What are the implications of this year’s Two Sessions for President Xi Jinping and the latest roster of Party leaders, for those in the United States with a close eye on the U.S.-China relationship, and for the Chinese people? In an interview conducted on March 20, 2023, Dimitar Gueorguiev speaks with Rory Truex, and Ling Li about the 2023 Two Sessions in the context of China’s domestic and international policies.
The annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), known as the “Two Sessions” or “Lianghui,” feature the gathering of political leaders in Beijing each spring to announce plans and goals for the coming year. In 2023, after a period of dramatic changes including China’s new approach to COVID-19, an economic downturn, and the war in Ukraine, the significance for the world of political events in China is clearer than ever.
DIMITAR GUEORGUIEV: Hello. Good afternoon, everyone. My name is Dimitar Gueorguiev. I’m an Associate Professor at Syracuse University in Political Science. And on behalf of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, I’m very pleased to be here today to talk with Ling Li, Adjunct Professor in East Asian Studies at the University of Vienna, and Rory Truex, Assistant Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University.
We’re going to be talking about the recently concluded annual Two Sessions meeting or the Lianghui held in Beijing and kind of the implications of this really important political gathering in China for the Chinese people and also the community abroad that’s looking to China in this kind of increasingly tense period.
So, with that said, I was hoping we could start off with a few kind of basic-level set questions for our listeners. And if either of you might be able to kind of take a helicopter view of things and tell us a little bit about what the Two Sessions are and how they fit in the Chinese political system and the Chinese political calendar as well just so we know what we’re talking about here. Maybe Rory, if I could turn to you for that first.
RORY TRUEX: Yeah. So, the basics are that the Two Sessions, as they’re referred to 两会 Lianghui in Chinese are the annual meetings of the National People’s Congress and what’s referred to often as the Consultative Congress, the CPPCC. And these are meetings that occur every year. They are government meetings, so it’s important not to confuse them with meetings of the Communist Party institutions, namely the Party Congress, which met this past fall. And they are effectively the legislative and sort of quasi-representative arms of the Chinese government. They meet every March. And this particular session is the first of a new five-year term, so these Congresses have deputies and delegates that hold basically five-year terms. So, this is the first meeting of what’s known as the 14th NPC.
And this is an institution that serves a lot of functions for the Chinese government. It’s the official legislative arm and it focuses a lot on lawmaking. There’s also some kind of view towards representation in this body that deputies are supposed to represent the will of the people and represent the masses and have a mandate to do so, although we can talk more about whether that’s actually the case.
And then importantly, for this particular session, the NPC oversees appointment procedures for key government positions. And that occurs kind of every five years. That’s the big thing that happens in the Congress, which is what just happened in the last two weeks. And in addition to that, approves work reports from the various institutions in the Chinese government. It’s often derided as a largely ceremonial institution. There’s a lot of hand-clapping and meaningless speeches, and so forth. It’s gotten a little bit more constrained in recent years as well. And in fact, this last session was only eight and a half days, which is shorter than it’s been historically. So, it suggests that the role of the institution has been somewhat curtailed.
GUEORGUIEV: Great. Thank you for that. And just to kind of follow up on that broad overview a little bit, I wanted to underscore what you said about having this representative function as well, representing Chinese people, Chinese society, but also on different parts of the Chinese economy and the Chinese prominent interest groups.
And so, the Two Sessions, as you pointed out, is a combination of the consultative committee as well as the National People’s Congress. And they do represent kind of different dimensions of China, the NPC being more kind of an administrative geography of China, whereas the consultative committee does include sectoral interests, private capital to some extent.
And I just want to underscore that this is a large composition of people. And although there is this concern that it’s a rubber stamp kind of pro forma meeting, there are some pretty important people here. By my last check, I think there’s over 80 billionaires, a lot of kind of important people that have a seat in this session. I don’t know if you take that as being meaningful representation of important actors or given the position of this meeting following the party Congress several months ago where there’s really much room for any kind of voice or any kind of debate.ate.
TRUEX: Well, I wouldn’t call it a forum for debate. And anytime you get 3,000 people in a room and give them 8 days to run through 100 different decisions, you’re not really setting yourself up for meaningful debate at the Congress itself. But to your point, this is one of the few, what we would call input institutions in the Chinese government where the population does have an institutionalized channel to voice grievances to the government and to the party. And those 3,000 deputies in the National People’s Congress are supposed to represent all walks of life and the party sort of engineers representation of different groups.
