BEIJING (Reuters) - China’s annual parliament followed a tight script with no surprises and little drama, evidence of President Xi Jinping’s ever firmer grip ahead of a party congress later this year that could bring more of his allies into the top leadership team.
Potential successors were kept on the sidelines, foreign journalists often ignored and speculation hushed through the 10 days of the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress, which ended on Wednesday, as it began, without incident.
Premier Li Keqiang set the tone in an opening speech on March 5, with social and economic stability the top priority as the leadership targeted modestly slower growth and the building of a “firewall” against financial risks arising from record lending and a speculative property boom.
Controversy, criticism of the leadership and chit-chat were off the agenda.
There was no open session of the ‘friendship with foreign countries’ delegation to parliament’s advisory body, a forum that in past years has seen complaints about slowing defense spending and comments on political intrigue at the top. No explanation was provided.
“Xi does not want any unexpected drama ahead of the congress and has gone out of his way to ensure a low-key parliament,” said a senior Beijing-based Western diplomat.
The five-yearly congress, which will bring fresh blood into the top ranks of the party machinery, including the seven-member Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), is an opportunity for Xi to demonstrate just how thoroughly he has consolidated power since taking the reins in late 2012.
In early 2012, his last parliament before taking over as party boss was overshadowed by the brewing corruption scandal that ended up engulfing the charismatic and ambitious Communist Party chief of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, who had been tipped by many for a top job.
This time there were no distractions and no open dissent, with alternative power centres brought to heel over the intervening years.
Bo was jailed for life in 2013, and his powerful ally in the PSC, domestic security chief Zhou Yongkang, was put under investigation for corruption the following year.
The media were ordered to show their loyalty to the party line last year, and already strict internet controls were ratcheted still tighter, while a crackdown on civil rights lawyers silenced some of the few challenging voices.
The mighty military has also been kept in check, with Xi assuming the position of Commander in Chief last year while pushing through a modernizing program that reorganized its command structure and will see 300,000 troops demobilized.
Xi pressed the point with a high-profile visit to the People’s Liberation Army delegation in parliament, calling for greater technical innovation as part of the modernization program.
Topics that might have caused a stir at the parliament, such as China’s policies in the South China Sea, where it has been building military structures on atolls also claimed by some of its neighbors, were sidestepped in at least one session where there had been discussion before.
At the open media session for delegates from the island of Hainan, which is in charge of administering China’s islands in the region, officials only tangentially touched on the disputed waterway when mentioning pleasure cruises to the Paracel Islands.
While officials in that forum have in the past been open to questions from foreign journalists, the only foreigner allowed a question this time was from Russia.
And prickly questions on leadership changes in the autumn were ruled out in advance.
“Don’t bother asking,” one Chinese official told Reuters.
As if to avoid giving fuel to speculation, Xi was conspicuously absent from meetings of the provincial delegations from Guangdong, Chongqing and Guizhou, from which some of the hottest candidates for elevation to the PSC are based.
When he did speak to delegates, he made much of his four-year campaign against corruption, a drive that has proved popular in the country while cementing his authority over party discipline.
“Fasten the seatbelt of incorruptibility,” he told lawmakers from the southwestern province of Sichuan, where the disgraced Zhou, who was eventually jailed for life in 2015, had his power base.
A key barometer of how much political power Xi has amassed in his first five-year term will be whether he can break with party convention and successfully retain his ally and top graft buster Wang Qishan beyond retirement age.
Plans for a sweeping overhaul of the party’s anti-corruption architecture, including establishing a new National Supervisory Commission overseeing all public servants could provide Xi the justification to do just that.
Wang himself was at the parliament, delivering an unswerving message of loyalty.
“Under the party’s leadership, there is only division of labour between the party and government, not separation of powers,” Wang told Beijing delegates.
“Within the Party, the government, the army, the people, academics, and east, west, south, north, centre - the party leads everything,” he added.
The only evidence of intrigue flickered briefly into life on Chinese social media on Wednesday, as some users parsed the wording of Premier Li’s farewell, wondering if it supported speculation that Li might not have Xi’s backing to keep his job in the autumn.
“See you again, if there’s the opportunity,” Li said as he left the stage.
Reporting by Ben Blanchard and Philip Wen; Additional reporting by Christian Shepherd; Editing by Will Waterman