No comment: uneasy silence as China’s top political advisory body meets

Delegates arrive without their phones – and no one wants to speak to the media

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 04 March, 2018, 8:31am
UPDATED : Sunday, 04 March, 2018, 8:30am

No phones, no breaks and no comment – China’s top political advisers and lawmakers began what is arguably the most important parliamentary sessions in years on Saturday in stony silence.

A week after the ruling Communist Party announced a controversial plan to remove the limit on the president’s term, sparking fears of a return to strongman politics, Beijing gathered its policy advisers for the two-week annual meetings as thick smog blanketed the capital.

By the time members of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference started to pour into the crowded square in front of the imposing Great Hall of the People, two lines of guards had already cleared a wide passage for them to pass through – blocking off the media throng behind them.

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The square has for years been a key venue for reporters to doorstep delegates before they entered the Great Hall, and guards have seldom intervened in the past.

When asked why they were breaking with tradition, a guard said: “This is a new year, and we have new rules.”

They were simply trying to let the delegates get into the Great Hall as quickly as possible, he said.

It did not take long for the reporters to break through the lines of guards, but many of the delegates brushed past, refusing to speak.

Inside the Great Hall, there was another departure from the past, with reporters kept away from the northern section used by senior officials such as cabinet ministers to enter the auditorium.

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Far fewer of them posed for photos in the square, partly because they are not allowed to bring their mobile phones to the meetings this year.

One delegate looked puzzled when she saw a South China Morning Post reporter typing on a phone.

“How come you can bring your phone?” she asked. “We were told we couldn’t bring ours.”

But when asked to share her thoughts on the constitutional amendments, she quickly refused with a wave of her hand and hurried away.

Even on the rostrum in the auditorium, there was little chit-chat or interaction among the senior leaders during the 90 or so minutes it took CPPCC Chairman Yu Zhengsheng to read out his work report. No one left their seat, and few people shook hands before heading off at the end of the meeting, as they often would in the past.

This year, the NPC is expected to enact the most drastic and sweeping political changes the country has seen in the past decade, ranging from repealing the presidential term limit to clear the way for Xi Jinping to stay in power beyond 2023, to creating a new anti-graft super body to oversee all state employees and overhauling ministries under the State Council. It will also unveil appointments to key state offices, including the cabinet.

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To make some of these changes a reality, the legislature will have to amend the state constitution for the first time in 14 years. These revisions are widely expected to be rubber-stamped by the NPC, as they only require approval from over two-thirds of the delegates, but observers will be watching to see how unanimous the vote is.