Intrigue swirls about possible reshuffles as China’s parliament convenes

<span>Xi Jinping speaks during the closing session of the 2023 National People's Congress in Beijing.</span><span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Xi Jinping speaks during the closing session of the 2023 National People's Congress in Beijing.Photograph: Reuters

Thousands of delegates are due to arrive in Beijing this weekend for China’s most high-profile political gathering, a closely observed series of meetings that will lay out the government’s policy blueprint for the year ahead.

The event, known as the “two sessions”, begins on Monday as China’s parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC) convenes alongside a separate but parallel meeting of the country’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference.

The nearly 3,000 NPC delegates can amend the constitution, enact new legislation, approve the government budget and fill vacancies in state offices. But in reality the NPC is a rubber-stamp parliament. It has never voted down any item on the agenda, and the Communist party (CCP) holds the ultimate power over the state.

Nevertheless, it is a keenly watched political event. The premier, Li Qiang, will present the government work report, which lays out its plans for the year ahead, including the GDP growth target. And while no changes are expected to the position of Xi Jinping, who was granted a norm-busting third term as president at last year’s NPC, personnel changes may be announced, after months of uncertainty about who is responsible for some of China’s most important government departments.

The most significant changes are at the offices of the foreign minister and the defence minister. Speculation around the fates of Qin Gang, the former foreign minster, and Li Shangfu, the former defence minister, has swirled since the two men were removed without explanation from their positions last year, in a season of turbulence for China’s government.

Qin has not been seen since in public since June, leading to rumours about his fate. This week Qin was removed as a NPC delegate, concluding his eradication from the levers of China’s government.

Unlike other delegates who were “dismissed” from parliament, the official notice said Qin had resigned. James Palmer, a deputy editor of Foreign Policy, said in his China Brief newsletter that this indicated Qin’s “fall from grace has been relatively cushioned”.

Qin was replaced as foreign minister by his predecessor, Wang Yi, who is also the director of the more powerful CCP foreign affairs commission. Many experts believe that Wang’s reappointment was intended to be temporary, with a replacement expected to be announced at this year’s NPC. A likely candidate is Liu Jianchao, a senior party cadre who has travelled extensively in recent months to participate in diplomatic meetings.

Li, the former defence minister, was recently removed from the website of the CCP’s central military commission.

The demotions of Qin and Li have left vacancies on the state council, China’s cabinet. 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 will be appointed to the state council.

Neil Thomas and Jing Qian, researchers at the Asia Society Policy Institute, said in a recent analysis that if the spots remained vacant, it “could suggest a higher degree of mistrust and paralysis at the centre of Xi’s leadership and a poorer outlook for China’s attempts to both manage tensions with the west and lead the global south”.

Observers will be paying close attention to the government work report, which Li will deliver on Tuesday. He is expected to announce a relatively modest GDP growth target likely to hew closely to 2023’s target of 5%.

There may be some modest fiscal support, although not the deep structural reform or more aggressive stimulus that many economists say is necessary to recharge China’s struggling economy. That is because Xi’s third term as China’s leader has been characterised by a focus on national security, even at the expense of economic growth or business confidence.

Underlining this, on 27 February the NPC standing committee, which meets when the NPC is not in session, revised the law on state secrets, expanding the scope of sensitive information to “work secrets”. The update requires government agencies to protect information that may not be a state secret but “would cause a definite adverse impact after leaking”.

Although the law only applies to state institutions, Thomas and Qian said the widened scope of sensitive information “could affect firms that deal with China”, meaning more uncertainty for businesses in China.