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Economy in spotlight as China’s big political meeting of the year gets underway

BEIJING — One burning issue dominates as the 2024 session of China’s legislature gets underway this week: the economy.

The National People’s Congress annual meeting, which opens Tuesday, is being closely watched for any signals on what the ruling Communist Party might do to reenergize an economy that is sagging under the weight of expanded government controls and the bursting of a real-estate bubble.

That is not to say that other issues won’t come up. Proposals to raise the retirement age are expected to be a hot topic, the state-owned Global Times newspaper said last week. And China watchers will parse the annual defense budget and the possible introduction of a new foreign minister.

But the economy is what is on most people’s minds in a country that may be at a major turning point after four decades of growth that propelled China into a position of economic and geopolitical power. For many Chinese, the failure of the post-COVID economy to rally strongly last year is shaking a long-held confidence in the future.

A ceremonial role The National People’s Congress is largely ceremonial in that it doesn’t have any real power to decide on legislation. The deputies do vote, but it’s become a unanimous or near-unanimous formalizing of decisions that have been made by Communist Party leaders behind closed doors.

The congress can be a forum to propose and discuss ideas. The nearly 3,000 deputies are chosen to represent various groups, from government officials and party members to farmers and migrant workers. But Alfred Wu, an expert on governance in China, believes that role has been eroded by the centralization of power under Chinese leader Xi Jinping.

“Everyone knows the signal is the top,” said Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore and a former journalist in China. “Once the top says something, I say something. Once the top keeps silent, I also keep silent.”

Nonetheless, the reports and speeches during the congress can give indications of the future direction of government policy. And while they tend to be in line with previous announcements, major new initiatives have been revealed at the meeting, such as the 2020 decision to enact a national security law for Hong Kong following major anti-government protests in 2019.

A target for growth The first thing the legislature will do on Tuesday is receive a lengthy “work report” from Premier Li Qiang that will review the past year and include the government’s economic growth target for this year.

Many analysts expect something similar to last year’s target of “around 5%,” which they say would affirm market expectations for a moderate step up in economic stimulus and measures to boost consumer and investor confidence.