China Two Sessions: premier Li Qiang will not speak to press in break with tradition

<span>A Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldier stands guard in front of a portrait of the late Communist leader Mao Zedong outside Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.</span><span>Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images</span>
A Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldier stands guard in front of a portrait of the late Communist leader Mao Zedong outside Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.Photograph: Pedro Pardo/AFP/Getty Images

China’s leading economics official, premier Li Qiang, will not address the press at the country’s major annual political gathering in Beijing, in a break with tradition.

The Two Sessions has started against a backdrop of major economic headwinds, decreasing transparency on government indicators, and growing concern among international business and investors.

Delegates at near-simultaneous gatherings of China’s rubber-stamping parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), and the political consultative body the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), will discuss and approve the ruling Chinese Communist party’s policy direction for the year.

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The meetings are highly orchestrated, and all public engagements stick closely to the party’s policy and political narrative.

At a press conference on Monday, a spokesperson for the NPC, Lou Qinjian, revealed that in a break with tradition, Li would not give a press conference at the end of this meeting, or at any of the NPC sessions this term. The press conferences were one of the few opportunities for foreign press to engage with the high-ranking official.

An agenda published by state media at the same time also revealed that current vacancies in the state council – China’s cabinet – and central military commission will remain vacant for some time, with no personnel appointments to be announced during the Two Sessions.

Speculation around the fates of Qin Gang, the former foreign minister, and Li Shangfu, the former defence minister, has swirled since the two men were mysteriously removed without explanation, leaving vacancies on the state council. Li’s vacancy may be filled by his replacement as defence minister, Dong Jun. But it is far from certain that Dong or any new foreign minister – as Qin’s predecessor, Wang Yi, is thought to have returned only temporarily – will be appointed to the state council.

On Monday morning, state media also reported that the CPPCC’s top body had confirmed the removal of four senior aerospace/defence officials from the national committee. The removals – announced in December of February – are believed to be part of an ongoing and secretive purge within the military.

Lou also addressed recent changes to espionage laws that have drawn concern from the international business community, over broadened definitions and bans on the transfer of any information related to “national security”. Law enforcement raids and arrests, including on due diligence analysis firms, have sparked warnings of increased risk to foreign businesses and their employees in China.

He told Monday’s press conference this was a “misinterpretation of the counter-espionage law” that “denigrated” China, and that China was still committed to “reform and opening up”, particularly to business exchange and cooperation.

“Based on common international practices … it has actually refined the definition of espionage activities and made clear the line between legal and illegal activities.

“It does not target normal business activities, research work, or professional exchanges,” Lou said. “China’s door remains open to the world and its door will not shut.”

Asked about China’s defence budget, given increasing tensions in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, the spokesperson said only that a draft would be reviewed by the NPC.

He said China had made reasonable and steady growth of defence spending, in line with defence capability and economic strength.

“China is committed to the path of peaceful development,” he said.

Lou dismissed criticism of China’s increasingly aggressive behaviour in the region, particularly in the South China Sea – over which it holds massive and widely disputed territorial claims – saying China was a good neighbour and cooperative friend.

The CPPCC opens on Monday and the NPC on Tuesday. All events will wrap up by 11 March.

On Sunday, a CPPCC spokesperson, Liu Jieyi, said “economic topics are of great concern” to the body’s over 2,000 members.

So too was “the employment of young people, especially fresh graduates”, he said, with youth unemployment officially at about 15% at the end of 2023, after the statistics bureau adjusted its calculation methods.

Agence France Presse contributed to this report