Talking shop

The National People’s Congress meets annually. So what actually happens?

Talking shop

Prince Charles: "Goodness, it does sound like a toothless institution."

Appalling old waxworks”, was how Prince Charles referred to them in his diaries.

England’s future king was referring to the Chinese dignitaries who had made the trip to Hong Kong to commemorate the colony’s return to Chinese rule.

But for others the epithet seems an appropriate one for the National People’s Congress (NPC) too, which is holding its annual meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing this month.

To its detractors, the NPC has all the dynamism of a Madame Tussauds exhibit, and it’s true that the sombre acquiescence of the three thousand NPC delegates rarely sets the pulse racing. The occasional glimpse of an ethnic minority representative in colourful headgear brightens up proceedings a little, but overall the NPC is hardly geared for moments of political drama.

Is the NPC as toothless as the critics imply? In fact, it has occasionally rejected resolutions proposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). In 1993, for example, it refused to consider constitutional amendments proposed by the Party on the grounds that the CCP did not have authority to propose legislation. It has also blocked proposals by the State Council (the country’s top decision-making body) including a bill on maritime safety, and it is no longer uncommon for the Council to amend or withdraw a bill on account of NPC opposition.

The NPC also hears ‘work reports’ from the country’s leading politicians, like last week’s review by Wen Jiabao. These serve as a kind of Chinese equivalent to the State of the Nation address made in Washington. Work reports have never been rejected but are rarely voted through unanimously nowadays. It is considered embarrassing for the approval vote to fall below 70%, so some reports have been vetted with NPC delegates beforehand to avoid this happening.

The sessions also offer opportunities for the media to question the Chinese leadership. Ian Johnson, writing in the Wall Street Journal last week, points out these have become more combative occasions. This year, official spokesman Li Zhaoxing had to respond to a number of critical questions, including one from a Hong Kong journalist who asked whether the reason that NPC meetings are so short is because they actually have so little to do.

In fact, the journalist may have overlooked the full nature of NPC activities. The annual meeting in plenary session sees the NPC at its most visible but the real work is going on throughout the year, with the Standing Committee (150 representatives selected from the full NPC) coordinating the progress of the legislative agenda. As such, the Standing Committee helps the Chinese leadership to debate ideas and forge consensus behind the scenes. The final vote is almost always an affirmative one, but this is at least in part because the leadership takes care to husband its legislative programme through the available channels.

The Chinese state has also needed to develop new governing techniques. Earlier regimes that ruled through the dominant personality of a central figure – obviously Mao, but to some degree Deng too – had less need to establish consensus or absorb a range of views. Current president Hu is far more of a technocrat than a charismatic father figure.

Ideology has also given way to pragmatism, as the country has modernised so quickly. Sure, Hu talks of the Harmonious Society in trying to package his political programme into an identifiable whole. But this is hardly dreaming of a Maoist utopia. Hu is more likely to wave the Harvard Business Review at his colleagues than the Little Red Book.

Both of these trends make the NPC more relevant today than it has been in the past. And not just to the Chinese too, if last week’s international press coverage of the Beijing gathering is anything to go by. Of course, much of this was based on hopes that we might see a second stimulus package announced (we did not, as it turned out).

But, even so, the NPC still got a lot of attention. We are not quite there yet but perhaps one day it will be a case of the enthralling old waxworks, rather than the appalling variety.

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