Chinese President Xi Jinping (left and Premier Li Keqiang arrive for the opening session of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on May 21, 2020. Photo: Leo Ramirez / AFP

Last Friday, China started its annual political season, as the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) met in Beijing after a 78-day delay caused by the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In the auditorium of the Great Hall of the People, the Lianghui (Two Sessions) began with the reunion of the most influential political figures in the Chinese panorama, whose aim is to understand what have been the main challenges that China had to handle over the recent months due to the pandemic, how they affected the nation and what should be done now to overcome these turbulent times.

But what the Two Sessions represent is also a message to the world about the solidity of China at this difficult juncture.

Shaping policies at home

During his opening speech, Premier Li Keqiang highlighted the main areas where Chinese efforts will have to be focused in the months to come to shape actions against the Covid-19 emergency: economic growth, public health, poverty alleviation, jobs and new legislation.

Economic issues certainly have the priority on the government’s agenda. Even considering the effective reopening to reactivate the national economic engine, experts are still divided on whether the country as at the early stage of a V-shaped recovery.

Amid the different views that are separating optimists from more skeptical economists, decision-makers in Beijing wisely decided not set a target for the GDP growth rate.

By virtue of the latest data indicating that gross domestic product has shrunk and the global recession that will result from the pandemic crisis, this extraordinary decision appears coherent in such an unpredictable scenario, where being preoccupied with stimulating the economy to achieve a specific target would have shifted the attention away from the overall development goals of the country.

The Covid-19 crisis is causing repercussions that have a greater impact on the Asian economies when compared with the difficulties boosted by the 2008 financial crisis. Locking down entire regions resulted in a shock in the supply chains, which put the political class under severe stress, as they now must also deal with the increase in unemployment in their countries. China, in particular, wants to respond to this, creating urban jobs and trying to reassure those who are going to graduate from universities this year.

In addition, the Government Work Report delivered by Premier Li showed how even lifting all Chinese people out of poverty remains a central topic, highlighting a type of growth with focuses on quantity and quality as well.

Staying active in the global scene

Li also stressed the importance of continuing to allocate resources and energies in the global scene. First, the Asian giant wishes to reinvigorate the Belt and Road Initiative though beneficial cooperation with partner countries; second, the country is still interested in pushing forward with trade agreements with Japan and South Korea; and third, China is committed to respect the Phase 1 trade deal with the United States.

On that third point, according to the 94-page deal signed on January 15 between Chinese Vice-President Liu He and US President Donald Trump, China would have imported $200 billion worth of products over two years, ranging from beef, pork and rice to energy products and manufactured goods. But the Covid-19 outbreak, along with diplomatic tensions with Washington, put into question the terms contained in the agreement.

By showing the will to respect the conditions, China has sent a positive signal that is in contrast with the more assertive tones used by the Trump administration.

Obstacles along the Chinese pathway

Nonetheless, beyond what has been mentioned, the frictions with Hong Kong and Taiwan represent an additional obstacle that the Chinese government needs to solve to be seen as a trustworthy player and to push forward the pillars of its policy.

Taiwan is still a challenging issue, as President Tsai Ing-wen’s administration rejects the “one country, two systems” model proposed by the mainland.

In relation to Hong Kong, Li talked about the importance of safeguarding national security through the enforcement of the legal system and the prohibition of “subversive activities.” The announcement has been supported by the cabinet of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who promised to promote the importance of the new legislation to the city.

In contrast, debates over the national-security issue are rising in the West, with the Trump administration saying this move could lead to the imposition of US sanctions on China due to the implications on the autonomy of Hong Kong.

A responsible great power

However, besides the announcements of the measures that Beijing plans to activate, the Two Sessions have an important meaning this year. On one hand, the political event aims to symbolize that the strategies adopted by President Xi Jinping and his government to manage the outbreak of the pandemic have succeeded.

Xi wanted to demonstrate, at home and abroad, that the Communist Party of China is still solid and able to lead the nation toward a renewed phase, despite the barriers that must be still defeated, but without adopting a too triumphant approach. On the other hand, the plenary session could be read as an event to stress China’s vision as a responsible great power during a crisis that is affecting countries all over the world.

According to this concept, which is not new to the Chinese state, it aims to take an active role in global governance and connecting its own development to those of the other nations. China is thus moving in a direction that is different to those of some Western nations, particularly the US.

Whether Beijing is able to pursue this goal depends on its capabilities, but also on external factors – and specifically on what other foreign actors do (or do not do). Indeed, with Washington moving away from multilateralism and contributing to the diffusion of isolationist policies and individualist narratives, the global system risks becoming even more fragmented and fragile.

In such a scenario, there is a leadership vacuum that must be filled. While “by whom” remains the question, the answer doesn’t appear to be immediate or as simple as it was in recent decades.  

Federica Russo is research lead at Navis, an executive search firm which takes an active role to improve how business leaders are selected. Previously, she was director of research at Wikistrat, a consulting firm helping Fortune 500 corporations and governments to brainstorm solutions and obtain an in-depth understanding of their landscape by using a crowdsourcing approach. She is currently based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.