China's legislature to meet with economy, Ukraine backdrop

BEIJING (AP) — China’s 3,000-member ceremonial parliament will open its annual session Saturday with the government facing a slowing economy and international pressure over its refusal to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

While domestic issues typically dominate the National People’s Congress, the war in Ukraine is highlighting the ideological confrontation between the American-led West and the competing world view of Beijing and Moscow.

Any discussion of the conflict is expected to be muted, however, with the focus on boosting growth in the world’s second-largest economy.

The delegates do little lawmaking — that’s handled by the 176-member Standing Committee, which meets year-round. The vast majority of delegates, around 73% of whom are members of the ruling Communist Party, have separate careers and little background in parliamentary procedure or writing legislation.

Rather, the party uses the Congress to announce broad goals for the economy and other issues including the environment and military spending, while receiving feedback from delegates on concerns among the grass roots. This year, it comes ahead of a key party meeting in November during which leader Xi Jinping is expected to be granted a third five-year term.

This year’s Congress was again cut to one week from the usual two because of the pandemic. Only a few big gatherings are scheduled and news conferences will be held via video link.

Analysts will focus on an annual report delivered at Saturday's opening session by Premier Li Keqiang, the No. 2 leader and top economic official. He is expected to announce an annual growth target of as low as 5%, down from last year's 8%.

The report will likely review China's COVID-19 response and may have hints about the future direction of virus control. While China has largely contained the outbreak, questions have increasingly been raised about the economic costs and long-term sustainability of its “zero-tolerance" approach.

At a news conference Friday, Congress spokesperson Zhang Yesui indicated China defended the policy as providing the “maximum results at as little cost as possible."

“This approach can ensure that, in most regions and for most people, their lives and the economy can go on in a normal way," Zhang said.

Most of the remainder of the weeklong session will be taken up by closed-door discussions among the delegates, drawn from all of China’s provinces and regions, as well as the party’s powerful military, the People’s Liberation Army.

The plight of trafficked women is expected to be discussed following a recent widely publicized case of a woman found chained inside a shed in eastern China.

Delegate Jiang Shengnan plans to raise a proposal to hold criminally liable those who assist in trafficking or obstruct the rescue of a trafficked person, according to the official People’s Daily newspaper.

Another delegate, Zhang Baoyan, has proposed that all localities investigate the backgrounds of girls whose family origins are unclear and help them return home, China Youth Daily reported.

An advisory body to the Congress, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, opens its annual session Friday and will run concurrently with the legislature.

Looming over this year's event is the war in Ukraine in which China is seen as largely siding with Russia against a global wave of growing criticism of the invasion.

A major buyer of Russian oil and gas, China is the only major power that has refrained from criticizing Moscow’s invasion. China has also ruled out joining the U.S. and European governments in imposing financial sanctions on Russia.

Instead, Beijing has endorsed the Russian argument that Moscow's security was threatened by NATO's eastern expansion. China abstained when the U.N. voted at an emergency session Wednesday to demand an immediate halt to Moscow’s attack on Ukraine.

Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing's Renmin University, said China must express its position and reservations.

“It concerns the unity of China’s international stance and it also concerns China’s global reputation," Shi said. “But unfortunately, no major parties would listen to it given the complex situation.”

While Li is unlikely to bring up Ukraine directly in his report, the issue — and the correctness of China's stance — is likely to be raised by the Congress' Foreign Affairs Committee and at Foreign Minister Wang Yi's news conference scheduled for Monday.

The conflict over Ukraine has raised some comparisons with China's own claim to sovereignty over the self-governing island republic of Taiwan, although the circumstances are very different.

China's defense budget, largely oriented toward possible military action in Taiwan, is another marquee item that is scrutinized closely by Congress watchers.

While the annual defense spending has fallen from double digits in 2015 to just 6.8 % last year, at $210 billion, it ranks as the world's second largest after the U.S.