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China's annual session of parliament, National People's Congress, is underway


In China, the annual session of parliament, the National People's Congress, began over the weekend.


It's a meeting of everybody who's anybody in the Communist Party in the government. In a sense, only one person is anybody - Xi Jinping, the longtime leader of both party and state. As he prepares for a third term, his country faces the damage of the pandemic and the strain of competition with the United States. He's expected to reshuffle some personnel.

MARTÍNEZ: NPR's John Ruwitch joins us from Beijing. He's following the congress.

John, what's going to happen there this week?

JOHN RUWITCH, BYLINE: Well, the big thing is going to be that personnel reshuffle, those personnel changes in government. They're going to be sweeping. And this is being seen, as Steve mentioned, as sort of a continuation of Xi Jinping's efforts to consolidate power. You know, Xi Jinping himself will get a third term as president. That hasn't happened in many, many years. There will be a new premier, who's the No. 2 in the government, new vice premiers, who play a key role in policymaking and administration, new cabinet, from the defense minister, central banker on down.

The reshuffle brings a period of a bit of uncertainty, though. You know, some of the people who are leaving have a lot of experience and are arguably market oriented. The new guys, some of the key ones at the top especially, have limited experience on the national level. And by and large, they're Xi Jinping's allies and are believed to have gotten where they are because of that. They face huge challenges. And Willy Lam, who's an expert in Chinese politics at the Jamestown Foundation, is not optimistic about what Xi Jinping is doing here.

WILLY LAM: He is much more interested in promoting people who he can trust, who are loyal to himself, rather than people who are experts in finance or in other areas of administration.

RUWITCH: One more quick thing to add is that the parliament is going to pass a plan to reform and restructure state institutions. The details haven't been made public. There's speculation that it will mean more centralized regulation of finance, security agencies, technology. And again, analysts see this as just more, you know, consolidation of power in the hands of Xi Jinping and the party.

MARTÍNEZ: And the challenges that China faces. I mean, coming out of zero-COVID, the economy is sluggish right now, and there's been a lot of pushback on government policies.

RUWITCH: Correct. You know, one thing this parliament does is sets targets for the coming year. And the outgoing premier announced the new GDP target for this year on Sunday. That target is around 5%. That's the lowest it's been in years. And it comes after China, you know, recorded 3% growth last year, which was among its lowest in a half a century.

There are knock-on effects of the economic problems brought on by those zero-COVID policies. Local government finances are strained, and that's created some friction and even sparked recent protests, like in cities like Wuhan and Dalian, over government health care coverage, things like that. We talked with a retired guy here on the streets of Beijing. His surname is Zhang. And like a lot of people in China, when he was speaking frankly about policies, he didn't want us to use his full name.

ZHANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: He told us he's watching the congress pretty closely. His main concerns are those sort of bread-and-butter issues like health care, his pension. He's disillusioned, though.

ZHANG: (Speaking Mandarin).

RUWITCH: He thinks that the leadership is increasingly out of touch. They don't get what it's like for normal people anymore. And he says there's just no easy way for people to make their concerns heard.

MARTÍNEZ: And, John, what about the friction China's been having with the U.S. and other Western countries? Will that come up?

RUWITCH: It will. It hasn't come up publicly yet. The foreign minister is due to hold a press conference tomorrow, I believe. And in a week, you know, the new premier will meet the press. Xi Jinping himself will give a speech. So we'll hear about it. I wouldn't expect any major policy changes or major shifts in the direction of China's stance toward the U.S. or Ukraine.

MARTÍNEZ: That's NPR's John Ruwitch in Beijing.

John, thanks.

RUWITCH: You bet, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
John Ruwitch is a correspondent with NPR's international desk. He covers Chinese affairs.