BEIJING – When China convenes its National People's Congress on Friday, will the 3,000 delegates stand shoulder to shoulder as they have in years past? Will they wear masks?
This year's version of China's biggest annual political meeting will be unlike any other. Delayed from March because of the then-spiraling coronavirus outbreak, the decision to go ahead now signals a partial return to normalcy in the country where the pandemic first broke out. “Partial” being the operative word: The congress will be far from normal.
For the ruling Communist Party and leader Xi Jinping, the holding of the congress, even in curtailed form, offers an opportunity to showcase China's success in curbing the spread of the virus while many other nations still wrestle with it. But the government is taking extensive precautions to prevent any infections at the congress, a potential public relations nightmare.
Shi Shusi, a Beijing-based social commentator, said the “two sessions” — the congress and a concurrent advisory body meeting that starts Thursday — along with the reopening of schools are seen as indicators of whether the epidemic has ended.
“It concerns the safety of children and government officials, which is very important in China,” Shi said. “The opening of the two sessions is to tell the world that the epidemic situation is under control.”
Classes resumed in Beijing for some grades this month, including high school seniors who must prepare for college entrance exams, and others will follow in June. Universities remain closed until at least September.
Traffic congestion has returned, another sign that life is edging toward normal in the capital. Office workers crowd food courts at lunchtime, lining up for Chinese noodles or Korean rice bowl meals, though signs urge diners not to linger and socialize.
Zhou Yu, a Beijing bank employee, said he feels assured because the opening of the two sessions means the epidemic is under control. He and clients wear masks when they meet.
“We resumed work in March, and almost all of us are back to work now," he said. “Because we all pay attention to the precautions and disinfect working areas every day, there’s nothing to worry about.”
As night falls, dance groups have resumed their get-togethers in public spaces, many following new official guidance that masks are no longer needed outdoors. Most onlookers, though, still wear them. Movie theaters remain closed, and major tourist sites require advance registration to limit the number of daily visitors.
The congress, normally a grand affair with plenty of ceremony, will be shorter than usual, perhaps one week instead of the usual two. Some officials will speak remotely by video to breakout sessions of delegates. Participants are being tested and isolated ahead of the meetings, and news conferences will be held by video.
Earlier speculation that some of the 3,000 delegates might attend by video link has faded, with Chinese media reports now focused on them getting coronavirus tests before departing for Beijing.
The fallout from the virus outbreak, economic and otherwise, is likely to dominate the agenda. The sharp deterioration of U.S.-China relations, fueled by a blame game over a pandemic that has killed more than 323,000 people globally, will also hang over the meeting.
Xi's public standing has risen at home for both his handling of the outbreak and his standing up to foreign accusations that his government reacted too slowly and covered up the seriousness of the outbreak initially, said Cheng Li, a China politics expert at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.
Overseas, opinions of Xi are less rosy, at least in some quarters. While some countries have embraced deliveries of virus-related equipment from China, the U.S., Australia and some in Europe have questioned the government's openness and bristled at combative retorts by some of its diplomats.
Xi’s handling of the pandemic has “confirmed the worst opinion of the character of his leadership among many in the international community,” said Elizabeth Economy, director for Asia studies at the New York-based Council on Foreign Relations.
The growing split with the U.S., as the Trump administration takes a more confrontational approach to a rising China on trade, technology and other issues, adds to the challenge of reviving economic growth and jobs, both of which were hit hard by the epidemic.
The congress, largely a rubber-stamp body that gives formal approval to earlier leadership decisions, is the venue for the Communist Party to review the past year and announce its goals for the current year. The economic growth target is expected to be lower than last year's 6.0% to 6.5%, and some analysts speculate that the party may not even announce one given the current economic uncertainty.
“The government should be frank to tell the public about these risks and difficulties in a responsible way,” said Peng Xizhe, a sociology professor at Heilongjiang University in northeastern China. "Difficulties such as unemployment should get the attention of all of society.”
At the Beijing restaurant where Li Jinfeng worked for more than five years, 10 of the 60 employees have been called back, getting half pay of about 2,000 yuan ($280) a month. Li is not among them.
She has been finding odd jobs since returning from her hometown a month and a half ago, and longs for the restaurant work and its relatively good pay.
“I feel this has thrown gloom over my life," she said. "I can’t be fully relieved until the epidemic is completely over. ... If I can go back and just stay at the restaurant, I would feel relieved.”
Associated Press researchers Yu Bing and Liu Zheng contributed to this report.
This story has been corrected to show that the economic growth target is for the current calendar year, not the next 12 months.