Virus-hit China postpones parliament for first time in decades

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Top Communist Party leaders including President Xi Jinping attend each year's gathering of the National People's Congress

China decided Monday to postpone its annual parliament session for the first time since the Cultural Revolution, as the country battles the coronavirus outbreak.

Top Communist Party leaders including President Xi Jinping attend each year's gathering of the National People's Congress, which rubber-stamps bills, budgets and personnel moves already decided by the party.

But much of China has ground to a halt in the battle against an outbreak that has infected nearly 80,000 people and claimed more than 2,500 lives.

The NPC's Standing Committee met Monday and decided it was "appropriate to postpone" the parliament, which was due to start on March 5, according to state broadcaster CCTV. It will decide later on a new date.

For many top officials who would normally attend the meeting, tackling the virus in their home regions has been made a priority.

And Beijing has imposed quarantine measures on those arriving from other parts of China, a practical challenge for a gathering of nearly 3,000 delegates.

Holding the event would have meant bad optics with China's leaders arriving in face masks for a meeting that is highly stage-managed to present the image of a Communist Party in perfect control of the country.

Ling Li, a lecturer on Chinese politics at the University of Vienna, said in advance of the announcement that maintaining the NPC conference next month would be "unreasonable."

"(It would) signal a desperate effort of the authorities to keep up the appearance of political normality, which is not there," she said.

At the same meeting officials declared an immediate and "comprehensive" ban on the trade and consumption of wild animals, a practice believed responsible for the coronavirus outbreak.

- Rubber stamp -

The gathering is used to portray the government as answerable to the people's representatives, but its deliberations are pre-determined well in advance and the whole event is tightly choreographed by the Communist Party.

Nevertheless, it generates global interest as a glimpse into China's political and economic policy priorities for the coming year.

Despite its highly choreographed nature, the NPC meeting can still herald important changes.

The 2018 session approved the removal of presidential term limits -- handing Xi a potentially lifelong tenure.

With Mao Zedong as the meeting's chair, the NPC first convened in September 1954 in Beijing, where delegates passed the new constitution of the People's Republic of China, five years after its founding.

The legislature met almost every year after that for the next decade, but paused during the political turmoil of Mao's Cultural Revolution.

It re-convened in 1978, two years after Mao's death.

Since 1985, it has been held each March -- and on March 5 specifically for the last two decades.

But everyday life has been paralysed by the virus and unprecedented measures to contain it, including the lockdown of tens of millions of people at the epicentre in central Hubei province.

Tam Yiu-chung, Hong Kong's sole representative in the NPC Standing Committee, said the decision was to allow delegates to focus on fighting the virus in their own areas.

"This is a decision for the sake of the anti-epidemic work and people's health and safety," he said.

"We also have to consider the delegates' health and safety. There will be problems if large number of people gather and have meetings."

Dorothy Solinger, an expert on Chinese politics at the University of California at Irvine, said to postpone would be a "smart move".

She said the government's message is: "We are putting all our effort into combatting the virus. We don't have the time to hold these meetings now."

The virus also deeply impacts some of the session's most hallowed rituals, she said.

"How could they present the mandatory NPC upbeat accounts of the progress and positive prognosis of the economy and other achievements in the midst of such uncertainty as they're facing now?"