Testing times inside China's parliamentary bubble

China's annual legislative gathering is usually a chance for President Xi Jinping and other Communist Party leaders to put on a stage-managed show of accountability. But this year's undoubted scene-stealer is the coronavirus.

The pandemic that first erupted in China before going global has dictated the timing, look and feel of the most important date on Beijing's political calendar, forcing participants into what one journalist likened to a sterilised "bubble" in order to attend.

For many delegates to the 3,000-member National People's Congress, which opened its week-long gathering on Friday, the screening process began even before they left their distant home provinces.

Delegates were required to produce health records for the past 14 days, take nucleic acid tests, and be sequestered for unspecified lengths of time before setting out for Beijing, state media have said.

Some were then re-tested upon arrival in Beijing, where they are lodged in hotels specially set aside for the purpose and kept separate from colleagues until being bussed together to the capital's Great Hall of the People.

"Each person eats at one table with a certain distance between each another," the Beijing-controlled Global Times reported.

More creative solutions were found elsewhere.

- In the 'bubble' -

At one sequestration hotel, circular dining-room tables were divided by clear plexiglass partitions into six individual seating compartments, each featuring a hook on the glass for one's face mask.

But an AFP journalist who spent two consecutive days inside the isolated parliamentary sphere in order to cover back-to-back sessions said foreign reporters were encouraged not to leave their rooms at all.

Food and drink were left on small tables placed outside their rooms, and security minders watched them like hawks during the coach journey to the meeting hall -- making sure no one wandered off en route.

Similar measures were imposed on the many foreign diplomatic observers of the proceedings.

"It was like being in a bubble," an AFP journalist said.

Usually held in early March, the virus delayed the session this year for the first time since the chaos of the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, as the government feared sparking an outbreak among the political elite.

Its duration has also been cut to only one week.

Political analysts say China has pushed forward with the meeting despite lingering worries over new infections, partly to make the point that tough nationwide containment measures imposed by the government had brought the outbreak under control.

But the virus hangs heavily over the gathering.

In a formerly unthinkable sight, most delegates filling the gigantic red-draped Great Hall of the People wore face masks -- only the top leaders such as Xi went bare-faced.

One of the congress's signature scenes is the choreographed arrival of delegates -- many in the colourful traditional costumes of China's dozens of ethnic minority groups or in military uniform -- at Tiananmen Square, where they wander from coaches into the adjacent Great Hall.

But the gigantic square, among the world's largest public spaces, was empty on Friday, with delegates instead taken straight to the huge building's entrance to minimise social contact.

- No mingling -

Also removed from the agenda was the usual mingling between delegates, officials and journalists who would roam the venue's vaulted corridors and smaller halls to attend delegation meetings, press conferences or just to gossip.

But the government has ordered the thousands of officials who normally attend such sideline gatherings to instead follow them via online video links.

The session's many press conferences, normally open to the media, are now largely closed, with journalists told to watch them online and submit any questions electronically.

Usually more than 2,000 journalists cover the event, including hundreds of foreign reporters.

But the numbers have been dramatically reduced this year.

Only around two dozen foreign reporters -- individually "invited" based on unclear and non-negotiable criteria -- were allowed in to cover Premier Li Keqiang's nationally televised state of the nation address on Friday.


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