Morning Brief

China Signals Economic Caution at People’s Congress

An official projection of over 6 percent growth in the coming year is below economist estimates as the rest of the world still reels from the COVID-19 pandemic.

China's President Xi Jinping drinks tea as he reads a work report during the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2021. (Photo by Leo RAMIREZ / AFP) (Photo by LEO RAMIREZ/AFP via Getty Images)
China's President Xi Jinping drinks tea as he reads a work report during the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 5, 2021. (Photo by Leo RAMIREZ / AFP) (Photo by LEO RAMIREZ/AFP via Getty Images)

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: China’s National People’s Congress opens, European diplomats signal positive momentum toward nuclear talks with Iran, and Italy blocks vaccine exports to Australia.

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China Sets Out Stall at People’s Congress

China opened its National People’s Congress on Friday with a cautious economic assessment of the year ahead and signaled more changes to Hong Kong’s governance.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang announced projections for “over 6 percent” economic growth in the coming year as the world’s second-largest economy begins to shake off the worst of the coronavirus pandemic and return to normal life.

The growth target is something of a lowball figure: A Reuters poll of economists estimates the economy will grow by 8.4 percent this year.

Washington’s China hawks will have also noticed another increasing figure: China’s defense spending. The ministry of finance projected a 6.8 percent increase in Beijing’s defense expenditure, bringing its official budget to $208 billion (less than a third of the U.S. defense budget).

Hong Kong moves. Although things could not get much worse for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition amid sweeping crackdowns under the territory’s national security law, Beijing seems intent on pressing its advantage. NPC vice chairman Wang Chen announced that several revisions would be made to Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, its Basic Law, in order to remove “risks.” The moves are expected to include changes to how the chief executive is elected as well as its Legislative Council.

Carbon plans. Li also announced the creation of an “action plan” to make good on China’s goal to reach peak carbon emissions in 2030, with the goal of carbon neutrality in 2060. As Steven Stashwick writes in Foreign Policy, the pronouncements from the world’s largest greenhouse emitter aren’t simply a PR exercise, and that China’s is taking serious steps to address its coal addiction.

Vaccine diplomacy. Chinese President Xi Jinping (unlike most NPC participants) appeared maskless at today’s gathering, raising suspicions that the leader had already been vaccinated against the coronavirus. If confirmed, Xi would join the millions across the world now being inoculated using Chinese vaccines. An Associated Press tally of public data found that 25 countries have already begun vaccine programs using Chinese shots, with another 11 about to start. China’s foreign ministry denies the doses are an instance of vaccine diplomacy, insisting they are a “global public good.”

What We’re Following Today

“Positive signals” on Iran talks. Plans for informal nuclear talks between world powers and Iran “are moving in the right direction,” a French official told Reuters on Thursday, adding that they had received “positive signals” from Iran in the past week. The official said that the objective was to begin talks before the start of Nowruz, the Iranian New Year, on March 20. The news comes as Britain, France, and Germany backed off on proposing a resolution criticizing Iran at an International Atomic Energy Agency meeting.

Iraq’s first papal visit. Pope Francis begins a four-day trip to Iraq today, the first papal visit to the country as it experiences a surge of coronavirus infections. The pontiff’s trip—which includes stops in Baghdad, Najaf, and Mosul—gives Francis a chance to meet with leaders of Iraq’s dwindling Christian population as well as Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Pope John Paul had planned a visit to Iraq in 1999, but the trip was cancelled after negotiations with Saddam Hussein’s government broke down.

Italy blocks vaccines. Italy became the first EU member state to block the export of a coronavirus vaccine on Thursday, under new rules designed to keep vaccine supplies within the bloc. Italy invoked the rules to stop the export of 250,000 doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine to Australia, which began its vaccine rollout last week. Australia has shrugged off the news, as Health Minister Greg Hunt pointed out that the country would soon be producing one million doses per week beginning in late March.

Keep an Eye On

Ivory Coast votes. Ivory Coast holds parliamentary elections on Saturday just four months after a presidential vote marred by post-election violence. Former President Laurent Gbagbo’s Ivorian Popular Front (FPI) is taking part for the first time in ten years in an electoral alliance with fellow opposition party PDCI, headed by Henri Konan Bedié, also a former president. Both parties will seek to turn the tables on the ruling RHDP, which currently holds 167 out of 255 seats.

Brazil’s COVID crisis. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro has urged Brazilians to stop “whining” about the coronavirus pandemic and ensuing lockdown measures, as the country recorded two consecutive days of record daily death tolls on Tuesday and Wednesday. “Enough fussing and whining. How much longer will the crying go on?” Bolsonaro said at an event. “How much longer will you stay at home and close everything? No one can stand it anymore. We regret the deaths, again, but we need a solution.” Gonzalo Vecina Neto has warned that Brazil is experiencing its “worst outlook” since the beginning of the pandemic, as multiple COVID-19 variants spread around the country.

India’s farmer protests. Indian farmers are planning another major road blockade outside New Delhi on Saturday, as protests against agricultural laws reach their 100th day. “We believe that after these 100 days, our movement will put a moral pressure on the government to accede to our demands, because the weather will also worsen,” said Darshan Pal, a spokesperson for the farmer unions’ coalition. “It will weaken the government, which will have to sit down with us to talk again.” The protests have contributed to a significant decline in Indian soft power, Sumit Ganguly writes, as Narendra Modi’s BJP makes a “risky calculation” between domestic dominance and international condemnation.

Odds and Ends

A Dutch inventor has pioneered a new COVID-19 test that is perhaps more fitting for our times—rather than the customary nasal swab, Peter van Wees invites you to scream instead.

Van Wees has set up an airlocked booth, where participants scream (or sing, depending on their mood), allowing particles to collect in an air purifier. Van Wees then analyzes the filters for the coronavirus.

The method follows similar breathalyzer inventions that are being trialed to increase the ease of testing. The Netherlands’ National Institute for Health has yet to assess the efficacy of van Wees’s screaming solution, although one user has praised it as “a good way of meditation.”

That’s it for today.

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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