Five key takeaways from China’s annual meeting of parliament

China is turning to ‘future technologies’ to boost is economy as it tries to turn the page on developers’ struggles.

a man in a suit walks past people in dark clothes standing in neat rows in a hall with red carpet
Delegates applaud as Chinese President Xi Jinping arrives for the closing session of the NPC, or National Peoples Congress [Kevin Frayer/Getty Images]

China’s week-long meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC), which gathered some 3,000 delegates from the political, business and cultural elite in Beijing, has closed without the customary press conference by the country’s premier.

The annual meeting of the country’s parliament began on March 4 at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square, with delegates tasked with approving new laws and political appointments as well as assessing a litany of reports from departments across the government.

Since 1993, proceedings have wrapped with a press conference by the country’s premier but it was announced last week that Li Qiang would not be speaking to journalists.

If he had, he might have been able to give some insight into the legislation NPC delegates approved, including a shift towards “future industries” and a focus on national security.

Here are five key takeaways from this year’s formalities.

Open to AI

Facial recognition scanners at the entrance to the NPC offered delegates an idea of what a “future industries”-focused economy might look like.

people wearing dark coloured uniforms line up in straight lines outside a building with grey columns
Military delegates arrive at the closing session of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People [Wang Zhao/AFP]

Inside, Premier Li Qiang’s Government Work Report detailed how new technologies – from electric vehicles to commercial space flights – could help China’s economy escape the weight of a faltering property market.

“The two sessions clearly conveyed China’s intention to focus on the development of new technology in order to achieve self-sufficiency,” Angela Zhang, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera.

“China is driven by a sense of urgency to catch up with the United States,” said Zhang, who is also the author of High Wire: How China Regulates Big Tech and Governs Its Economy.

To meet potential economic growth through new technologies, Zhang told Al Jazeera she believes “the Chinese government will adopt a relatively lenient approach towards regulating new technologies like AI”.

Future Industries

While facial recognition cameras indicate that China could join Israel and the US in the lucrative market of surveillance technology, Bert Hofman, a professor at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, sees a range of ways in which new technologies could help China escape recent economic woes.

a soldier in the foreground is blurry while surveillance cameras can be seen behind him
Security cameras near the Great Hall of the People at Tiananmen Square [Bloomberg/Getty Images]

While China is “on track” to meet its climate targets by 2060, Hofman says it could potentially see economic benefits from “front-loading” its green transition sooner as has also been argued by Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times.

For example, Hofman told Al Jazeera that the government could give “subsidies to households to buy more of the outputs of China’s surging EV [electric vehicle] manufacturing”.

Defence and security

The government did not announce a specific target for spending on its green transition at the NPC.

By contrast, it did announce that defence spending would rise by 7.2 percent in 2024, the same level of increase as in 2023.

A spokesperson explaining the increase said: “China has maintained a comparatively low military expenditure and the nation always sticks to a peaceful development road”.

But references to peace were notably absent from sections of the premier’s work report in its references to Taiwan. Last year’s report called for “advanc[ing] the process of China’s peaceful reunification”, while this year, Li said China would “be firm in advancing the cause of China’s reunification”.

According to Hofman, the increase in China’s military spending announced at the NPC may not result in an increase in real terms.

He told Al Jazeera he is more concerned about the focus on “future industries and the industrial policy that will go into developing them in China” after the focus on this area at this year’s NPC.

Still, China’s military spending has attracted much attention given that other countries are already spending more on defence.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI),  other countries, including the US, Japan, Australia and South Korea, have increased military spending “driven by a perception of a growing threat from China”.

Beijing’s defence budget has more than doubled since 2015 but, according to William D Hartung of the Quincy Institute, the US continues to outspend China on its military by a substantial margin.

Hartung cites data from SIPRI which he says go beyond China’s official military expenditures to include the “full range of China’s military-related activities”. Even taking this into account, according to the latest SIPRI estimate, US military spending at $877bn was about three times higher than Chinese military spending at $292bn in 2022.

Difficult economic questions

Speaking to delegates, some ministers were relatively frank about the challenges China is facing, especially in the area of economic growth.

Housing Minister Ni Hong was quoted as describing the task of fixing China’s property market as “very difficult”.

The collapse of property developer Evergrande was potentially a touchy subject at the meeting with one journalist reportedly having been questioned about her ties to the company after going through a facial recognition scanner.

China’s target of 5 percent growth for 2024 was seen by some as “ambitious”, although Hofman sees it as relatively realistic if China is able to escape a potential “deflationary spiral”.

He says Beijing has been wary of stimulus tied to the flailing housing market but that there are other ways it could help get more money into people’s hands to help stimulate the economy, such as a recent “very minimal” increase in rural pensions of about 20 Chinese yuan ($2.78) per month.

Delegates at the NPC go through previously agreed documents “almost line by line” meaning there are few, if any, new announcements during official proceedings, said Hofman.

Wang Yi at a press conference in Beijing. He is sitting at a desk.
China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a rare press conference on the sidelines of the NPC [Pedro Pardo/AFP]

The Financial Times reported that officials from some of China’s indebted state provinces met state bankers on the sidelines of the Congress.

Looking outwards

Without the customary press conference, China removed one of the few avenues open to foreign media trying to understand where China sees itself in the world.

However, while Li did not address the media, Foreign Minister Wang Yi held a press conference last week on the sidelines of the NPC.

The room was full and Wang fielded questions from reporters from publications in countries including Egypt, Russia and the US.

Wang said there had been “some improvement in China-US relations” since Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden met in San Francisco last year, after a deterioration of ties as a result of differences over issues from trade to Taiwan and an alleged Chinese spy balloon.

Asked about China’s relationship with Russia in light of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, he described Beijing and Moscow’s closer relationship as a “strategic choice”, noting that bilateral trade had reached a record $240bn in 2023.

“New opportunities” lay ahead, he added, portraying the two countries’ ties as a “new paradigm” in the relations between big powers.

“Major countries should not seek conflict and the Cold War should not be allowed to come back,” Wang said.

Wang Yi also took questions on Israel’s war on Gaza, calling for an immediate ceasefire and telling journalists that China would support Palestine’s “full” membership of the United Nations.

Source: Al Jazeera