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China kicks off delayed parliament session, sets no annual GDP target due to COVID-19 crisis

China kicked off its much-delayed annual parliament session on Friday with the government, in a rare move, did not set any specific target for this year’s GDP, citing uncertainties arising out of the COVID-19 pandemic, slowdown of the Chinese and global economies and the decline in international trade.

For years, China, the second-largest economy in the world, followed the custom of setting an annual target for its economic growth and strived to achieve it.

But with coronavirus pandemic virtually halting production for nearly three months amid a Cold War-like situation with the US besides a continued trajectory of economic slowdown, the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) has decided to set itself free from rigid, regulatory targets, according to officials.

The National People”s Congress (NPC) session with about 2,900 members began this morning at the Great Hall of People amid unprecedented security in the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic which has killed 4,634 people in China, majority of them in Wuhan where the deadly virus emerged in December last year, and infected.

As of Thursday, the overall confirmed COVID-19 cases in China had reached 82,971, including 82 patients who were still being treated in hospitals, according to China”s National Health Commission (NHC).

“I would like to point out that we have not set a specific target for economic growth this year,” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said in his 23-page work report submitted to the NPC, China”s legislature.

China has opened up almost all parts of the country after the virus outbreak and is currently holding the annual parliament session. It was due to be held in the first week of March but was postponed due to the coronavirus crisis.

Chinese President Xi Jinping, Premier Li along with top leaders of the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) attended the meeting without wearing masks, while 2,897 members who were present wore the masks.

The attendees paid a silent tribute to people who died fighting the COVID-19 and those who lost their lives in the pandemic.

All those who attended the meeting needed to go through COVID-19 tests before getting permission to attend it. Journalists who were allowed to attend the meeting, needed to undergo tests. They waited for six hours for results and were permitted if they tested negative.

The meeting is taking place amid concerns over the slowdown of China”s economy which contracted to 6.8 per cent in the first quarter, the first time since 1976, due to the coronavirus lockdowns and its impact on business in the world”s second-largest economy.

“I would like to point out that we have not set a specific target for economic growth this year. This is because our country will face some factors that are difficult to predict in its development due to the great uncertainty regarding the COVID-19 pandemic and the world economic and trade environment,” Li said.

In his work report Li said the GDP in 2019 reached 99.1 trillion yuan, representing a 6.1 per cent increase over the previous year.

Around 13.52 million new urban jobs were created, and the surveyed unemployment rate was below 5.3 per cent, he said.

The session of the NPC, regarded as the rubber stamp parliament for its routine approval of the CPC proposals, would meet for a week during which it is expected to approve a host of new laws.

Defending the government’s move to skip the GDP target, state-run Xinhua news agency said it was a “wise, far-sighted and responsible” decision to cope with complicated domestic and global situations”.

The move “reveals the leadership’s down-to-earth principle of adapting to the uncertainties and immense difficulties” caused by the coronavirus pandemic and the global economic recession”, a commentary by Xinhua said.

The pandemic has taken a heavy toll on the Chinese economy in the first quarter, as the gross domestic product shrank 6.8 per cent year on year, it said.

“Although the economy is sure to see a rebound with the government’s supportive policies, China must take full account of the difficulties, risks and uncertainties and heighten the sense of urgency,” it said.

The targets set by the Chinese government this year are “more flexible and feasible, featuring a concept of a sustainable development model that never seeks short-term gains at the cost of long-term benefits,” the commentary said.

The report highlighted the importance attached to promoting employment, giving full play to market entities and improving people’s livelihoods.

The employment must be stabilised with over 9 million jobs being created this year, it said.

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