Poor Li Keqiang, China’s long-overlooked premier.
Ever since President Xi Jinping and Mr Li ascended to the top two slots in the Chinese Communist party’s hierarchy seven years ago, the latter has lived in the shadow of the former.
Friday, May 22 was supposed to be the day that Mr Li got to share a bit of the limelight. After all, it remains his job to deliver the Chinese government’s annual work report to the National People’s Congress, the annual rubber-stamp session of parliament.
The work report always moves global markets because it usually reveals Beijing’s economic growth and fiscal deficit targets, as well as other important information about the world’s second-largest economy.
And this year’s work report is easily the most consequential Mr Li has delivered. As China was the first country to tame the coronavirus pandemic, the revival of its wounded economy is even more critical than usual to the global economy’s prospects.
But just like Lucy and Charlie Brown, Mr Xi snatched away the football before Mr Li could kick it.
On Thursday night it was revealed that the NPC would impose national security legislation on Hong Kong, rather than keep waiting for the semi-autonomous city to pass its own law on the subject.
The consequences of this monumental decision have sent shockwaves through both the streets of Hong Kong and the corridors of power in Washington. It will dominate the rest of the NPC’s week-long session. Mr Li’s work report will now be at best an afterthought.
Imposing national security legislation on Hong Kong is bad for Asia’s leading financial centre and even worse for China-US relations. Within hours of the announcement, President Donald Trump promised a tough response when the NPC follows through on its plans.
Simon Cartledge, author of A System Apart, a book about the territory’s political system, said it was the latest in a long series of setbacks for the rule of law and democratic development in the city, such as the disqualification of some Hong Kong legislators on ideological grounds.
“Hong Kong’s constitutional framework has collapsed,” said Mr Cartledge. “Its already dismal governance can only deteriorate further.”
Mr Xi, however, stands to benefit. The resulting furore will distract attention from awkward questions about his handling of the early stages of the pandemic. The move will also embolden a nationalist Chinese public that has little sympathy for Hong Kong’s frontline pro-democracy protesters — and even less for a US president they perceive as a bully intent on denying China’s ascent to its rightful place on the global stage.
Yun Sun, director of the China programme at the Stimson Center think-tank in Washington, said that while Mr Xi was not seriously wounded by his administration’s mis-steps in the early stages of the pandemic, they did dent his image. “I don’t think Xi was under any real threat in terms of his position,” Ms Sun said. “But there has been more questioning of his authority and approach.”
In a single stroke on Thursday night, Mr Xi essentially asked the people of China: “Are you with me or are you with Hong Kong’s protesters and Mr Trump?”
He knew how most people would answer that simple question before he asked it.
But if China had a real parliament, some delegates might now be asking Mr Xi some more difficult questions in return. Would not China’s economic prospects look much better if the president had not risked a new cycle of mass protests in Hong Kong and further deterioration in relations with the US and let the focus of this year’s parliament rest firmly on Mr Li and the state council’s economic recovery plans?
The NPC is not a real parliament, so Mr Xi need not worry about that. Its unintentional but most enduring image this year will be of the president, sitting without a mask, surrounded by thousands of delegates with their mouths covered.
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