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People's Congress a test for China's new leadership

This year's People's Congress in Beijing is seen as the first test for China's new strong man, Xi Jinping. His concept: Limited change and reforms through centralization.

Even people in China perceive the National People's Congress, which is scheduled to meet for the first time on Wednesday (05.03.2014), as a show conference. The congress will be passing laws and drafts that have already been approved in advance by the Chinese Communist Party.

But this time, there is a new leadership and it has a different way of working. Chinese President Xi Jinping (top right, with former President Hu Jintao) has made public statements about the economy, which in the past has traditionally been the prime minister's domain.

"Crucial policies are now decided in the party and not so much in the government," says Professor Sebastian Heilmann from Trier University, the director of the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS) in Berlin.

President Xi Jinping,

for example, is on several important committees within the Central Committee of the Communist Party. These include committees responsible for the introduction and execution of reforms, upholding state security and ensuring Internet security - one of the country's youngest committees. There has not been such a concentration of power in a very long time in the People's Republic.

Heilmann agrees: "We can see a strong drive towards centralization within the leadership," he says. "Until now, there was a lot of scope for regional initiatives, for changes to government drafts with regards to laws. We won't be seeing much of that."

Testing the waters

Hong Kong demonstration for press freedom

A degree of press freedom is limited to Hong Kong

One of the important tasks of the People's Congress will be the implementation of last year's party program. In November, the Central Committee voted on an ambitious plan for economic reform. The plan concerned the deregulation and further liberalization of the Chinese market, including financial markets. Heilmann thinks the latter could be a dangerous strategy. "They want a liberalization of financial markets, a freer market, more competition in all economic spheres. It's particularly risky if you are imagining a financial system that has been inflated by credits and a real estate bubble."

Prime Minister Li Keqiang, who is responsible for economic policy, will be presenting his first government work report at the congress. Heilmann predicts that the report will be rather defensive. "He will basically have to explain the

transition period,

where you are saying: We want to move away from strong growth and from export dependency. This has to be a publicity campaign for the reform package of the Central Committee."

And there certainly is opposition to the reforms. That is why the People's Congress is a test for the political duo Xi-Li. "If the congress doesn't pass a whole array of new reform legislation, then we can deduce from that that there are tensions," says China expert Heilmann.

Environment an urgent issue

Smog in Beijing, China 24.02.2014

Environment issues, like smog, are high on the agenda

Hong Kong publicist and editor-in-chief of the political magazine, Kai Fang (Opening), Jin Zhong, argues, however, that the congress meeting does not really say much: "Not everything that the central committee agreed on at the end of 2013 will find its way into legislation during the People's Congress." The reform plan of the central committee addressed a great many problem issues, but their respective priority remains unclear, he added.

Some 3,000 delegates from all over China are in Beijing for the People's Congress, but little debate takes place in the plenary session. Instead, the delegates exchange their points of view out of the limelight in hallways and conference rooms. Health care, the environment and the country's social welfare system are likely to be key issues for urban delegates, says Professor Heilmann, while representatives from rural areas will be focusing on land reform, land use, China's urbanization program and the controversial domicile registration (Hukou) procedures.

"Corruption, stalled reforms and

air pollution

in cities like Beijing are the most important issues," says Jin Zhong. In the last few weeks, for example, Beijing has been suffocating under a thick blanket of smog. But just in time for the People's Congress, favorable winds and rain in Beijing have helped somewhat to clean up the air. In major cities, air quality is the dominant theme of people's everyday lives. A week ago, Xi Jinping took a walk through Beijing's Old Town at the height of the smog alarm and it turned into an immediate media event. But, besides this demonstration of solidarity with the masses, China's new strong man has no concept for clearing the air.

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