China's premier to address nation on pandemic, economy

Beijing (AFP) –


Chinese Premier Li Keqiang will address his nation on the coronavirus, economy and other high-stakes issues on Friday to kick off an annual legislative session in the shadow of the global pandemic.

Li's annual "work report" is China's answer to the US "state of the union" address and comes with China still recovering from the COVID-19 outbreak that erupted on its soil, paralysing the world's second-biggest economy and sparking global criticism.

The speech before 3,000 delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) begins shortly after 9:00 am (0100 GMT) in Beijing's cavernous Great Hall of the People, and is closely watched for new policy developments.

Topping the national agenda is the coronavirus, which has presented paramount leader Xi Jinping with the biggest challenge of his political career and sent US-China tensions spiralling to new heights.

US President Donald Trump again castigated Beijing on Wednesday, saying it was responsible for "mass Worldwide killing" as a result of its handling of the pandemic, which emerged from the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year.

Since then, China's official case numbers have dwindled even as millions were sickened abroad, with Beijing now positioning itself as a success story that proves the superiority of China's authoritarian system.

The premier's speech also typically includes the government's annual growth target and hints on stimulus measures for China's economy, a vital piston in the global economic engine.

- Economic uncertainty -

Growth shrank 6.8 percent in the first quarter, China's first contraction in decades, as containment measures shut down business activity.

Before the virus hit, China had been expected to set a growth target of around six percent for 2020, continuing a long-term slowing trend.

But some analysts expect a historically low target of just three percent, or for Li to avoid an exact number -- an unprecedented step that would highlight current economic uncertainty.

Li's speech also typically unveils the budget for China's rapidly growing armed forces, a source of keen interest in the United States and neighbouring Asian countries nervous about Beijing's rise.

The NPC's annual meetings are highly choreographed each year to stamp a veneer of representative democracy on the Communist Party's decisions.

Usually held in early March, the virus delayed the session this year for the first time since the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

A seven-day congress is expected this year instead of the usual two weeks.

China-watchers expect that with the economy running again Xi may use this year's session to stress Beijing's relative success in containing the disease compared to continued US struggles.

Yet virus fears linger, and a preliminary gathering on Thursday featured the extraordinary site of hundreds of party members wearing masks -- though top national leaders like Xi went bare-faced.

The delegates from across the country bowed their heads in silence after singing the national anthem in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.

Officials have been ordered to follow proceedings online rather than in-person for social distancing, state media said.

A dramatically reduced number of foreign journalists are being allowed to cover the Congress onsite, and only after strict screening including nucleic acid tests.

Li's work report also typically includes expressions of Beijing's opposition to independence sentiment in semi-autonomous Hong Kong and self-ruled Taiwan.

Parliament spokesman Zhang Yesui said Thursday the chamber will introduce a proposal for a national security law in Hong Kong, in a move the US warned would be "highly destabilising" and which is likely to stoke further unrest in the financial hub.