Atmosphere of fear expected to dominate China’s annual parliament

Beijing (dpa) – Chinese President Xi Jinping has vowed to “comprehensively apply strictness in governing the party.”

If anyone was in doubt of that, they needed to look no further than the at least 36 senior lawmakers and advisors detained in corruption investigations in the past year, according to reports from the South China Morning Post.

That means this year’s annual parliament, set to open Thursday, will open with a strange mix of excitement and paranoia, as attendees try to get a grip on Xi’s plans while wondering if those plans might mean sidelining any other members of the elite.

Those detained since last year include Ling Jihua, former aide of retired president Hu Jintao, and Su Rong, former vice chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top political advisory body.

Last year alone, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection brought investigations against 71,748 officials and has imposed penalties on 23,646 of them so far, according to statistics posted on the watchdog’s website.

China also detained hundreds of human rights activists last year, including those who had expressed support for the pro-democracy “Umbrella Movement” protests in Hong Kong.

“By punishing dissidents who have expressed only moderate criticisms … Xi is saying, do not threaten me, do not touch me and do not think of shaking my position,” said Zhang Lifan, a Beijing-based political analyst.

The president has recently increased the focus on army officers in his “tiger and flies” anti-graft campaign against both high-ranking and lower officials.

In January, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) revealed that it had launched corruption investigations against 16 senior officers, including Xu Caihou, vice chairman of the powerful Central Military Commission. He was indicted on bribery charges last year.

The military on Monday released an updated memo saying 14 generals have been convicted of graft or placed under investigation.

Analysts expect the campaign to go even further this year.

“The next powerful vested interest in the Chinese system that the president will attack will be state-owned enterprises that inefficiently use state resources,” said Richard Giragosian, consultant for the Asian Development Bank and director of the Armenia-based think tank Regional Studies Center.

“Based on Xi’s slogan to ‘comprehensively apply strictness in governing the party’ it seems there will be more focus on local party corruption in places far from Beijing,” Giragosian said.

For this, Xi “will face great resistance,” said Zhang Ming, a professor of politics at People’s University in Beijing.

“[The campaign] is both a political struggle and an effort to clean up the government, military, state security and police so that they can be effective tools of Xi’s rule,” Zhang said.

Xi’s other big priorities are to “comprehensively build a moderately prosperous society, comprehensively deepen reform, and comprehensively govern the country according to the law.”

Analysts say this doctrine, billed as the “Four Comprehensives,” will reflect the aims of the country’s annual parliament this week: to enforce stricter political control while encouraging modest expectations for economic growth.

The annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (NPC) opens alongside a meeting of the CPPCC.

The congress, decried as a “rubber stamp” parliament by critics and attended by some 3,000 delegates during the course of 11 days, is showcased by the party as evidence of its development of “socialist democracy.”

Delegates to the NPC and CPPCC are also expected to face tough decisions over China’s slowing economic growth.

Chinese premier Li Keqiang will give a government economic work report Thursday that will set the country’s annual growth target.

The target this year will be “around 7 per cent … aiming for “moderate to high growth,” a source close to the premier told dpa.

China’s “economy is faced with huge downward pressure,” the source said, and leaders have to watch out that the economy “does not lose steam”.

China’s economy grew last year by 7.4 per cent – the weakest growth in 24 years – missing the 7.5 per cent target announced at last year’s congress.

But analysts say social reforms could help to address stagnating growth.

“The government’s long-held promise to give migrant workers urban hukou [household registration] socioeconomic rights … would be good for social stability and boost consumer spending,” said Willy Lam, a professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

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