China’s Two Sessions was finally held last week after two months of postponement (thank you COVID-19!), and it was the shortest conference since 1978. While Hong Kong has grabbed the headlines, other vital decisions on public health, national security, and the economy were taken. There are two important takeaways among these: the plan to revive the economy and the new civil code.
Lianghui (两会 or The Two Sessions) refers to the meetings of the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which are the legislative consultative bodies of the Chinese state. During these deliberations, work reports of various organisations are heard, and then new laws are deliberated (as much as they can be in an authoritarian state). One of the most important reasons that everyone watches out for the Lianghui is because the Premier’s Speech sets economic targets for the country. Think of it as a corollary to the Indian budget speech.
Premier Le Keqing’s speech this year was remarkable on several counts. First, he announced that China would not set any growth targets this year. It will be the first time in thirty years that China has not set a growth target, and it’s because COVID-19 has sent shocks through the economy. However, it also falls in line with voices within policymaking that have recommended that the government abandon the official growth-target setting so that it can focus more on inclusive, sustainable growth. The government also announced a massive stimulus package and the issuance of special government bonds.
However, these measures will have to contend with the problems of the global economy. While Chinese cities and factories are up and running, the demand from the rest of the world remains low as countries continue to grapple with controlling the spread of the virus. Another essential point to note is the problem of labour: 9 million college students who are graduating this year face bleak employment prospects while the shocks in the economy hit migrant workers more than anyone else.
The other noteworthy outcome of the Lianggui is China’s new civil code, which will officially begin enforcement next year. There were four previous attempts to install a civil code (in 1956,1962, 1979, and early 2000s) but were abandoned either because of political upheaval (as in the case of the first two) or because the policymakers thought that China was not ready for the reforms. This current version has been in the works since 2014 and reportedly received 9 lakh comments online during its deliberations.
This is the first time that Chinese law has been codified and further goes on to show to highlight the importance that the current government under Xi Jinping is placing on using legal frameworks to strengthen the Communist Party’s sovereignty. The laws cover property rights, contract law, marriage and family rights, and personal rights. The new code amalgamates all the existing laws that have been passed on each of these issues previously. Some scholars argue that the passing of the Civil Code is meant to signal to the private sector that basic rights will be safeguarded. However, in a state that ‘rules by law,’ the proof will be in the enforcement.
There were other important aspects of Chinese policy that were also discussed within Lianghui, particularly about China’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the United States. Considering that the US policymakers have been vocal about stripping Hong Kong’s special status and threatening to escalate tensions, China is not going to take things lying down. In a recent press conference, Foreign Minister Wang Yi was asked about China’s new ‘wolf-warrior’ diplomacy, and he replied, “ We will push back against any deliberate insult to resolutely defend our national honour and dignity. And we will refute all groundless slander with facts to resolutely uphold fairness, justice, and human conscience.” If this is a sign of things to come, then prepare for more aggressive posturing from China.
-Hamsini Hariharan is the host of the States of Anarchy podcast and is currently based in Beijing.
First Published: IST