SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - China is expected to tout its strong economic performance during the pandemic and unveil long-term goals for its economy at an annual meeting of its ceremonial legislature beginning Friday in Beijing.
Thousands of delegates will attend the National People's Congress session and a parallel gathering of a political advisory body, both of which will meet amid tight coronavirus protocols in the capital.
Many of the events at the so-called two sessions will be held via video to ensure social distancing. The usual massive scrum of journalists will also be absent, as only Beijing-based media can attend.
The mood may still be celebratory, however, as China prepares to observe the 100-year anniversary of its Communist Party and highlights its coronavirus containment, which led to quick economic recovery.
China, where the novel coronavirus first emerged, was the world's only major economy to experience growth in 2020. While the U.S. economy shrank by 3.5%, China's expanded by 2.3%.
"It's come back to its original growth trajectory pre-COVID by the fourth quarter, which is quite remarkable, given that most countries elsewhere are expected to return to that trajectory in two or three years' time," said Anwita Basu, head of Asia Country Risk at Fitch Ratings.
The NPC, which is composed of nearly 3,000 delegates, is considered a "rubber stamp" parliament. Among its most important tasks are reflexively ratifying decisions already made by the Communist Party, which dominates virtually every aspect of Chinese politics.
The two sessions are nevertheless still closely watched for both general trends and specific decisions, which can emerge in the form of densely worded policy statements or highly choreographed press conferences by senior officials.
This year, China is expected to announce details of its five-year economic plan, covering the period 2021-25.
However, Chinese leaders may not announce an economic growth target for 2021. At last year's event, which was delayed because of the pandemic, China abstained from setting a public gross domestic product target, citing economic uncertainties.
Chinese leaders are trying to rebalance the economy from investment and exports toward domestic consumption.
They may also provide details on how they intend to reach their goal of zero carbon emissions by 2060. China is currently the world's highest greenhouse gas emitter.
The Communist Party would also like China's economy to become more self-reliant, especially after trade tensions with the U.S. made it more difficult for it to acquire semiconductors needed for electronics production.
U.S.-China strategic competition forms perhaps the most important backdrop for the two sessions.
China's economic growth during the pandemic, combined with the sluggish U.S. performance, has accelerated the rate at which China's economy will overtake that of the U.S.
China will have the world's largest economy by 2028, five years earlier than previously estimated, concluded the Centre for Economics and Business Research, a British research organization.
The coronavirus pandemic has added to China's confidence, said Kim Heung-kyu, director of the China Policy Institute at South Korea's Ajou University. However, he does not expect any major moves at this week's meetings that would further upset U.S.-China relations.
"China has observed weaknesses in the United States and believes the United States will not be able to do anything about them," he said. "But [China] still prefers long-term competition instead of conflict or tension. This is more advantageous for China."
U.S. President Joe Biden, who took office in January, has in some ways taken a less adversarial approach toward China than his predecessor, Donald Trump, but it is not clear how much U.S.-China ties will improve.
The Biden administration has strongly criticized China's human rights abuses, including in the western region of Xinjiang, where around 1 million Uighurs have been detained, and in Hong Kong, where Beijing has crushed a pro-democracy movement.
Many analysts expect the NPC to adopt tough new restrictions on Hong Kong, moves that could further crush the chances for meaningful political opposition in what had been an autonomous territory.
Reforms are needed so that "genuine patriots" are in charge of the territory, according to recent comments by Xia Baolong, who heads a mainland agency overseeing Hong Kong affairs.
During last year's NPC meeting, Beijing introduced a sweeping national security law that has resulted in waves of detentions and dramatically chilled political speech.
China says such moves are necessary to deal with members of a protest movement, who in some cases have engaged in tactics such as sit-ins, road closures, and clashes with police.
China's top leader, Communist Party chief Xi Jinping, has also taken a more aggressive stance on Taiwan, a self-ruled island that Beijing sees as its own territory, as well as in disputed portions of the South China Sea, where China has built artificial islands to assert its sovereignty.