China’s choreographed political meet carries message of control

By Thomson Reuters Mar 11, 2024 | 3:25 AM

By Colleen Howe, Laurie Chen and Liz Lee

BEIJING (Reuters) – China’s National People’s Congress has discussed everything from Taiwan to technology, but observers say the key message – both in substance and style – has been clear: more control for President Xi Jinping and a deeper focus on national security.

Nearly 3,000 delegates met over the last week in Beijing for the highly choreographed and closely watched annual event, a rare window into China’s opaque political system. Wall-to-wall state media coverage means optics are as important as incoming laws.

Delegates vowed to enact bills to “modernise China’s system and capacity for national security,” and revise laws on national defence education after last month broadening state secrets law to include work secrets in restricted sensitive information.

“One of the primary tasks of the NPC is to further develop China’s national security legal architecture,” said Henry Gao, professor of law at Singapore Management University. “National security has become the ‘raison d’etre’ of the Chinese government and the Party.”

China also broke with 30 years of tradition by scrapping one of the most widely followed events on its policy calendar, the premier’s annual post-parliament news conference, and revised laws giving the Communist Party more control over the cabinet.

Thomas Kellogg, a professor of Asian law at Georgetown University, said the Communist Party under Xi “reverts in so many ways to a pre-1978 mode of governance.”

The decision to cancel the premier’s news conference was “another example of state governance institutions and traditions falling by the wayside, in part because they don’t fit in with Xi’s Party-dominated vision of governance,” Kellog added.

NPC spokesperson Lou Qinjian said the premier’s news conference was cancelled because there were more briefings by other ministers. Foreign ministry has said China is a responsible power that supports multilateralism and globalisation and have said other countries are hyping up the “China threat”.


Security in central Beijing was stepped up and some diplomats said they had less access than in the past.

Inside the Great Hall of the People reporters staked out officials mingling in high-ceiling rooms with Soviet-style decor, adorned with crimson carpets, marble pillars and crystal chandeliers.

And while access was easier than recent years for most journalists, interactions during some news conferences appeared highly choreographed.

During Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s annual news conference, one foreign journalist from little known China Arab TV was called on to ask a question. After praising China’s diplomacy he asked, “what role can foreign journalists play in telling China’s story well?”

In response, the usually stern Wang mentioned the reporter’s recent dance performance at the ministry’s Lunar New Year party widely shared on Douyin, the Chinese counterpart of TikTok.

“I have seen one foreign journalist say that China is a place where the impossible is made possible, and that telling the story of China is not just a job for him, but a lifelong mission,” Wang added.

The interaction was swiftly popularised on social media platforms through short videos created by several state media outlets, racking up glowing reviews and tens of millions of views.

Following the news conference, at which Wang also said Washington has a “wrong perception of China”, state-run China Daily ran a segment titled “China’s diplomacy impressed global reporters”, featuring praise by reporters from Zanzibar, Iran and Venezuela.

Beyond plenary sessions, delegates from each province met across Beijing. At a meeting of delegates from Shanxi, known as one of China’s “rust belt” provinces, there were moments that highlighted real challenges facing local policymakers.

Shanxi Vice Governor Wu Wei asked the central government to “further strengthen support for government bonds,” citing financial problems facing local governments. A delegate who ran a nursing home described the struggles of caring for an aging population, after young people had moved elsewhere for work.

But delegate Zhang Linshan told journalists on the sidelines these interactions would have been agreed upon with the central government in advance.

Another delegate hurried away after a Reuters journalist approached him for an interview. He declined to add the reporter on networking app WeChat, explaining “our WeChat is rather tightly controlled,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Beijing Newsroom; Writing by Antoni Slodkowski; Editing by Lincoln Feast.)