China is considering postponing the central event of its political calendar, an embarrassing admission that it has lost control of the coronavirus

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Xi Jinping Great Hall of the People
Chinese President Xi Jinping at the first session of the 13th National People's Congress at the Great Hall of People in Beijing in March 2018.

Etienne Oliveau/Getty Images

  • The Chinese government is considering postponing its most important annual political gathering over fears of the spread of the coronavirus, according to state media.

  • The "two sessions" of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Process were due to begin March 3.

  • The news comes as the country continues to grapple with the deadly coronavirus, which originated in central China. Hubei province, the epicenter of the virus, announced a major leap in infections last week.

  • Commentators said "the risk of cross infections would be very high" at the gathering, which involves more than 8,000 people congregating under one roof, the South China Morning Post reported.

  • A postponement could embarrass Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has remained largely invisible throughout the outbreak.

  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

The Chinese government is considering postponing the most important event in the country's political calendar, likely over fears of the spread of the novel coronavirus, state media reported.

China is due to hold its "two sessions" — a yearly gathering of the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's rubber-stamp parliament, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Process (CPPCC), the Communist Party's main advisory body — from March 3.

The NPC gathering includes the government work report, which can be likened to the US' annual State of the Union address. More than 5,000 delegates convene in Beijing for the two sessions every year.

The Standing Committee of the NPC proposed the delay on Monday, and will meet again on February 24 whether to postpone the "two sessions," the state-run Xinhua news agency reported.

The Global Times, a state-run tabloid, ran a headline Monday saying that holding the annual meeting was "not ripe amid outbreak." It said that postponing the meeting was "very unusual" but that it would not affect government work.

FILE - In this March 19, 2018, file photo, delegates look at their ballots during a plenary session of China's National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In an unusual step, China’s ceremonial legislature is due to endorse a law meant to help end a bruising tariff war with Washington by discouraging officials from pressuring foreign companies to hand over technology. (AP Photo/Mark Schiefelbein, File)
A plenary session of China's National People's Congress at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing in March 2018.

Associated Press

An anonymous source familiar with the organization of the events told the South China Morning Post that the meetings would present an unacceptable health risk.

"The health risk of convening the annual sessions early next month would be too high when the coronavirus outbreak has not yet been effectively contained," they said.

"The risk of cross infections would be very high for nearly 8,000 people … as well as staff responsible for administering the meetings, under the same roof of the Great Hall of the People."

China has sealed off more than a dozen cities in an effort to halt the spread of the coronavirus, effectively quarantining tens of millions of people. Officials have also warned people not to congregate as they could transmit the virus.

Last week Beijing — where the two sessions are held — instituted a 14-day quarantine for anyone entering the city as well.

China wuhan coronavirus
A deserted Wuhan as Chinese officials put the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak on lockdown.

Getty Images

Wang Jiangyu, director of Chinese and comparative law at City University in Hong Kong, told the SCMP that political concerns had taken a back seat, and that "everything has to give way to fighting the epidemic."

Recorded figures of the spread of the disease in its epicenter, Hubei province, leapt up last week due to changes in the way that the virus is diagnosed.

The vast majority of the 15,000 new cases reported last Wednesday alone were clinically diagnosed, a less stringent standard of diagnosis considered to be a closer reflection of reality.

Beijing's tech sector during coronavirus
People wearing face masks walk on an overpass in Beijing.

Tingshu Wang/Reuters

The Chinese government has been heavily criticized over the way it has handled the coronavirus spread, and the postponement of the two sessions could be viewed as its admission of failure to fight the disease.

It was accused of suppressing information, and even suspected of a cover-up, after it censored and disappeared multiple journalists and whistleblowers who spoke out about the disease.

One of them was Li Wenliang, an ophthalmologist in Wuhan who warned his colleagues about the virus as early as December 30, and was required to sign a police document saying that he had spread false information. His death earlier this month, of the coronavirus, prompted a rare public outcry against the government.

China's top leaders have also ousted or demoted numerous top health officials, citing a dereliction of duty in containing the coronavirus. Critics say these could be moves designed to protect President Xi Jinping from embarrassment.

Xi has remained almost invisible throughout the coronavirus outbreak, and has appeared in public just once since the first cases were found in early December.

State media reported this weekend that Xi had been leading the response to the virus as early as January 7,  prompting questions over why the public wasn't alerted until much later than that.

Xi Jinping
Chinese President Xi Jinping in his first public appearance since the coronavirus outbreak in Beijing on February 10, 2020.

Xinhua via REUTERS

The prospect of delaying the two sessions in response to the coronavirus has been a point of discussion among China watchers for weeks.

Wang Xiangwei, the former editor of Hong Kong's SCMP, wrote in the newspaper two weeks earlier: "At a time when the government has already banned much smaller public gatherings, it would be foolhardy to go ahead with such a large gathering for 10 days, even if the outbreak lessens by early March."

Officials in Wuhan, where the coronavirus originated, were heavily criticized after holding its local version of the two sessions meeting from January 6 to January 10, Quartz reported.

Wuhan health authorities said at the time they believed there was no "significant" evidence of human-to-human transmission of the virus, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Nonetheless, the event still prompted widespread criticism on social media, Quartz said. Hosting the larger, national two sessions in Beijing could invite even more criticism.

"With the virus not yet contained, allowing the meeting to go forward would cement the idea that politics is again being put ahead of public safety," Quartz's Jane Li wrote.

The CPPCC, made of 2,195 delegates, is an upper chamber consisting of sector leaders, politicians, and organizational representatives in its role of advising the government. "Basically, the CPPCC is the closest way for Chinese people to have a say in their country's affairs," the SCMP said.

However, the CPPCC has no legislative power, which rests with the NPC. This chamber consists of 2,980 deputies, most of whom are Communist Party members.

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