Hong Kong Tops Agenda As China Readies For Congress

A paramilitary police officer stands guard outside the Great Hall of the People ahead of the opening session of the National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing on 5 March, 2021. (AFP Photo)

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will address his nation on Friday, kicking off an annual legislative session that is expected to further tighten Beijing's grip on Hong Kong.

China has ushered in a sweeping crackdown against critics in the semi-autonomous financial hub after huge and often violent pro-democracy protests rocked the city in 2019.

As thousands of delegates gathered for China's week-long National People's Congress (NPC), official news agency Xinhua said late Thursday the attendees would mull a draft measure on "improving the electoral system" of Hong Kong.

The territory dominated headlines during last year's NPC session when delegates endorsed a tough security law designed to stamp out dissent there.

Chinese state media has run editorials in recent weeks saying "electoral loopholes" will be plugged, while officials have said only "staunch patriots" - those loyal to the ruling Communist Party - should be involved in governing Hong Kong.

Dozens of Hong Kong dissidents were jailed on Thursday for subversion in the broadest use yet of the security legislation enacted by Beijing last year.

The annual gathering of roughly 3,000 delegates, held in the cavernous Great Hall of the People in Beijing, is China's biggest political event of the year.

It is a highly choreographed display meant to drive home the unquestioned domestic power of the Communist Party while updating China and the world on the government's economic, political, environment and foreign policy priorities.

The event opens with China outpacing other major economies after bringing the coronavirus pandemic, which first emerged on its soil, under control through draconian lockdowns and mass testing. 

The centrepiece is the annual report by Li - China's equivalent of a "state of the nation" address.

Economic Growth Target

Li traditionally uses the lengthy speech to reveal an annual growth target for the world's second-largest economy.

But he broke with precedent last year, providing no benchmark due to the "great uncertainty" of the pandemic, which also had pushed back the legislative session for two months, the first delay in decades.

China's economy has rebounded since, however, and some key industrial provinces have already begun announcing local growth targets.

The pandemic is now largely under control within its borders, though questions linger about Chinese missteps that allowed it to spread globally. 

Tight restrictions remain, especially in Beijing during the Congress session.

Planned or potential legislation includes a proposed revision to wildlife protection laws that would permanently ban eating most wildlife, amid the belief that the pandemic came from an animal host.

There also is a proposal to tighten data protection in a country that has embraced facial recognition, mobile payments and other digital solutions, but with attendant fears of identity theft.

Bills are nearly always overwhelmingly approved by the party-controlled chamber. - AFP