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Understanding the key legislative meetings underway in China

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

China has kicked off an annual legislative gathering this weekend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: While the meetings are increasingly closed off to the public and journalists, they are an opportunity for Communist Party officials to broadly signal their policy priorities. Watching for these signals is NPR's Emily Feng, who joins us now. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hey, Ayesha.

RASCOE: So tell us about these meetings.

FENG: So these meetings are called the two sessions in China. And at these meetings, policy proposals are discussed. They are voted on, but there are almost never any dissenting votes. And so the real value of these meetings is the opportunity it gives the party to create political theater. And that theater began today with a speech from China's outgoing premier, Li Keqiang. He presented this work report of the government's achievements over the last year and their goals for this year. You can kind of think of this speech like a Chinese State of the Union.

And this year, the big takeaway from his report is it is all about economic growth. Li said China was aiming for a GDP growth of around 5% this year, which is lower than estimates. But China's economy is still suffering from strict COVID controls over the last three years. These controls were suddenly lifted in last December, but now China's desperately trying to give its economy a boost. And here's a little bit from Li's speech.

LI KEQIANG: (Non-English language spoken).

FENG: So here Li is saying that China should give priority to the recovery and expansion of consumption. They want to boost the income of urban and rural residents and they want to drive investment society-wide. Pretty broad, sweeping statements, and now we have to see if China can pull this off this year.

I do want to note the speech was really brief. It was just one hour. I've sat through three-hour versions of this speech in previous years. But it was notable because this is Li's last work report. There's going to be a new premier appointed soon. Li is retiring. And a whole host of new officials who are closely associated with the current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, are about to be sworn in.

RASCOE: So this sounds a bit like a changing of the guard.

FENG: Absolutely. And it's a quiet end for Li Keqiang, the premier, who about a decade ago was actually in the running to be potentially the number-one leader of China. We know how the story turned out. Xi Jinping beat him out for the position. He's now leader, and Li got the number two spot. And he's been really deferential to Xi over the years.

The two men are really different. Li is this former academic who is sympathetic to liberal ideas of economic reform, less state control, more private business-friendly policies. And instead we've gotten Xi Jinping, where the Communist Party has much more influence now in all aspects of Chinese society, including the economy. So it's the end of Li Keqiang and kind of the end of an era.

RASCOE: So what else are you looking out for?

FENG: I'll be looking to see who gets appointments as the next ministers in ministries like defense, industry and technology and the central bank, as well as people who are going to be on China's cabinet. And we kind of know already who's going to be up for these slots since these, mostly, men were already appointed Communist Party positions last October. So this week they're now going to get their state government positions. And many of these men come from engineering or technology backgrounds. So that suggests that China's really putting an emphasis policy-wise on self-reliance this year, especially after U.S. sanctions on semiconductors in China and also China watching just how strict Western sanctions have been enforced on Russia.

I'm also looking at Xi Jinping because he is going to be formally voted in for a third term as president this week. He's already head of the Communist Party. That's the far more important title. But confirming this third term as president is just another sign of how much power he's been able to consolidate.

RASCOE: That's NPR's Emily Feng. Thank you so much.

FENG: Thanks, Ayesha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.