China’s Big Political Show Is Back to Normal. Sort of.

Finally, it appeared, things were back to normal.

As nearly 3,000 delegates filed into Beijing’s Great Hall of the People on Tuesday for the opening of China’s annual legislative meeting, none wore face masks. Officials pressed together to shake hands and pose for photos. Around them, reporters and diplomats from around the world milled about the cavernous lobby, many invited back for the first time since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic four years earlier.

It was one of China’s highest-profile political stages, and the message being sent was clear: The country’s prolonged isolation was over, and it was once more open to the world and ready for business.

But normal in today’s China has a different meaning than before. And beneath the veneer of openness were signs of how much China has changed in the past four years, becoming more insular, more regimented, more tightly bound to the one-person rule of its top leader, Xi Jinping.

To be allowed into the Great Hall, where China’s most important political meetings take place, attendees still had to take a government-arranged Covid test. Unlike in previous years, when a report containing the government’s annual economic growth target was made public at the start of the opening ceremony, this year it was initially shared only with delegates and diplomats.

The opening of the annual legislative session, a carefully choreographed event at which top leaders make speeches and delegates rubber-stamp new policy.Credit…Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

In perhaps the biggest departure from previous years, officials announced that China’s premier, the country’s No. 2 official, would no longer take questions at the end of the weeklong legislative session. It was the end of a three-decades-long tradition, one of the few opportunities for journalists to interact with a top leader.

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