Five important things to remember from China’s yearly parliament meeting

China is relying on “future technologies” to improve its economy and move on from the problems creators have been having.

There were about 3,000 delegates from China’s political, business, and culture elite at the National People’s Congress (NPC) meeting in Beijing for a week. The meeting ended without the usual press conference by the country’s premier.

The country’s parliament met for the first time this year on March 4 at the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square. Delegates had to approve new laws and political positions, as well as read a lot of reports from different parts of the government.

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Since 1993, the proceedings have ended with a press statement by the country’s leader. However, Li Qiang was told last week that he would not be talking to reporters.

He could have given some information about the laws that NPC members agreed to, like how they changed the focus to “future industries” and national security.

Here are five important things to remember from this year’s events.

Ready for AI

Face scanners at the entrance to the NPC gave delegates a look at what an economy based on “future industries” might look like.

Inside, Premier Li Qiang’s Government Work Report explained how new technologies, such as electric cars and business space flights, could help China’s economy get back on its feet after the real estate market crashed.

Angela Zhang, an associate professor of law at the University of Hong Kong, told Al Jazeera, “The two sessions made it very clear that China wants to focus on developing new technology in order to become self-sufficient.”

Zhang, who also wrote High Wire: How China Regulates Big Tech and Runs Its Economy, said, “China feels like it needs to catch up to the U.S. really badly.”

Zhao told Al Jazeera that she thinks “the Chinese government will adopt a relatively lenient approach towards regulating new technologies like AI” in order to take advantage of the possible economic growth that new technologies could bring.

Future Business

Face recognition cameras show that China could join Israel and the US in the lucrative market for surveillance technology. However, Bert Hofman, a professor at the East Asian Institute of the National University of Singapore, thinks that China could get out of its recent economic problems in a number of different ways.

Even though China is “on track” to meet its climate goals by 2060, Hofman says the country might gain economically from “front-loading” its green transition sooner. This is an idea that has also been put forward by Martin Wolf, the chief economics commentator at the Financial Times.

Hofman told Al Jazeera that one thing the government could do is “reward households with subsidies to buy more of China’s booming EV [electric vehicle] production.”

Safety and defense

At the NPC, the government did not give a clear amount of money it planned to spend on the green shift.

That being said, it did say that spending on defense would go up by 7.2% in 2024, the same amount as in 2023.

“China has maintained a relatively low military expenditure and the nation always sticks to a peaceful development road,” a spokesperson for the government said in response to the rise.

But there were no mentions of peace in parts of the premier’s work report that talked about Taiwan. The report from last year called for “advancing the process of China’s peaceful reunification.” This year, Li said that China would “be firm in advancing the cause of China’s reunification.”

Hofman says that China’s announcement at the NPC that it will spend more on its defense might not actually mean that they spend more.According to him, the focus on “future industries and the industrial policy that will go into developing them in China” worries him more than the focus on the same topic at this year’s NPC.

Even though other countries are already spending more on defense, China’s spending has gotten a lot of attention.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) says that other countries, like the US, Japan, Australia, and South Korea, have raised their defense spending “because they see a growing threat from China.”

Since 2015, Beijing’s defense spending has more than doubled. However, William D. Hartung of the Quincy Institute says that the US still spends a lot more on its military than China does.

Hartung talks about SIPRI data that he says show “the full range of China’s military-related activities,” not just its official military spending. Even with this in mind, the most recent SIPRI projection says that in 2022, US military spending of $877bn was about three times higher than Chinese military spending of $292bn.

 

Hard questions about money

Some ministers were pretty open with delegates about the problems China is having, especially when it comes to economic growth.

The job of fixing China’s real estate market was called “very difficult” by Housing Minister Ni Hong.

The collapse of real estate developer Evergrande could have been a touchy subject at the meeting. One reporter said she was asked about her ties to the company after going through a face recognition scanner.

Some people thought China’s goal of 5% growth in 2024 was “ambitious,” but Hofman thinks it’s more likely to happen if China can avoid a “deflationary spiral.”

He says that Beijing has been wary of stimulus plans that are linked to the failing housing market. However, he says that Beijing could help get more money into people’s hands in other ways to help boost the economy, such as the recent “very minimal” increase of about 20 Chinese yuan ($2.78) per month in rural benefits.

Hofman said that during official proceedings at the NPC, delegates read through papers that have already been agreed upon “almost line by line.” This means that there aren’t many, if any, new announcements.

A story in The Financial Times said that state bankers and officials from some of China’s heavily indebted provinces met outside of Congress.

Looking outside

China cut off one of the few ways for foreign media to get a sense of where China sees itself in the world by not holding the usual news conference.

Foreign Minister Wang Yi did hold a press conference last week, but Li did not talk to the reporters. He was at the NPC.

The room was packed, and Wang answered questions from reporters from Egypt, Russia, and the US, among other places.

Wang said that “some improvement in China-US relations” had been made since Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden met in San Francisco last year. Before that, relations had gotten worse because of disagreements over trade, Taiwan, and a supposed Chinese spy balloon.

He said that the closer relationship between Beijing and Moscow was a “strategic choice” and that trade between the two countries had hit a record $240bn in 2023.

Adding that there were “new opportunities” ahead, he called the relationship between the two countries a “new paradigm” in the way big powers deal with each other.

“Big countries shouldn’t want to fight, and we shouldn’t let the Cold War happen again,” Wang said.

Wang Yi was also asked about Israel’s war on Gaza. He called for an immediate end to the fighting and told reporters that China would back Palestine’s “full” membership in the UN.

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