So, for example, ethnic minority groups are guaranteed representation in proportion to population. Women have sort of a soft quota of having at least 20% of deputies are female. That number has actually increased slightly this time. It’s up to 26%. We don’t wanna exaggerate the quality of representation for women in the Chinese political system, however, but it’s noteworthy that that number has gone up.
And then we see a range of different types of people, government officials, workers, and farmers, a lot of people representing the business class, as you mentioned, billionaires, and so forth. So, it tries to have some level of descriptive representation. And these individuals are tasked with submitting proposals and other things to try to convey grievances and other things in the population to the government.
So, in my own work, I’ve done some research on that and I would say I’ve always called it representation within bounds in the sense that these are individuals that are trying to convey some degree of public opinion, but they’re extremely tightly constrained, right? So, this is not a forum where there’s any meaningful opposition, where there’s anybody who’s kind of quirky or reform-minded. These people are party loyalists. And you can see that manifested in the voting and the sort of ceremony and the pageantry and the affirmation of Xi Jinping. So, it’s a highly scripted setting where there is a little bit of a room for representation on a small set of issues, I would say.
GUEORGUIEV: Okay. Thank you. I think that’s really helpful to kind of parameterize what these sessions are. And so heavily scripted, highly choreographed, but nevertheless, an important kind of public-facing event where a lot of people are looking at the government work reports that are being presented, the appointments, personnel appointments, some of the speeches from top-level leaders to try and kind of glean the future direction of the country. And as you pointed out, this is a particularly important session as it’s the first session of this new Congress.
So, what I’m going to jump into next is kind of what were some of the big expectations going into the Two Sessions? And were some of those expectations met? Any kind of surprises? As you pointed out, Rory, already, it was a pretty short Two Sessions, but, you know, what did we learn? And one thing to kind of also point out is that although foreign policy does come up, the Two Sessions are predominantly kind of focused on domestic politics, domestic affairs.
And with that, I was hoping maybe I could turn to Ling a little bit and borrow on her expertise on trying to understand some of these dimensions, whether it’s about personnel, whether it’s about institutional restructuring, which also happens during these meetings, and any kind of maybe insight you can give us on the legislative process itself as it has progressed over the last couple of weeks.
LING LI: Okay. To understand the political significance of the Two Sessions, we have to understand that for, as Rory also pointed out, the National Parties Congress was held last fall a few months back. And the election and the leadership selection that took place at the party Congress concerns only the membership to the key decision-making bodies at the top of the party. That means the portfolio is not distributed or assigned at the parties Congress, except individual positions, such as the head of the party, the general party secretary, and the head of the CCDI, the Central Disciplinary and Inspection Commission. That we know because that’s individual position that is elected at the parties Congress.
But for all other members, especially those who simultaneously had the leadership position in state institutions, their portfolio is not assigned as a party Congress because that power belongs to the National People’s Congress and that has to happen at this point of time in March
So, although we know, as we have learned actually from the report from the party that when the party started to plan for the selection of the next leadership for the party, they also consider the selection of leadership taking positions in state institutions as well. So, that took place at the same time. That’s a lot of pre-planning. So, we know it’s not really people, all those 3,000 delegates electing those leaders for different state institutions. It’s already because the nomination process is controlled behind the stage. And that happened month earlier, probably one year earlier before the People’s Congress.
Then having said that, there are certain positions when party Congress took place or is concluded. We know certain positions is packed, relying or depending on the position of individual member, for example, of the Politburo Standing Committee in the lineup. We know which position is usually packed to which position in the state institution. For example, the second or the third sometimes position in the Politburo Standing Committee usually is taken by the one who’s going to be premier.
So, by that, we can figure out certain positions will be allocated to which positions in the state institutions. So, we have some sense who is going to be elected as a premier, deputy premier, head of the National People’s Congress, head of the CPPCC. And all that has panned out basically. There’s no big shock at this People’s Congress in March. All previous predictions have more or less panned out. So, that’s on the personnel front that also speaks to the credibility and efficiency of the pre-planning in the selection process, which combines both leadership for party institutions and leadership for state institutions.
