The world anticipates what is, undoubtedly, the most important event in China’s political calendar. Next week, from May 22, 2020, the Chinese Parliament, popularly known as Lianghui or the “Two Sessions,” in Beijing, will convene in Beijing amidst a global Coronavirus pandemic. This twin plenum of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) is the topmost political advisory body to the Government of China.
Notably, the meeting of Chinese lawmakers coincides with the Africa Day on May 25. Since 2000, when China decidedly pivoted towards Africa and unveiled the Forum for China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), policy decisions and legislation by the two sessions have defined the parameters of China’s engagement with the continent. The 2020 opening of the Lianghui occurs at a critical time when COVID-19 is profoundly defining the agenda and context of China-Africa relations.
With 2,980 members in 2019, the National People’s Congress (NPC), which convenes once a year for roughly two weeks, is the largest parliamentary body in the world. The 2020 NPC meeting, as in the past, will discuss China’s most urgent agenda and elect and confirm major government positions—including the Premier, currently Li Keqiang. As the only body with the authority to pass and change laws in China, the plenum will also vote on important pieces of legislation. At the same time, another 2,500 or so members of the CPPCC, drawn from China’s main civic, professional, religious and cultural associations meet to provide inputs and feedback on major policy initiatives of the NPC, thus connecting the Government’s agenda with the country’s civic sphere.
There are wide and valid reasons for Africa to turn the spotlight on Beijing’s 2020 legislative meeting. This year’s two sessions take place as the world is fighting to contain the Coronavirus. It was originally scheduled to commence on March 5 but was postponed due to the novel Coronavirus epidemic. The meeting marks China’s spectacular triumph over the virus and its gradual return to normalcy after restrictions and severe measures to stem the spread of COVID-19.
As China recovers from the Coronavirus menace, and with its economy destined to grow at a time when the virus is taking a heavy toll on economies across the world, its thinkers and policymakers need to take to heart past lessons articulated by the theorists of the “Kindleberger Trap”. Charles Kindleberger, a key intellectual architect of the Marshall Plan, argued that the tragic failure of the United States to provide global public goods to the rest of the world after it had replaced Britain as the leading power resulted in the disastrous and violent decade of the 1930s. The question is whether China will make the same mistake as America in our time.
In preparing itself to take up the mantle and provide global public goods, twin sessions of China’s parliament have to discuss two clusters of policy issues, which have far-reaching implications for China-Africa cooperation. More importantly, how China and Africa will achieve the goals set at the FOCAC summit in Beijing in 2018. This comes at a time when the talk of decoupling appears gaining momentum in what is increasingly becoming ‘a new cold war’.
The first cluster is largely internal. It relates to China’s response to the impacts of COVID-19 on its economy, society and foreign policy. China needs COVID-19 recovery plans, including measures to stimulate its stalled economy. With unemployment is almost busting the seams, China needs programs for maintaining social cohesion and stability.
Like other globalized economies, China’s economy is on a free-fall. Beijing has to adjust its extant economic models to the realities of shrinking domestic production and international markets. At the end of the sessions, China’s legislators will have to approve guidelines for a clear response framework to deteriorating bilateral relations with the other superpower (the United States), changing realities in Sino-European relations and for effective multilateral-based cooperation to contain the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, the second cluster of policy issues has to go beyond the internal imperatives and economic impacts of the coronavirus pandemic on China. It has to focus attention on China’s historic mission to provide global public goods and stabilize the post-COVID-19 world order.
In this regard, the 2020 parliamentary plenum needs to adjust China’s domestic plans to the overarching global vision and agenda and the imperative of providing global public goods, especially the containment of Coronavirus and post-COVID-19 economic recovery.
The Lianghui has to deepen the reform and opening up of the economy and greater market access; completing its 13th Five Year Plan by the end of the year, and approve guidance and the planning cycle for the 14th Five Year Plan (2020-2025). More importantly, Beijing has to maintain the momentum of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and keeping alive the FOCAC flame. It has to take the mantle of the leader of globalization in a world stridently hurtling down to isolationism, protectionism and other anti-globalization trends.
The 2020 session is likely to be shorter than the usual two weeks due to the COVID-19 cloud. Ultimately, as Beijing has to devise innovative ways of deepening mutually beneficial engagement with Africa, containing the epidemic and investing in post-COVID-19 recovery plans and engagements across sectors.
Professor Peter Kagwanja is the President and Chief Executive at the Africa Policy Institute and Visiting Professor at the Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies, University of Nairobi.
Dr. David Monyae is the Director, Center for Africa-China Studies at the University of Johannesburg.