grow even fiercer.
Colonialist propaganda. The BBC has unearthed a remarkable Chinese state documentary from 2017 about labor transfer program from Xinjiang. The film directly depicts the coercion involved, but it portrays it as part of a heroic government effort to “modernize” the Uyghur population. Absent from the program, of course, is the camp-to-forced-labor pipeline that foreign researchers have investigated.
Despite China’s claims of uplifting Xinjiang’s population, those coerced into factory work have included businesspeople, university lecturers, and other high-earning professionals. (Who exactly has seized control of former Uyghur-run enterprises remains relatively uninvestigated.) Meanwhile, government spokespeople this week launched personal attacks against women who have testified about rape in Xinjiang.
Tech and Business
The rich list. The annual Hurun Rich List, which compiles data on China’s 1,000 wealthiest individuals, is out. The big news: Alibaba cofounder Jack Ma was knocked out of the top spot to fourth place, due to the government’s blocking of Ant Financial’s initial public offering at the last minute. Zhong Shanshan, now in first place, is not well known beyond China. He owns one of the most popular bottled water brands, but his biggest boost came from his ownership of a bioscience firm involved in vaccine manufacturing.
As elsewhere, Chinese billionaires’ wealth has swelled during the pandemic even as others suffered. But mega-wealth remains risky business in an autocratic communist state with extreme income inequality, and some of the wealthiest work hard to conceal how rich they are. The Hurun List, which is compiled by Luxembourg-born Rupert Hoogewerf, has been nicknamed the “fat pig killing list,” since past members have fallen victim to political machinations.
Property checks. Guo Shuqing, one of China’s top regulators, gave a press conference in which he discussed domestic and foreign property bubbles. Guo noted that real estate within China remains overinflated—which he called “very dangerous.” Property has outstripped all other investment vehicles in China for at least two decades. Many enterprises, when you dig beneath the surface, are actually vehicles for circumventing property laws.
The government frequently tries to rein real estate in due to economic fears and societal consequences—only to face pushback from upper-middle-class urbanites, a key support group for the Communist Party.
Pirates arrested. One of the last remaining major websites for pirated TV shows in China has been taken offline. Such sites, which break both copyright law and Chinese censorship laws, were a major part of the entertainment experience for Chinese millennials. Pirated DVDs, once a mainstream product, largely disappeared from the streets of cities as a result.
With streaming services now ubiquitous and the government cracking down, it’s much harder for young Chinese to watch uncensored foreign media than it was even five or 10 years ago. Even the most banal of foreign shows can end up pulled for unspecified reasons: Friends, once a cultural behemoth, is no longer streaming in China.
What We’re Reading
“Inside Xinjiang’s Prison State,” by Ben Mauk, the New Yorker
This detailed story in the New Yorker, based on interviews that Mauk conducted with refugees in Kazakhstan and elsewhere, powerfully conveys the stories of the victims of China’s abuses in Xinjiang. Artist Matt Huynh compiled the accompanying illustrations from witness details and documented evidence, down to the type of security camera used.
This method is particularly effective in making up for the lack of photos of life in China’s internment camps. While extensive satellite imagery has reached the outside world, there are almost no images from within the camps save for those from propaganda tours.
That’s it for this week.
Correction, March 6, 2021: Zhong Shanshan is the owner of Nongfu Spring. A previous version of this article contained a misspelling of his name.