GUEORGUIEV: So, that’s really helpful. And so, for example, the position of the premier, we kind of knew going in that Li Qiang was going to take this position. And we can maybe talk about what he brings to the table in a little bit if we have time. But there were some positions that weren’t entirely clear. So, for example, the position of vice president, it wasn’t entirely clear who was going to take that. Ultimately, we found out it’s going to be Han Zheng. Can you say a little bit about any…? What do we learn from that? Particularly kind of in the context of this, not unprecedented, but a little bit of an abnormal third term for Xi Jinping as President of China?
LI: For the vice presidentship, even before the People’s Congress, the Two Sessions, people had speculated that Han Zheng would be the most likely candidate for that position. That’s also because that position was reserved for kind of, like, half retiring member of the Politburo Standing Committee because of the historical practice. In particular, the position taken by Wang Qishan, he was at the last position at the Politburo Standing Committee when he was in power. But in practice, his power had grown so much together with the anti-corruption campaign. So, as a kind of reward, he was given a ceremonial position and was allowed to attend a lot of important ceremonial events in the party.
And Han Zheng was expected to be the second Wang Qishan, and that did happen. But, again, as you said, there’s a certain level of suspense before this actually happened, this finally finalized the decision who’s going to take which position. That also leaves some room for the party too in case they want to make some modification of the appointment decisions that can happen between the end of the Party Congress and the advent of the People’s Congress. So, there’s certain room for maneuver, and we wouldn’t know who actually would take which position until the completion of the Congress.
GUEORGUIEV: Thanks. Okay. Just for our listeners. When we talk about China, and China watchers usually refer to it as a party state, right, as kind of a Leninist party state. And kind of contrary to what we might expect from a Leninist state as being kind of ossified and stuck in its form, what we see in China is that every, you know, five years or so it reorganizes and restructures itself in sometimes surprising ways. Would you be able to comment on some of the changes that we know are going to take place as a result of this Lianghui? We see some merging of ministries, we see the creation of new kind of regulatory bodies. Any of that catch your eye in particular?
LI: When you talk about whether we have any surprises, whether everything has met our expectation during the Two Sessions, I think this institutional reform is a big surprise because the reform was not announced until the completion of the second plenum of the party, the new party Congress, which took place probably one or two weeks ahead of the Two Sessions. So, people were not really expecting this. There’s no discussion, there’s no briefing, debriefing before the second plenum. And suddenly we heard there will be another institutional restructure going to take place. And we only learned first about the restructuring in the state institution, primarily under the state council. And then about five or six days later, we have the full plan regarding both the restructuring in the state institution and the party institution, the two of which are obviously closely connected.
There are quite a few items on the plan, but the most important… I will talk about two restructure designs. One is regarding the establishment of two central-level commissions, one focusing on science and innovation and the other focusing on finance governance. And a lot of analysis in the media has described this restructuring, the two additional commission at the central level as a departure from the old paradigm, which is the separation of the party and the state. And that paradigm was largely attributed to Deng Xiaoping.
But I think this perception might be misleading because even during Deng Xiaoping’s time, he has never given up on the party’s leadership or the party’s political monopoly over the state structure. And we have to realize during Deng Xiaoping’s time, the talent pool was quite limited compared to what we have now. And those time, I think the separation mostly took place in the creation of the private sector, in the enterprises. We need to have more private enterprises, and the party committee should not interfere with the business operation of these enterprises as they used to do.
And now, obviously, the regulatory sphere of the party-state has expanded exponentially, and also the talent pool. In the past, the party didn’t have people who were both politically loyal and professional in their disciplines, but now we have a lot of people who have both qualities, as we can see from the composition of the current Politburo. We have quite a number of technocrats who specialize in different scientific discipline, who took top positions at the Politburo. So, right now, it’s kind of a different landscape. And the party can afford to have specialized party regulatory bodies with people who are both politically and loyally trusted and can be trusted with their professional skills. That’s one thing.
And the second thing I want to emphasize on this front is, is it necessarily a bad thing for effective governance if the party takes control on certain regulatory issues? Because we should know in the party-state structure, the chain of command in the state institution has always been weakened or weaker than the chain of command in the party institution because the relationship between the central government, for example, state council and provincial government and local government is always weaker than the chain of command between the central party and provincial party committees and local party committees because the party wants the authority rest in the party institution, not in the state institution.
