After months of struggle, China has gotten most of its economy back on track. Now, it is having to get creative as it stages its most important political meeting of the year—a gathering of thousands of delegates—amid fears of a second wave of coronavirus infections.
The effort will involve careful choreography and wide deployment of live-streaming technology to ensure that officials and business leaders converging on Beijing for the annual confab remain virus-free.
Unlike in the past, when delegates mingled with one another and journalists in crowded meeting rooms, they will be kept separate from the public, equipped with masks and discouraged from facing each other during mealtime. Interviews with reporters will be conducted by video.
The arrangements were made “taking into account the requirements for epidemic prevention and control,” said Guo Weimin, spokesperson for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a political advisory body. He spoke at a news conference live-streamed remotely to reporters on Wednesday.
Delayed 2½ months by an unprecedented lockdown that helped stem the spread of the coronavirus, the pair of legislative meetings—colloquially referred to as the “Two Sessions”—comes as new infection clusters emerge in several cities across China, a reminder that the country has yet to conquer the pandemic despite iron-fisted controls.
The concurrent meetings of the National People’s Congress and the CPPCC, the advisory body, are where China’s leaders announce policy objectives for the coming year and present laws for legislators to approve, typically with near-unanimous votes. With most major decisions made by senior Communist Party officials ahead of time, the assembly is widely seen as political theater.
Even so, given the stark challenges facing the ruling Communist Party after the coronavirus, including a badly damaged economy and simmering public frustration with officials’ failings in the early days of the pandemic, the theatrics will be critical for leader Xi Jinping, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
“The fact they take place is the point,” Mr. Tsang said. “Xi and the party are clearly keen to show that they have moved on, stronger and more effective.”
The conclave’s importance to Mr. Xi is reflected in the effort the party has put into putting them on despite the challenges posed by the pandemic.
Delegates from the special territory of Hong Kong were instructed to travel first to the southern Chinese border city of Shenzhen, where they were greeted by organizers in protective suits and asked to fill out a health-declaration form and undergo testing for the coronavirus before making the journey to Beijing, said Ma Fung-kwok, a delegate to the National People’s Congress.
Once in the capital, Mr. Ma said, delegates were tested again and subjected to a “two locations, one route” rule, meaning they would only be allowed to shuttle between their hotel and the conference venue in specifically assigned vehicles, with no physical contact with the outside world.
“I’m going to give myself over to the organizers of the event,” Mr. Ma said.
Participants won’t be required to wear masks in well-ventilated rooms but are advised to keep them on in situations where social distancing is difficult, the official Xinhua New Agency said, citing Zeng Yixin, the official in charge of epidemic control for the meetings.
In practice, at the opening session of the CPPCC on Thursday, with the exception of the top leaders, all of the other more than 2,000 delegates wore light-blue face masks and sat packed together to hear Vice Premier Wang Yang’s address.
In years past, around 3,000 NPC lawmakers and more than 2,000 CPPCC political advisers for the have flooded into Beijing for the meetings, many of them packing the main auditorium of the Great Hall of the People to hear reports delivered by top leaders.
This year’s event will run for a week, 4½ days shorter than originally planned, Mr. Guo said.
At their hotels, delegates in Beijing will encounter a variety of equipment, including temperature-detecting cameras and temperature guns, single-use gloves, hand sanitizer and self-sealing plastic bags for storing face masks and mobile phones outside dining areas, according to a tour of Beijing Hotel given by Cai Qi, the Communist Party secretary for the city of Beijing, and broadcast on Hong Kong television last week.
The hotel, which has traditionally hosted delegates from Hong Kong and Macau, will eschew the customary large round tables for meals, according to the broadcast, instead forcing delegates to eat while facing in the same direction, at individual tables covered in pink satin.
Authorities have also pared back media access at the event, the one annual occasion at which foreign and domestic journalists are given access to many of the gathered Chinese dignitaries.
The number of journalists accredited to attend the meetings will be cut to a few hundred, from roughly 3,000 in previous sessions, according to the China Association of Industrial Newspapers, an organization overseen by the party’s Central Propaganda Department.
Only a few media outlets—among them Xinhua, state broadcaster China Central Television and Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily—will be allowed into the Great Hall of the People, the congress’s main meeting venue, to conduct strictly controlled face-to-face interviews, Mr. Guo said.
Other outlets will be limited to participating in news conferences by videoconference, following sessions that will be live-streamed, he said. Interviews, too, will be conducted online.
Foreign diplomats who wish to attend the opening ceremonies at the Great Hall of the People must undergo pathogen testing the day before and stay the night at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse or the nearby Diaoyutai Hotel before being bused to the venue, according to a Chinese Foreign Ministry notice viewed by The Wall Street Journal.
While many aspects of China’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including the use of lockdowns and digital surveillance, have been mimicked by other countries, China’s political reopening has limited value as a template for other countries, said Mr. Tsang, of SOAS.
“It will only have demonstrated how a meeting where most delegates do not speak works well with the technology,” he said. “It is not the model of how a normal parliamentary session can work virtually.”
Mr. Ma, the Hong Kong delegate, said the lack of social interaction wouldn’t bother him.
“With fewer interviews and no gatherings, we will have more time and be able to concentrate on our work instead,” he said.
—Chun Han Wong contributed to this article.
Corrections & Amplifications
Guo Weimin is a spokesperson for the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to the body as the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress. (Corrected on May 21)
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