China Sets Date for Congress, Signaling Coronavirus Is Under Control

BEIJING — China delivered its strongest statement of confidence yet that it has tamed the country’s coronavirus epidemic, announcing on Wednesday it would hold a much-delayed top political gathering late next month and ease quarantine restrictions in the capital.

The most important event on China’s political calendar, the annual session of the National People’s Congress will provide the Communist Party with a platform intended to inspire national pride and reassert its primacy. The gathering of top officials from across China will also allow the party to demonstrate unity at a time when many in North America, Europe, Africa and Australia are highly critical of China’s initial efforts to conceal the severity of the outbreak.

“The narrative is that the Chinese way of doing things, the China model, is better than other countries in controlling the virus,” said Willy Lam, a specialist in Beijing politics at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “This is a symbolic event, showing China has won the war.”

The congress is largely ceremonial, with delegates gathering every year to rubber-stamp major decisions. But the decision in February to delay this year’s session came as a shock to many in China, and sent a global signal of the seriousness of the epidemic. Even during the SARS outbreak in 2003, the annual legislative session went ahead as scheduled.

But the outbreak in China has subsided in recent weeks, with most cases coming from travelers returning from abroad. On Wednesday, only one case of local transmission was reported.

The announcement that the congress was scheduled for May 22 suggests that officials feel assured that the gathering can be held without placing the central leadership and delegates at risk.

The government did not say how this year’s meeting would be conducted. But in past years, it has drawn nearly 3,000 delegates from every province, including officials, party members, army generals in olive green and a smattering of representatives of ethnic minorities in traditional dress. They have assembled in tight rows on the main floor of the cavernous Great Hall of the People on Tiananmen Square to attend carefully scripted meetings.

The congress will portray Xi Jinping, China’s top leader, as firmly in charge, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University. Mr. Xi mostly disappeared from public view during the worst days of the outbreak in Wuhan, where the virus first emerged.

By holding the session, “he wants to show again he’s very much in the saddle,” Mr. Cabestan said.

In another sign that the government wants to project confidence in its strategy to tame the virus, the authorities in Beijing said on Wednesday that most domestic travelers arriving in the city would no longer be required to spend two weeks in quarantine. Quarantines will now be limited to people coming from overseas or from areas in China with recent cases, such as Hubei Province and its capital, Wuhan.

But the situation in China remains far from normal. The country has almost completely closed its borders and halted nearly all international flights in recent weeks, preventing many of its own citizens from coming home. China has urged foreign governments not to transfer diplomats to Beijing.

China has already acknowledged that the epidemic has set off the country’s worst slowdown in nearly half a century, with the economy shrinking 6.8 percent in the first three months of the year compared with a year ago. The figure highlights the impact of China’s drastic efforts to stamp out the coronavirus, which included a lockdown that expanded to cover half the population and the temporary closure of factories and offices across the country.

Mr. Xi struck a cautious but optimistic tone on Tuesday about the country’s resolve to restore normal business activity in the world’s second-largest economy.

“Thanks to our strenuous efforts, we have emerged from the most challenging time,” Mr. Xi told the president of Nepal in a phone conversation, according to the Foreign Ministry. “Yet we remain soberly aware of the situation.”

“We have every confidence that China’s economic fundamentals underpinning long-term growth remain solid,” he was described as saying.

China is practically alone among major countries in not having begun an extensive government spending program as an economic stimulus in response to the pandemic, even as the entire economy has slowed sharply and appears to suffer from continued weakness in consumer spending. One popular theory for why China has not yet acted is that it may be waiting for the congress to approve a comprehensive spending plan.

“This is a very important legal issue: Any important stimulus needs to be sealed by the congress,” said Yu Yongding, a senior economist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

The standing committee of the congress, which announced the opening date, did not say how long the session would last. Recent annual sessions have lasted about two weeks. Health concerns might yet shorten this year’s event.

The meetings are usually staid affairs in which the premier delivers an annual work report that in past years has provided a target for the Chinese economy’s full-year growth. Economists expect that the economic growth target for this year is likely to be considerably below the usual 6 percent or so, if one is set at all.

This year’s agenda is also likely to be focused on helping the country weather the impact of a possibly lengthy global recession triggered by the pandemic.

One key sign of how the government plans to address the downturn will be seen in the annual government budget, which may include economic stimulus measures.

Also on the agenda is a plan to overhaul China’s laws for the handling of public health emergencies, including statutes on wildlife trade — which has drawn criticism for its links to disease outbreaks — and biosecurity.

The epidemic not only set back the country’s economic activity, but also placed in jeopardy Mr. Xi’s pledge to eradicate rural poverty this year. The government will most likely use the legislative session to reaffirm its commitment to this goal, on which Mr. Xi has staked his legacy.

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