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China announced Monday it has postponed its most important political meetings of the year because of the outbreak of the coronavirus, a significant step for an authoritarian government that has always kept tight control over its political calendar.

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Tourists from Korea wearing protective masks walk with their belongings while waiting for a flight back to South Korea at the Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, Israel, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The decision indicates the importance that President Xi Jinping places on the battle against the virus, which has killed more than 2,500 people and sickened more than 77,000 in mainland China.

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The outbreak has posed one of the biggest political challenges to Xi’s administration since he took control of the ruling Communist Party in 2012. The annual meetings of the National People's Congress and its chief advisory body usually begin about March 5 and run for more than two weeks, bringing thousands of delegates to Beijing for discussions, speeches and political ceremony.

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The official Xinhua New Agency earlier noted that one-third of the 3,000 delegates are provincial and municipal-level cadres with important leadership roles working on the front line of the battle against the epidemic.

People wearing masks, walk across a street in Hong Kong, Monday, Feb. 24, 2020. The COVID-19 viral illness has sickened thousands of people throughout China and other countries since December. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Xi has been wounded by the virus outbreak, but can minimize the damage by “moving aggressively to contain the damage and regain control by postponing" the meetings, said Steve Tsang, director of the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies.

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Because the National People's Congress has no real power, there is less reason to convene it when the party is restricting movement of people and banning large gatherings, he said. Postponing the meetings will “reduce the risk of anyone using either occasion to speak out of line. Xi’s move is an aggressive defensive act, and thus more pragmatic than desperate, though he must have felt a need to be defensive," Tsang said.