Placid surface at start of annual twin sessions can be deceptive

Not much obvious drama expected from this year’s meetings, but there are strong undercurrents at work

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 12:02am
UPDATED : Saturday, 04 March, 2017, 12:02am

Five years ago, the two sessions were a time of surprises. Former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, a charismatic man heading for the very top, was fired a day after he was criticised by then premier Wen Jiabao.

This year’s annual double session kicked off on Friday afternoon, with the next party congress some nine months down the road. This time, the air smells somewhat different.

With new party rules that ban “inappropriate discussions about the party leadership”, and the official media still trumpeting the anointment of Xi as the “core” leader, not much drama is expected from the meetings.

The heavy security for the sessions will ensure they aren’t disturbed. As the usual Beijing smog descended, tourists going near Tiananmen Square had to have their ID cards scanned.

Yet the country is not without uncertainties. Members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference have been talking about the unpredictable change US President Donald Trump will bring, as well as South Korea’s anti-missile defence scheme.

Elites in the education, business and culture sectors were throwing punches, though veiled ones, on the tightening of ideological control by the Communist Party.

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With Hong Kong’s chief executive election less than a month away, political advisers from the city are also here. Most of them are from the group of only 1,200 Hongkongers eligible to vote in the election.

During the next two weeks, they will have plenty of chances for closed-door talks with Beijing officials. The delegates will also be holding unofficial gatherings with journalists, to test the waters of public opinion before they cast their votes representing seven million people.

As is the case every time the two sessions come around, the first day of the meetings is uneventful.

The delegates and officials try their best to dodge unflattering questions by journalists, or utter anything other than loyalty for the party. It’s still very hard to doorstep senior officials, even when they use the bathroom.

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But beneath the seeming tedium and uninviting indifference, it’s still full of stories.

During the last few twin sessions, we saw senior officials investigated and never sent back to their home provinces.

We also saw the second-most-powerful military officer die under the cloud of a corruption inquiry.

A rule of thumb for all us journalists would be: always stay alert for the slightest signal, and be prepared for the big drama.