Gathering of top political advisory body opens with a minute’s silence for Chinese who have lost their lives to the disease

CPPCC chief Wang Yang speaks generally on Taiwan, saying it will deepen exchanges with political parties and social groups

The first of China’s “two sessions” opened in a solemn mood on Thursday, as

hung over the country’s annual political gathering.

The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) –

– began with President Xi Jinping, the 25-strong Politburo and more than 2,000 delegates observing a minute’s silence for the Chinese who have lost their lives to the disease.

Most wore face masks, except for Politburo members like Xi and Premier Li Keqiang and senior CPPCC members.

The annual meetings of the CPPCC and the National People’s Congress (NPC), known as the “two sessions”, are mostly rubber stamp affairs which Beijing uses to make public its yearly economic agenda, growth targets and national budget.

Wang Yang, head of the political advisory body’s committee, delivered a work report that was shorter than previous years. Beijing would strengthen the sense of “political responsibility” among Hong Kong members of the CPPCC, said Wang, the fourth most senior official in the Communist Party.

“We will help [CPPCC] National Committee members representing Hong Kong and Macau build a stronger sense of mission and political responsibility, and firmly support the improvement of systems and mechanisms for enforcing China’s constitution and the Basic Law of the two [cities],” he said.

He also praised the CPPCC for issuing statements against China-related bills by US Congress last year including the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Uygur Human Rights Policy Act of 2019.

On relations with Taipei, Wang made no mention of the 1992 consensus on “one China”, or efforts against “Taiwan independence”, both of which were in his report last year. He spoke generally on the island, saying the CPPCC would deepen exchanges with political parties and social groups “from all walks of life in Taiwan”. It came a day after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-Wen vowed to defend the self-ruled island from threats

, and said Taipei would not accept Beijing’s “one country, two systems” proposal for cross-strait unification.

Li Fei, a Taiwan affairs expert with Xiamen University, said Beijing was prepared for a further deterioration in cross-strait ties during Tsai’s second term.

“The Tsai Ing-wen government has rejected the 1992 consensus and tilted further towards the United States – cross-strait relations are only going to get worse, so politically we have no more illusions about Taiwan,” Li said. But Beijing would still seek to strengthen exchanges with Taiwan, to “attract more [Taiwanese] to study and work in mainland China”.

Beijing is facing headwinds on multiple fronts this year. The challenges to China’s economy were described as “unprecedented” in the party’s Politburo meeting last week. It also called China’s international environment “harsh and complicated”.

Yet this year’s two sessions are being presented by Beijing as a symbol of the country’s strength as it emerges from the coronavirus crisis. A commentary in party mouthpiece

on Thursday said China had survived the test of the pandemic and was showing signs of a firm recovery.

For the media, coronavirus measures made for a long day. About 20 journalists from outside mainland China arrived at the Diaoyutai Hotel at 6am – hours before the CPPCC was due to begin in the afternoon – to line up for compulsory Covid-19 tests.

They had to get the all-clear on the test before they could board a shuttle bus to the Great Hall of the People, 6km away in the heart of Beijing, where the delegates were gathering. Standing in the queue, reporters started chatting and, without thinking, moved closer to each other. Not for long. “Excuse me, would you please keep your social distance – thanks!” a man in a navy blue suit reminded them.

After swab tests were taken the reporters were sent to separate hotel rooms, where they were given food and drinks, to wait for the result.

The coronavirus was the reason given for any restrictions. Trying to get closer and take a photo of someone being tested in the hotel hall, a

reporter was quickly stopped. “You’re not supposed to linger because of the pandemic,” a staff member said.

It took about six hours to get the results – all of the reporters tested negative.

On the shuttle bus, there were more reminders: wear a mask, keep your distance, follow the instructions. And as with any other major event, security was tight at Tiananmen Square, where the Great Hall of the People is located. Security guards and armed police were everywhere as the delegates arrived, all wearing masks. 

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