BEIJING/HONG KONG — When China convenes the most important event on its political calendar, the annual National People’s Congress, on March 5, it will approve a long-term plan spanning 15 years. By the end of that road map, in 2035, China sees itself replacing the U.S. as the world’s largest economy.
The NPC — China’s parliament — will also move to quash any criticism of the Communist Party, weighing major electoral changes for Hong Kong to ensure that the territory is firmly under the control of Chinese “patriots.”
The two-week session of the NPC and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory body, comes a little over a month after the inauguration of U.S. President Joe Biden. With the new American administration aiming to align allies and partners to form a united front to face a “strategic competition” with China, the NPC will come under extreme scrutiny as a window into Beijing’s policies over the next five years and beyond.
The Communist Party’s Politburo on Friday discussed the details of China’s next five-year plan, which runs through 2025, as well as long-term goals through 2035 and the annual government work report to be delivered at the congress.
Among the goals of the new five-year plan are to expand the middle class, which already counts 400 million, and to become a high-income country.
That economy will rely less on external demand and be supported by domestic consumption.
China also wants to hone its technological prowess so as to build supply chains immune to external sanctions — a response to the U.S. enlisting partners in the growing Sino-American economic and technological rivalry.
But Chinese President Xi Jinping’s concerns extend beyond economic growth, with speculation rising that the congress could pass sweeping electoral reforms to tighten control of Hong Kong.
At last year’s party congress, China finalized its decision to impose a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong, with criminal penalties for secession, subversion and treason. It is seen targeting elections in Hong Kong this time around to completely quash criticism of the Communist Party there.
Details will likely be decided later at a meeting of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress. But the central goal is to ensure that all government officials and electoral candidates in Hong Kong are loyal to the central government in Beijing.
Experts at mainland think tanks say the changes could impact all votes in Hong Kong, including legislative elections in September and the election for chief executive in 2022.
China could also impose stricter conditions on what it means to be a patriot. Xia Baolong, head of China’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, has suggested that all actors opposing the Chinese Communist Party would be considered unpatriotic. Such events as memorials for the Tiananmen Square crackdown of 1989 could become illegal.
“Patriots” ruling Hong Kong and the change in the electoral system “will kill the space” for the pro-democracy camp to participate in politics, according to Bruce Lui, senior lecturer in the Journalism Department at Hong Kong Baptist University.
“The impact is very widespread,” he added, saying that medical workers, teachers, airport staffers and others could also lose their qualifications if deemed unpatriotic.
The Biden team will be closely watching.
China was the only major economy to grow in 2020, having largely brought COVID-19 under control ahead of the U.S. and others. Chinese real gross domestic product is expected to climb around 8% in 2021.
It is “completely possible” for China to double its GDP or per-capita income by 2035, Xi had said in November.
Given its quick rebound from the coronavirus, China could unseat America as the world’s largest economy within the decade, depending on how the U.S. performs and where exchange rates go.