Beijing: This city is an exercise in control in early March each year. Tiananmen Square is closed to the public, security in the city centre is tightened, vagrants and illegal street vendors are cleared from view.
Nanjing Night Net

But this year, even some of China’s most powerful figures might be feeling the grip of the law’s long arm.

Thousands of delegates from around the country will descend on the capital for the annual full session of the National People’s Congress, China’s version of a national legislature, which begins on Wednesday.

Beyond the ceremonial pomp and closely scripted outcomes – invariably all new laws and “work reports” put to a vote are overwhelmingly approved – the NPC remains the clearest signal of the central government’s policy objectives.

If last year was about the handover of power, this year’s NPC will be focused on how President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang plan to execute an ambitious economic and social reform package outlined late last year.

“There is some serious soul-searching around what the country wants to be,” says Damien Ma, a China analyst at The Paulson Institute in Chicago.

The reform plans are playing out in the context of an anti-corruption drive spearheaded by Mr Xi, seen not only as a move to purge political rivals while restoring credibility to the Communist Party, but also as a way to weed out entrenched interests in the state-owned sector.

Already widely considered  the most authoritative leader since Deng Xiaoping, Mr Xi has created separate national security and reform leadership committees in a play for even more centralised power.

“I think you have to view the anti-corruption campaign as one and the same as the economic reform package,” Mr Ma says. “How do you get rid of vested interests? You arrest them, first and foremost. The very definition of reform is the rearranging of interests, rearranging the status quo.”

High on the government’s agenda will be to demonstrate a resolve to tackle its extensive environmental problems – not least its appalling air quality, whichthis week the World Health Organisation described as reaching crisis proportions.

“It’s no good to be poor in a beautiful environment, nor any good to be well off and live with the consequences of environmental degradation,” Mr Li said at the closing news  conference of last year’s NPC, neatly capturing the dilemma of feeding China’s economic engine while limiting damage to the country’s environment.

China hopes the solution lies in improving the efficiency of its economy and tapping the brakes on a growth-at-all-costs model which, as well as neglecting the environment, has led to dangerous amounts of debt at the local government level.

While economists expect Mr Li to keep China’s annual GDP growth target at 7.5 per cent, they believe he may hint at a lower growth floor, having previously said  7.2 per cent would be enough to keep employment levels steady due to the country’s ageing demographic.

One of the  main economic reforms outlined last year was an overarching mission statement to allow free markets to play a “dominant role” in China’s economy, with the state providing a “guiding” hand.

But this could prove a contradiction in terms, given the extent to which China’s economic landscape is controlled by monopolistic state-owned interests.

“How can you have a dominant role for the market without a level playing field?” said David Kelly, an analyst at ChinaPolicy. “It’s like saying you’ve got an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object.”

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