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China's 'Two Sessions' meetings commence, setting the political agenda for the year

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Thousands of Chinese officials and dignitaries are convening in Beijing this weekend for a set of annual meetings. The goal is to set the coming year's political agenda. But in the background looms China's role in the Russia-Ukraine conflict. NPR's Emily Feng reports.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: The meetings are called the Two Sessions, or Lianghui, so named because both China's rubber stamp parliament and a separate political advisory body get together in Beijing to decide what their priorities for the year are. Two Sessions have always been a time to take the temperature, if you will, of China's political class. And this time they'll be especially prescient.

DENG YUWEN: (Through interpreter) A pandemic, a party congress - this meeting will emphasize political security above all and will closely follow Xi Jinping's dictates and priorities.

FENG: That's Deng Yuwen, a political science scholar and writer now based in the U.S. He points out the Two Sessions are one of the last major political meetings before China's ruling Communist Party goes into its party Congress. That's held once every five years. And the next one, likely in October, will almost certainly see Xi Jinping extend his leadership of the party for a third term, or perhaps longer. But before that, Xi will need to show at the two sessions he has not just politics but an economy under control. It's already shaky from a COVID pandemic, and China is intent on boosting its technology industry, especially in semiconductors.

YUWEN: (Through interpreter) The economy will be the top agenda item. It's not doing so well. So how to grow the economy, to increase people's incomes and how to let small businesses flourish will be a top discussion item.

FENG: The issue of human trafficking will also be under the spotlight. Lawmakers are drafting stronger criminal penalties to punish those who buy or sell humans, a widespread phenomenon still, which came to public attention again after a woman was found chained to a wall earlier this year. Feng Yuan runs the NGO Equality Beijing, which focuses on women's rights. She's advising policymakers on this new proposed law.

FENG YUAN: (Through interpreter) On top of punishing traffickers, I'm advising that there should also be services helping these trafficked women to reintegrate into society, to find a place to live, to earn a living. We need to protect their mental health.

FENG: But what happens at the Two Sessions meetings this year is less important than when they're happening - during the Winter Paralympics in Beijing, in the midst of a global COVID pandemic and held by a Chinese Communist Party rife with political intrigue. And, of course, hanging over the entire meeting will be Russia and China's closer ties with Moscow.

JUDE BLANCHETTE: Xi Jinping has made arguably one of the biggest foreign policy blunders of his two terms in office by aligning himself with Putin on the eve of the invasion by Russia.

FENG: That's Jude Blanchette, a scholar at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

BLANCHETTE: You know, you can bet your bottom dollar that there's a lot of people in sort of European and Western capitals who are going to do their damnedest to make sure China isn't able to sort of wipe the stink off of them from their enablement of Moscow.

FENG: Russia isn't part of the domestic legislative agenda for the Two Sessions, but the political fallout will color the rest of the year's political calendar. Emily Feng, NPR News, Beijing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.