And that means even for certain regulatory important, very powerful regulatory agencies in the state, their commanding power over local provincial government is limited, especially when we talk about powerful provinces or provincial units which has a position in the Politburo, the council agencies, their rank is lower than some of the head of the province, so they cannot really enforce their command, their directive over those provincial governments.
And we have seen lots of problem had occurred during the first and second term of Xi Jinping’s rule, especially regarding the finance sector, the property sector. So, when these problems occur and has accumulated to a certain level, the party is compelled to take actions because they are the only one who can take these kinds of actions.
I will just very briefly give you an example of the judicial reform, because, for a long time, courts complained that they don’t have sufficient autonomy because the local party committee and government controls their finance, control their personnel so that they cannot rule really according to the law. And however, for the reform, the SPC, the Supreme People’s Court had instigated several rounds of reforms, but they have no power to change the relationship how the courts should be positioned in the party-state structure. It has to rely on the party to do the reform.
That’s exactly what happened during Xi Jinping’s first term. The party has taken the initiative and the job in its own hand to push the judicial reform and lifted the power to appoint judges and to provide a budget to local courts, to the provincial level court. And no one else can do that. Only the party can remodify the relationship between the party and the state. So, I just wanted to provide some context about this restructuring.
GUEORGUIEV: So, that’s really helpful, and I think you make a compelling case about, you know, instances in which kind of consolidation, centralization, and tightening may actually be a benefit, for example, in the area of kind of finance regulation. But those raising concerns about kind of moving away from kind of the Deng era-type of separations and compartmentalizations might say that there are also areas in which this can be counterproductive. And so I could imagine how having more party guidance in areas like science and technology management could actually be harmful. But we can explore that a little bit later.
I wanted to kind of pull back a little bit from the specifics again, and think about the Two Sessions as this public-facing event where everybody is watching closely and intently and trying to figure out, you know, what the real message is, kind of reading between the lines. And so I wanted to know if either of you have thoughts about what we learned from the Two Sessions about expectations from the state and the party about growth prospects moving forward, you know, subsidies for the state-owned sector, the private sector, potential for what may be another attempt at a finance crackdown, I don’t know. But these are the types of things that people in China and outside of China are gonna be looking at for guidance from the Two Sessions.
TRUEX: I mean, I can take an initial crack at that, but I mostly just wanna listen to Ling talk so I can learn. But I think one of the key headlines that’s coming out is we always see an announcement of a growth target coming out of the NPC, and the number that was put down, correct me if I’m wrong, was 5%, which to my understanding is modest and potentially more modest than it could have been. There were some folks that were projecting that they might have a growth estimate of 6% or something in that territory. So, it signals a few things. One is growth still matters to the party. And we see that certainly with the remarks of the new premier, Li Qiang, focusing a lot more on continuing to reassure people about the state of the Chinese economy. And I think that was sort of a general tone of the NPC this year was trying to reassure people.
And I also noted a lot of the narrative around the NPC this year in the West was about Xi Jinping and sort of his… He had one comment where he talked about how the West and the United States is seeking to encircle and contain China. And that was sort of taken as evidence that Xi and the party as a whole are kind of a little bit more militaristic, a little bit kind of striking a tougher stance toward the West. I actually didn’t… If you kind of look at the body of comments from the NPC, I came away with kind of a different impression, which is that this is a regime and a government that still do want international actors and need foreign businesses and individuals as part of the Chinese economy.
So, I think Li Qiang, in his remarks, had something along the lines of…you know, he was chastising the West, but he also used the word “A need for cooperation.” And so that was a big takeaway for me is that the Chinese government, obviously, is very concerned about growth. They’re trying to recover from zero COVID. And I think that might create, I don’t wanna say an opening, but certainly, an environment where this isn’t China completely closing off to the outside world like we thought might be happening, you know, a year or two ago. So, that was a big takeaway for me.
LI: I will add, but first of all, I want to respond to what Dimitar just commented on the impact of this party bringing the party back to the state governance. I’m not saying it will definitely help to improve the governance. I’m saying it’s not necessarily a bad thing. We have to see how it pans out, the exact policies that the party is going to introduce under this new structure. But merely bringing the party back in is not necessarily a bad thing because the negative perception is my first reaction as well, but then when you look at a lot of reforms, we have some positive and progressive reforms taking place in this Xi Jinping new era under the new structure where the party is getting more weight in state decision-making. So, we have to assess individual issues depending on what exact policies that we’re talking about. That’s one thing.
