China’s “two meetings”, the annual political gatherings beginning in Beijing, offer a great deal of show with much less tell. The sessions of the largely rubber-stamp parliament and consultative body run along predictable lines: a round-up of activists beforehand; the announcement of a military budget rise; images of ethnic minority delegates in colourful robes and attractive female attendants plastered across state media; dry speeches to be mined for the odd nugget. Only occasionally do surprises erupt into this spectacle.
So what matters most is not what you will see, but what you will not. Firstly, these events have previously offered informed observers a window into internal debates, albeit obliquely – but the already limited space for discussion has been reduced further under President Xi Jinping, China’s most powerful leader for decades. That speaks to his broader consolidation of power. Secondly, you will not see the intense manoeuvrings going on ahead of this autumn’s much more important party congress – but the convergence on the capital ensures plentiful behind-the-scenes politicking.
On precedent, the congress should mark the halfway point in Mr Xi’s two-term decade in power, and be used to indicate his chosen successor. But there is growing speculation that he may delay anointing his heir or extend a close ally’s tenure, ignoring the unwritten age limit for leaders. Either would intensify speculation he wants a third term.
In the wake of Mao Zedong, the Communist party sought to institutionalise its politics. There is a suspicion that the concept of collective leadership is waning. Mr Xi rapidly established himself as a “core” leader, ousted foes, adopted the title “commander in chief” and placed his allies in key positions. This centralisation of party power has been matched by the expansion of party power within the country, with a sweeping crackdown across civil society, the law, academia and business.
Now the “Chairman of Everything” is becoming more ambitious internationally. Concern remains about what the new United States administration will mean for China. But Donald Trump’s victory has given the country an unforeseen opportunity to project itself as a positive force in world affairs, as evidenced by the glowing reception for Mr Xi’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. China does not aspire to replace the US as global leader, but Mr Xi has said that it should guide the international community in reshaping the world order.
That message is likely to be reinforced in the coming days: though the two sessions are domestic and economic in focus, they are used to burnish China’s image internationally. A spokesman has already reminded reporters that China contributed around a third of global economic growth last year – though its economic problems are mounting. But while China has much to bring to the table, it would be naive in the extreme to see it as the champion of a progressive, internationalist global order. Its growing confidence is causing deep anxiety in the region. Within its borders, foreign academics, NGOs, businesses and media all report increasing hostility towards them. This week, a BBC crew was assaulted and forced to sign a “confession” while reporting on a land dispute. What you choose to show to the world matters. But what you do speaks a lot louder.