What did the 2024 Double Legislative Session Reveal in China
Seán Golden 25 March 2024

From March 4 to 11, 2024, the National People’s Congress and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress held their annual joint double session, Lianghui (两会) in Chinese. The former is the highest legislative body in China’s governmental structure. The latter is the highest advisory body. In theory, all branches of government are subordinate to the National People’s Congress. In practice, government leaders present their work reports, and the Congress approves both the reports and the government’s accompanying proposals.

The reaction of the Western press has been predictably stereotyped, calling it a “rubber-stamp” Congress, lamenting the lack of transparency and accountability and ridiculing the use of “empty” slogans to describe government policy, although one of the best examples of this approach came from Japan’s Nikkei Asia, owner and affiliate of The Financial Times, whose headline “China NPC takeaways: Five ‘no’s’ from the legislative ‘two sessions’” parodied the Communist Party’s tendency to group policies numerically. No news conference by the premier. No surprises in economic policy. No diplomatic changes, including the foreign minister himself. No chances taken on security. No digressions from the Xi Jinping line.

None of these headlines, nor the analyses that accompanied them, gave any real insight into what happened at the joint session. We must look to the coverage of other East Asian media to learn more about the current political situation in China and about political, economic, and foreign policy decisions and announcements because the East Asian press is better prepared to understand and analyze the official Communist rhetoric.

The predictable response of the Western press is a case of preaching to the converted, not a case of serious analysis. Applying a priori concepts of civil society or soft power to China today will lead to the conclusion that they do not exist there, blinding the analyst to what forms of civil society and soft power do exist there. An incident narrated by Edgar Snow from an interview with Zhou Enlai in the early 1960s illustrated this problem. Snow was criticizing what he understood as propaganda and exaggeration of the achievements of communism in the Chinese press at the time. He cited a headline that praised a factory that had exceeded its production quota and commented that the constant praise of the achievements of communism was not convincing to the “Western” reader. Zhou corrected him. He told Snow that he had not yet learned how to read a Chinese newspaper: if a factory was praised for exceeding its quota, it was not because the factory in question was typical, but quite the opposite – because it was the only factory that had met its quota. Instead of praise, for those in the know, that headline was a criticism of the system.[i]

China’s system of government is autocratic and authoritarian. That is a given. Gaining a better understanding of what is happening in China requires better strategies of analysis and interpretation. Xi Jinping has progressively tried to tighten control over the Party. The Party’s highest priority is to maintain social stability, so it limits individual freedom. Tightening control over the Party does not always translate into tighter control over society. Resistance to the Party’s rule and civil society protecting its own interests against government intervention do exist in China, but not in the forms expected by the West. One example was the use by Chinese netizens of the term Lianghui itself as a code word for democratic protests overseas to escape censorship, since the government could not ban its use.

The work reports presented at the joint session and the policies endorsed do tell us about what is happening in China and what policies are being developed. An example of an “empty” slogan in the eyes of the Western media is Xi Jinping’s promulgation of “common prosperity” (共同富裕 Gongtong fuyu) as a guiding principle, calling on companies to limit their profits in order to spread wealth. This is no different in principle from Western principles of redistribution and progressive tax systems. When a Leninist political party renounces economic planning, its primary goal should be to guarantee social equity. China has an excess of domestic production that requires it to export. Bringing prosperity and purchasing power to the rural population would reduce reliance on exports. China now has an urban middle class larger than the population of the EU, but still has a rural population as large as the EU with limited purchasing power. In the realm of “systemic rivalry,” the model of Western liberal democracies, paralyzed by polarization and partisan politics that foster growing inequality, must now compete with the model of technocratic authoritarianism that aims to reduce inequality. Xi’s tightening control of the Party-State tries to impede the kind of corruption called “bureaucratism” by Mao Zedong that created the Nomenklatura in the USSR, in favor of the common good.

Another example could be the policy statements deriving from Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s criticism of the US, and to some extent, EU attempts to contain China’s competitiveness by restricting access to high technology. The “Made in China 2025” slogan, launched in 2018 as a follow-up to the “Strategic Emerging Industries” initiative of 2006, considered to be jargon and empty slogans at the time, were concrete policies that led to Chinese pre-eminence in green technologies such as solar panels and electric vehicles, which are already superior to their Western equivalents in price and quality. Unable to compete, the West turns to protectionism and technological boycott as “de-risking”. In response, Xi called for “new quality productive forces” (新的优质生产力 xin de youzhi shengchanli) at the joint session. As China’s green technology revolution has shown, this is not an empty slogan. A Western boycott of high-tech will only serve as an initiative for more Chinese autarky.

This would be a positive interpretation of the slogan from a Chinese perspective, but Chinese perspectives also reveal their limitations. While Xi’s high-tech policy explicitly calls for “innovation,” an analysis of this term’s context makes it clear that it refers to “home-grown” technology as a defense against Western boycotts, not to an open approach to R&D. Xi wants China to take “center stage” in world affairs. In science and technology, he has called upon China to “strive” (努力 nuli) to take “the high ground” (高地 gaodi) in “innovation” (创新 chuangxin) to become “a world science and technology superpower” (世界科技强国 shijie keji qiangguo). At the same time, however, Xi stresses the need to prevent “independent innovation” (自主创新 zizhu chuangxin.) As the East Asian press noted, excess limitation on innovation was question at the Lianghui. Yuan Yaxiang, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, openly criticized bureaucratic impediments to scientific progress and called for more freedom and resources for young researchers.

A selection of headlines from Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post points the way to detailed “unpacking” of Lianghui rhetoric on science and technology policy: “China said to fall short of matching US advances in AI amid major challenges”, “The heat is on: how China plans to meet the challenges ahead”, “China’s Xi wants market-ready scientific research – and singles out 2 provinces”, “Scientists warn restrictions risk battering Beijing’s ‘productive forces’ plan”. While the Western press interprets the public united front and unanimity that the Lianghui presents as a lack of transparency, East Asian press cites Chinese government advisers who want China to be more transparent about economic data. Singapore’s The Straits Times is another easily accessible East Asian source of Lianghui analysis, explaining the implications and the consequences of work reports and announcements on economic policy and prospects, or foreign policy.

A serious approach to understanding and interpreting politics in China would require more reliance on knowledgeable East Asian sources of information as well as inductive approaches to China-watching and a serious self-reflection on the impediments imposed by deductive Western approaches.



[i] Edgar Snow, Red China Today: The Other Side of the River, Gollancz, 1963.

Cover photo: China’s President Xi Jinping (at the center) applauds as Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference chairman Wang Huning announces the start of the the closing session of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on March 10, 2024. (Photo by Greg Baker / AFP.)

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