China, its authoritarian leaders will have you know, is home to a perfectly respectable "consultative democracy" system. As proof, they offer the next two weeks: At the annual meetings of the National People's Congress, roughly 3,000 elected delegates will supposedly deliberate on the budget, vote on senior leadership positions and propose and amend legislation.
It's all true on paper. In reality, the NPC is a rubber-stamp parliament stacked with Communist Party members who are unwilling to defy decisions that have been preordained behind closed doors.
The more or less concurrent meetings of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body, are similarly designed to show a system open to smart outsiders with good ideas. In reality, those advisers include an assemblage of movie stars and corporate leaders, whose business rises from joining the club.
In most years, the ritual of spring meetings – the two sessions that begin Friday – marks one of the more important dates on China's political calendar. State media on Thursday proclaimed the 2017 edition a "gathering with global influence" where the Chinese people "exercise their power as 'the master of state.'"
But this year is a particularly bad one for the two sessions. They are the final meetings before the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China this fall, which is where real decisions are made about the makeup of the next crop of elite leadership – and the direction they will pursue. That means the bulk of political focus is on preparing for autumn.
There are nonetheless good reasons to keep an eye on the two sessions, which remain closely watched by diplomats and foreign businesses alike.
1. Reading the (printed) riddles
A single number is typically the most important outcome of the two sessions: the GDP target Chinese planners set for the year ahead. But every bit as important are the words that will surround it. Will it be 6.5 per cent? Or "about 6.5 per cent," a number that would indicate China is giving priority to other mandates, such as restraining how much is added to its enormous mountain of public and private debt. "The language evolves from year to year. And by how that language evolves and what is emphasized, we get a feeling for what the government wants to focus on this year," said Louis Kuijs, chief economist for greater Asia with Oxford Economics. It's not so much what is said as what is written, in a series of work reports published during the meetings by top government offices. Compelling reading they are not. But they're one of the best windows into what China is doing on issues such as state-owned enterprise reform, urbanization, infrastructure and financial management. "We expect they are going to be a bit more forceful in reining in financial risk this year than they have been last year," Mr. Kuijs said. "So we're looking for signs of slower credit growth."
2. Aircraft carriers and fighter jets
The defence budget is perhaps the second-most closely scrutinized number in China's annual legislative exercise. Will Beijing's growth in military spending continue to outstrip its economic expansion? Will slowing growth prompt more modest ambitions? Or will Donald Trump's pledge to spend an additional $54-billion on defence (an increase equivalent to more than a third of China's entire military spending last year) prompt China to respond? Don't count on China cutting back. "[President] Xi Jinping probably needs continued support from the military, and one way to ensure he has it is to continue to fund [People's Liberation Army] modernization," said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
3. Symbolic power and the power of symbols
As one of China's foremost exercises in propaganda, the two sessions can make for great political theatre, particularly during a prolonged crackdown on corruption. Two years ago, organizers installed snitch boxes and encouraged delegates to report anyone caught smoking, drinking or enjoying luxury products. More than anything, the two sessions are China's attempt to wave the banner of governance legitimacy, which also makes it a silly season for state media. Television hosts fawn over celebrities and tycoons co-opted as government advisers, their presence lending an air of legitimacy to political meetings, while online media push out paeans to China. This year, one video featured urgent questions foreigners might have for Premier Li Keqiang. Among them: What does he eat for breakfast? Another video, which appeared Thursday, declared President Xi "the people's representative." Never mind that he drives on roads cleared for his use and lives in a cloistered leader's compound with its own food supply.
4. A loosening of the chokehold?
As China's biggest annual opportunity to brag about its claimed "democracy," the two sessions can provide an opening for critical voices. With large numbers of people given a stage they might not otherwise have – and delegates walking halls frequented by more than 3,000 journalists with tape recorders – the meetings offer a rare chance to peek into the turbulence of debate inside a political system normally guarded from public view. Last year, political advisers and media employees alike seized the opportunity to call for free speech and decry the "massive" suppression of expression in China today. It made for a striking departure from an increasingly repressive atmosphere that has constrained dissidents, academics and reformers alike. That atmosphere has, if anything, grown more repressive still in the past 12 months. Will anyone break ranks this year?
5. Beijing, Trump and China's (sub) leadership, (partially) unscripted
Few Chinese leaders regularly take questions from foreign journalists. But during the two sessions, Premier Li and Foreign Minister Wang Yi will each conduct a high-profile rendezvous, fielding queries from reporters hand-picked by the Foreign Ministry. How is China's posture shifting in the Donald Trump era? What are Beijing's plans for North Korea and the rising capability of its nuclear program? How will China make good on its promises to be the new global champion in chief for globalization? If there are answers to be had, they may come here – although, with the rare exception of an unexpected outburst, both men are as skilled as their democratic counterparts in filling time without saying much. And despite their titles, neither Mr. Li nor Mr. Wang are decisive leaders. Mr. Li has been sidelined by President Xi – who almost never takes unscripted queries – and Mr. Wang is not even China's top diplomat. Still, in recent years, the specific content of questions from international media has not been prescreened, and the tone of the answers can provide glimpses into the real stresses on and priorities of the Chinese leadership.
6. Some of the President's new men
Chinese presidents spend their first years in office consolidating power in preparation for the Communist Party congress they know will take place at the five-year mark of their reign. It's at that meeting that the new slate of top party leadership is finalized. For President Xi, that moment will arrive this fall, but he has already set in place a number of trusted lieutenants in senior positions across the country. Some are expected to attend the two sessions, where they will be scrutinized for clues to China's direction in the next half-decade.