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Two Sessions: China says it’s open for business – do we buy it?

As China’s annual parliamentary sitting comes to a close after a hectic week of meetings, a glaring void looms on Monday’s final agenda.

The National People’s Congress is usually capped off by the premier’s press conference. But this year, and for the rest of the term, the tradition has been mysteriously nixed.

Officials have said there was no need for it given there were other opportunities for journalists to ask questions. But many observers saw it as another sign of consolidation and control, in what became a running theme for the congress, even as top officials preached openness.

The cancellation of the press conference also effectively diminishes Premier Li Qiang’s profile. Though the event was scripted, it was a rare chance for foreign journalists to ask questions and gave the country’s second-in-command some room to flex his muscles.

In years past, it even yielded some unexpected moments. In 2020 then-premier Li Keqiang disclosed figures that stoked debate over a government claim that it had eradicated poverty. 

The dimming of the spotlight on the premier, along with a shorter congress this year, are all signs of ongoing structural change within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) where President Xi Jinping is increasingly accumulating power at the expense of other individuals and institutions, noted Alfred Wu, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore who studies Chinese governance.

But to the outside world, the party is keen on projecting a different kind of image as it battles dwindling foreign investor confidence and a general malaise in its economy.

Addressing international journalists last week, foreign minister Wang Yi insisted China was still an attractive place to invest in and do business. 

“China remains strong as an engine for growth. The ‘next China’ is still China,” he said, before citing ways in which “China is opening its door wider”. 

This year’s economic blueprint, delivered by Mr Li at the start of the session, laid out plans to open up more areas to foreign investment and reducing market access restrictions in sectors such as manufacturing and services.

These moves come after foreign investors were spooked by recent anti-espionage and data protection laws, as well as several sudden high-profile detentions of Chinese and foreign businessmen. Foreign direct investment in China recently fell to a 30-year low.

“There are fewer political checks and balances, there is no transparency. This is the bigger concern for investors… you cannot predict what’s going to happen, so you avoid the risk,” said Dr Wu.

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