And the second issue I want to say is this process of bringing the party back in took place already in Hu Jintao’s era, in particular, in ideological field. And we have seen the party is taking more ground, for example, in ideological work in universities and higher education, and that took place during Hu Jintao era and Xi Jinping only accelerated it and expanded it. Especially Xi Jinping is the one who introduced the new slogan, [foreign language 00:28:59], which is obviously different from the previous slogan, which is the party’s leadership is manifested in three areas, politically, ideologically, and in terms of personnel. So, Xi Jinping had his fair share in promoting this process, but I just want to emphasize there’s certain continuity in terms of how the party wants to govern the state and there’s no clear watershed in 2012.
The last thing I want to say is about the party’s control on ideological work. And we have felt this tightening up in public opinions and all aspects of ideological work, especially after the last round of institutional reform where the Central Propaganda Department has basically annexed certain state institutions which used to run news administration and movie censorship. And we can feel how tightened up the whole ideological field has been. But I’m still wondering whether that is the end itself or the means to the end. We know when you introduce significant institutional restructuring which is going to hurt the interests of powerful groups, you don’t want the ideological, the propaganda, public opinion gets this way and completely out of control. That is very likely to derail the reform plan.
So, it can go two ways. One, it’s only the means to the end. Once the institutional new structure is in place, they will start to loosen up the public opinion and ideological control. And the other path is that is the end itself if Xi Jinping has affinity to this kind of ideological landscape, and that’s exactly what he wants to put in place and that’s going to stay for a long time to come. But right now I can’t really see which direction it will go. We have to find out much later.
GUEORGUIEV: Okay. So, that was really helpful. So, we’re kind of running out of time, but I would be remiss if I didn’t ask just a quick question about, you know, foreign policy. Granted that the Two Sessions is mostly on domestic policy, we did hear some rhetoric about one country, two systems. We did see a larger military spending budget. And today we know that Xi Jinping is currently in Moscow. He’s gonna be meeting with Putin.
Looking forward, do you get the sense from the Two Sessions that China is what looked like moving away from the more aggressive wolf warrior type of foreign diplomacy strategy to something a little bit more moderate, a little bit more kind of let’s try to figure out how to, you know, cooperate or kind of lower the temperature a little bit, or did you not get a sense of any of that from either the appointments or the messaging that came out from top leaders?
TRUEX: I think there’s mixed messaging going on, right? So, on the one hand, you have Xi Jinping going off and having this very notable summit with Putin sitting down next to him, just as he’s been deemed a war criminal. And that’s no small thing from China, so the public opinion of China. And I think it’s telling that he’s willing to do that, and it is a little bit of him, one, kind of demonstrating his own ability to be sort of a bigger figure on the international stage, maybe put a thumb in the eye of the United States and the West and say, “We have an alternative to Western hegemony.” So, I think there’s a little bit of that going on, that kind of brashness that we’ve come to associate it with Xi Jinping. Hasn’t gone away.
But then on the other hand, you see other high-level leaders, including Li Qiang making statements about cooperation, making statements about the need to continue to have a positive relationship with the West and the folly of kind of that more combative tone.
So, I think we see different messages happening at the same time, but I think that’s important to keep an eye on, and in some sense, an opportunity. And I don’t think, you know, U.S.-China relations has been derailed, and I think there’s a lot of people on both sides that would like to see a greater degree of stability and kind of the temperature turned down on the relationship that was further derailed by the balloon incident of last month. But I think, for me, the NPC sort of signals there is potentially an opportunity to not rebuild the relationship to what it was 10 or 15 years ago, but at least sort of create those sort of guard rails that might be necessary to guide competition moving forward.
GUEORGUIEV: Okay. So, in general, an off-ramp for diplomacy is there, but they’re not gonna yield to international pressure. Thanks so much. This has been a great conversation. I learned a great deal. I hope our audience did as well. And I look forward to catching up with both of you at another event. Thanks so much.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. Please refer to the video interview to ensure accuracy.