When China’s president Xi Jinping presided over the country’s rubber stamp parliament last year, he scrapped term limits to consolidate power and spouted rhetoric about the country’s juggernaut status. To the world, he looked an unstoppable strong man.
This year, Mr Xi will stride into the Great Hall of the People in far tougher times – the economy is seeing its poorest economic growth in nearly three decades, hampered by a protracted trade war with the US.
Beijing is also seeing the first signs of a backlash over its ‘Belt and Road’ plan – an infrastructure-led plan intended to boost its global clout – as partner countries cancel or reconsider previously agreed projects over debt concerns.
Foreign governments are meanwhile pressuring Beijing on everything from espionage to human rights.
“People are going into this now, not with a positive sense that China is really arriving, but with this concern of, ‘are the wheels going to come off the bus?’, or ‘are things going to be ok?’” said Benjamin Cavender, a principal at China Market Research, a consultancy.
“They’re in damage control mode right now.” Mr Xi will need to seize the opportunity to reassure the nation by sending the right message, even though this year’s “lianghui”, meaning “two sessions”, is expected again to be a highly scripted piece of political theatre – big on pomp and circumstance with no major surprises.
“There’s a lot of anxiety at the moment, so I suspect this year will really be about this oasis of calm in the midst of a typhoon of uncertainty,” said Kerry Brown, professor of China studies at King’s College London.
“Whether people buy into that or not, the show will go on.” The annual meeting will see 3,000 delegates gather in Beijing to discuss political and economic policy, before casting votes that approve proposals from the ruling Communist Party.
One piece of legislation expected to pass is a foreign investment law that would ban forced technology transfer and government “interference.”
On Tuesday, Li Keqiang, China’s premier, will give a state-of-the-union style address, recapping last year’s achievements and looking forward to the next. He will also announce economic growth targets, expected to be set at 6.0 to 6.5 percent expansion for 2019, a hair’s breadth lower than the 6.6 percent growth the economy posted last year.
Behind the scenes, managing expectations will likely be a key theme, especially when it comes to supporting economic growth and handling the trade war – including what concessions Beijing will agree in order to get a deal done.
Carl Weinberg, chief international economist at research firm High Frequency Economics, said that while Mr Xi will have control of the agenda, “one cannot rule out the chance that party hardliners will compel him not to concede a single millimetre to US demands that China abandon the state subsidy model.”
This model underpins the Made in China 2025 initiative, designed to spur domestic growth but also criticised as a import-substitution plan. Entrepreneurs have also been upset with Mr Xi’s handling of economic reforms, which have largely favoured inefficient, wasteful state-owned enterprises over more nimble, private sector firms.
The place of the defence budget on the government’s priority list given the country’s economic woes will be telling and give indication of China’s strategic intentions for modernising its military.
China is also expected to outline plans for the rollout of 5G mobile networks, a development that will be aided by Huawei, a tech firm at the centre of a global spying row and the country’s top supplier of 5G chips.
How China tiptoes around this – or doesn’t – will provide some sense of how confident Beijing is in battling global concerns of hacking and espionage.
“There’s a lot of fear right now that China is sort of hand-in-glove in a lot of the tech leaders in China,” Mr Cavender said.
“There’s a real fear that they’re going to be giving information to the Chinese government – true or not, there’s a perception here, and that’s also hurting China’s image overseas.
And despite the challenges ahead for Mr Xi, there won’t likely be dissenting opinions.
“He’s definitely weaker, but that’s just politics,” Mr Brown said. “Xi’s political maneuvering before has made sure when he hits these periods of tougher fortunes, there is still no alternative – it’s got to be just him, and his leadership.”
It will, however, be interesting to see if Mr Xi dominates the airwaves or if other senior officials like Mr Li or Liu He, China’s chief trade negotiator, play a role in embellishing the monologue.