The Main Takeaways After China's Annual Parliament Session

Mar 11, 2021
Originally published on March 12, 2021 2:54 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

China's annual session of Parliament ended today. The body approved changes to Hong Kong elections that critics say will put a big dent in the city's already limited democracy. It also laid down economic plans for the coming few years. And to help us understand all of this, we are joined by NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch. Hi, John.

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Hong Kong has never had total democracy. Explain what changes with these new policies.

RUWITCH: Yeah, remember, since Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997, there's been this vibrant opposition movement that's been pushing for more democracy and greater say in how the leader of Hong Kong is elected. And so Beijing has basically taken steps that can cut them out of the process altogether. So they've done a couple of things. They've decided they're going to vet whoever can run for office in Hong Kong Parliament or the leader of Hong Kong, and they're diluting the role that grassroots-elected officials, who've tended to be pro-democracy lately, can play in selecting Hong Kong's leader.

SHAPIRO: Remind us, after the years of protests that we've been talking about and covering in Hong Kong, why is Beijing taking these steps?

RUWITCH: Yeah, in the past couple of years, from Beijing's perspective, they've seen a couple of problems in Hong Kong. One is those ongoing protests that you mentioned, which were large and often violent. The second is that the pro-democracy camp has been making gains in elections. So Beijing imposed this tough national security law a year ago aimed at the protests, and now they're taking aim at the elections. I spoke with Diana Fu about it. She's an associate professor at the University of Toronto.

DIANA FU: What you're seeing in Hong Kong is basically electoral reform as a euphemism for electoral control.

RUWITCH: And so it's going to be guided by a principle that Beijing is calling patriots governing Hong Kong, which of course means people who favor Communist Party rule.

SHAPIRO: OK, so that's the changes to elections. Let's talk now about the economic plan that Beijing laid out. China is the only major economy in the world that really grew last year during the pandemic. How are they planning to build on this?

RUWITCH: They're taking it slowly and cautiously. They set a target for this year for economic growth of, quote, "more than 6%." Some say that's a very low bar. There's an economist consensus that's nearly 9%. But Premier Li Keqiang, who spoke at the end of Parliament, defended it. He basically said, look; we're being conservative. Jobs are our focus. We're targeting 11 million jobs this year. And the real concern is balancing growth with rising debt, which is seen as a real threat to the economy.

SHAPIRO: And where does the U.S. figure into all of this? The U.S.-China relationship has been pretty testy over the last year. How does China portray things right now?

RUWITCH: Yeah, Foreign Minister Wang Yi spoke a few days ago about this. I mean, his message for the U.S. was basically, we're open to working with you. And that's something they've consistently said, Chinese leaders. But the Biden administration basically needs to undo all of the Trump-era policies that they didn't like and stop interfering in what they say are China's internal affairs, which means Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet. Diana Fu of the University of Toronto, again, says there's another message embedded in China's rhetoric.

FU: And that message is that the world is witnessing the rising of the East, which is a Mao-era revolutionary slogan. But what's new is that it's accompanied by the decline of the West, which I think is a Xi-era message.

SHAPIRO: In just a sentence or two, how's Washington responding to that?

RUWITCH: They're not buying it. They're pushing back. Tomorrow morning, the leaders of the so-called quad countries - which is the U.S., Australia and India and Japan - are having a meeting. And their message is, we're stepping up our cooperation to face the challenge posed by China.

SHAPIRO: NPR China correspondent John Ruwitch. Thanks a lot.

RUWITCH: Thank you.

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