China in a surprise announcement says it is eliminating annual news conferences by premier

AP , Monday 4 Mar 2024

China's government said Monday it is eliminating an annual news conference by the premier that was one of the rare times a top Chinese leader took questions from journalists.

 Chinese People s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)
China s President Xi Jinping (C) sings the national anthem during the opening ceremony of the Chinese People s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 4, 2024. AFP

 

Lou Qinjian, the spokesperson for the National People's Congress, said on the eve of the opening of the legislature's annual session that Premier Li Qiang would not hold a news conference after the weeklong meeting, as has been customary.

The move appears to be in line with a diminishing of the premier’s power, and that of the government bureaucracy generally, as the Communist Party and leader Xi Jinping centralize control of the nation’s affairs, said Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore.

“Because the structure now is the party leads, the premier is more like an implementer of the party’s orders, so no longer so important,” he said. “That’s the main message.”

The meeting of the largely ceremonial congress, which opens Tuesday, is being closely watched for any indications of what steps the government will take to boost the struggling economy. Li will present an annual report at the opening that is expected to include the government’s economic growth target for 2024.

On Monday, state leaders including Xi and Li attended the opening session of a parallel advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, in the cavernous, red-carpeted chamber of the Great Hall of the People on one side of Beijing's Tiananmen Square.

Lou said the congress would increase opportunities for journalists to ask questions of government ministers and other officials, as well as with the nearly 3,000 delegates to the congress.

“If there are no special circumstances, the premier’s press conference will not be held in the next few years,” he said, without further explanation.

Lou reiterated government reassurances that recent moves to revise China’s espionage law and other policies are not targeting foreign companies and organizations or normal business, scientific and academic activity. He said China opposes efforts to smear and undermine its business environment by misinterpreting the law.

The revised law “improves the definition of espionage and clarifies illegal behaviors and the boundaries of legal behavior to enhance the certainty and security of foreign companies and foreigners investing, working, and living in China,” he said.

Foreign businesspeople say that uncertainties remain over what is and is not illegal.

Lou also said that there is no point in trying to keep a “stranglehold” on advances in technology, citing China’s development of its own GPS-like satellite location system as an example of its capacity to overcome all hurdles.

“This example fully demonstrates that as long as we persist in being self-reliant, there are no difficulties that cannot be overcome,” Lou said. “For any known technology ... it is only a matter of time before we develop it.”

Lou declined to comment on this year's U.S. presidential election and its impact on Chinese relations with the United States. He did take issue with attacks on China by American lawmakers and their trips to Taiwan, a self-governing island that China claims as its territory.

“Frankly speaking, ordinary Chinese people often see members of the U.S. Congress put out bills to counter China, target Chinese institutions, companies, and nationals, or even make provocative visits to China’s Taiwan region,” he said.

How much military spending will grow is expected to be revealed at Tuesday's opening of the Congress. Lou didn't comment on this year's increase, but his response suggested that it would be similar to the recent trend of more moderate growth than earlier double-digit rises. Last year's hike was 7.2%.

“In recent years ... China has in general maintained reasonable and stable national defense expenditure and promoted simultaneous improvement of national defense and economic strength,” Lou said.

Helena Legarda, a defense and foreign policy analyst at the Mercator Institute for China Studies in Berlin, expects a 6% to 7% increase, which she said would reflect the importance that the government is placing on defense even as it wants to boost the economy.

"This would signal quite clearly that Beijing is quite concerned about its international environment and therefore prioritizing military modernization at the expense of certain other economic or social policy issues,” she said.

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