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Congress set to give some pointers on China's future

March 4, 2010

CLIFFORD COONAN in Beijing
Irish Times
March 3, 2010

DELEGATES DRESSED in national costume or military
uniform are arriving at the airport and train
stations for the annual National People’s
Congress in Beijing. The giant red stars have
been hung in the Great Hall of the People, and
the traditional crackdown on dissidents has begun.

The congress may be China’s chief legislative
body, but it effectively acts as a rubber stamp
parliament, approving laws hammered out in secret
by the ruling Communist Party’s elite.

However, the congress does offer some insights
into the thinking of the leadership. During the
10 days of meetings, which run alongside those of
the advisory body -- the Chinese People’s
Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) -- it
is possible to get a sense of what the Beijing
leaders see as the main issues. Among topics for
debate during the legislative session will be
burgeoning property prices in many Chinese
cities, as well as laws on protecting state secrets.

Nearly three quarters of the delegates are
Communist Party members, with the remainder
coming from the military or other branches of
government, and all delegates are approved by the
ruling powers. The sessions are characterised by
lengthy applause for proposals, and generally
unanimous approval for any Bills proposed. But
behind the feverish clapping of hands, there is much information to be gleaned.

This year’s event, for example, could give
indications about the direction of economic
policy-making this year, and maybe give an idea
what the government thinks about the exchange
rate -- China’s cheap exports on the back of what
appears to be an undervalued currency have riled the EU and US alike.

Also, there could be controversy since the
government has named the Panchen Lama, the young
man controversially enthroned by Beijing as the
second-highest figure in Tibetan Buddhism, as a delegate to the CPPCC.

It will also be interesting to see if there is a
response to growing pressure from below for
change. Yesterday, in a daring act of defiance,
13 newspapers printed an editorial calling for
changes in the "hukou" household registration
system. Introduced during the era of Mao Zedong,
the system identifies each Chinese citizen as
urban or rural, and was used to control urban migration.

It has been relaxed somewhat in recent years as
farmers flock to the cities looking for work, but
the editorials pointed out how the system limits
rural migrant workers’ access to services in China’s more prosperous cities.

"China has been tasting the bitterness of the
household registration system for a long time!"
the editorial ran. "Freedom of movement is a human right."

On the personnel front, there is a lot of
speculation about Bo Xilai, one of the Communist
Party "princelings" as a revolutionary leader’s
son, who is party boss in Chongqing. Mr Bo is
hugely popular for his crackdown on organised
crime in Chongqing, and there is speculation he
may transform this popular acclaim into a seat in
the inner circle of the Communist Party.

The security forces will also carry out their
annual crackdown on all forms of dissent, with
particular attention being paid to the
petitioners who come to the capital to air grievances.

For a number of years now anyone with a petition
for the government has been kept far away from
Tiananmen Square, where the congress takes place.

Some 700,000 police officers, security guards and
volunteers will create a human "moat" across
Beijing for security during the national congress.

China-watchers will also be waiting to see
whether there are any more concrete indications
that vice-president Xi Jinping will take over
from President Hu Jintao in 2012. Vice-premier Li
Keqiang is expected to succeed premier Wen Jiabao then.
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