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Is it a pointless rubber stamp? Understanding the NPC and what it’s for

“You have my vote”: Shen Jilan (middle) in 1954

When Shen Jilan left the village of Xigou to attend the inaugural National People’s Congress (NPC), she began her journey on a donkey. The year was 1954. She’s back again this week, presumably via a different mode of transport.

The 81 year-old is the only deputy to have attended every meeting of the NPC, and as she proudly told the Beijing Youth Daily, she hasn’t voted against a proposal once in her 57 years of service.

That soon piqued the interest of bloggers, who were quick to point out that Shen must have said ‘aye’ to some pretty damaging policies, like those attached to the Great Leap Forward. What’s more she must have first backed the purging of Deng Xiaoping, and then done a volte-face and voted for his rehabilitation, and eventually his elevation to the leadership.

Mrs Shen’s proud claim is also a tacit admission that she flip-flopped ideologically. Her early votes to expunge the nation of rightists and capitalist roaders don’t sit easily with her later ‘yes’ for the market-based economy that Deng’s reforms unleashed.

Perhaps Shen justifies all this by quoting JM Keynes (“when the facts change, I change my mind’); but for those used to the voting practices of Westminster or Washington, the question begs: does this elderly deputy prove that the NPC – the nation’s legislative body – is merely a rubber stamp for the policies of the leadership of the day?

What does the NPC do?

The NPC meets annually and consists of 2,987 deputies – of which 2,099 are Communist Party representatives and the remainder selected from sanctioned opposition parties.

Over the course of 10 days it can discuss and make proposals that become law; likewise it listens to the Chinese leadership discuss its work in the previous year and its agenda for the year ahead.

A decade or two ago, the workings of the NPC would have been viewed by most outside China as an irrelevance. But with the nation’s growing importance in the global economy, Western media has begun to cover the event more prominently.

Indeed, there’s even been an effort to frame proceedings in a more recognisable way. The prime minister’s annual work report – delivered last Saturday – is now described by Bloomberg as “China’s equivalent of the State of the Union”.

In that speech Wen Jiabao said little that was surprising, reiterating his priority in the year ahead was the fight against inflation. “This problem concerns the people’s well-being, bears on overall interests and affects social stability. We must, therefore, make it our top priority in macroeconomic control to keep overall price levels stable.”

Unlike Obama, Wen’s not much given to soaring rhetoric but there were some populist policies too. He revealed that the government would raise its healthcare spending for the coming year by 16% to $26 billion. Similarly, in a bid to defuse tensions over soaring real estate prices, he announced that the government would subsidise the construction of 10 million ‘affordable’ apartments in 2011, and 36 million over the next five years.

The five year timeframe gives a clue too as to why this particular NPC is getting an unusual amount of attention. That’s because it will ratify China’s coming five year plan, which will steer the economy through to 2015.

According to Elizabeth Economy, writing on the Council on Foreign Relations website, the details matter not just for the Chinese but much further afield too: “China now ranks as the world’s largest consumer of energy, largest exporter and second largest economy. How the government balances its economic and social priorities, as well as its success in meeting stated targets for economic growth and energy consumption, has enormous implications for the rest of the world.”

What’s in the plan?

The People’s Daily reports that the key targets include a reduction in GDP growth to 7% annually, the creation of 45 million urban jobs and a 4 percentage point increase in the urbanisation rate to 51.5%.

There will also be efforts to encourage more innovation (expenditure on R&D to reach 2.2% of GDP); as well as measures to wreak less damage on the environment (energy consumption per unit of GDP reduced by 16%; water consumption per unit of value-added industrial output cut by 30%).

Plus to encourage domestic consumption (and ease inequality) the minimum wage should rise by no less than 13% per year.

The Wall Street Journal characterised the measures in its headline: “China’s focus turns to its poor: leaders promise to improve livelihoods which have lagged growth.”

Of course, all these targets are currently in draft form and are being reviewed by the NPC. Can we expect its deputies to veto any of the proposals? Not if Mrs Shen is anything to go by.

So is it all political theatre?

Netizens commenting on the voting record of Shen Jilan think so. On his weibo (a local service like Twitter) Qianling Chushi saw Shen’s NPC role as “meaningless”. Another blogger going by the moniker Hindsight noted that Shen “had wasted 57 opportunities to exercise the right given by the people”.

The controversy over compliant voting habits was further stirred by CCTV television personality Ni Ping. She’s a deputy of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), which immediately precedes the NPC and also discusses government policy and makes recommendations (for more on the CPPCC, see WiC52). Ni told China National Radio that she too has never vetoed a government motion. She put this down to patriotism: “I love this country, I am considering the national interest.” The Ningxia Daily demurred: “Are people who vote ‘no’ not patriotic? If the two sessions require the deputies to show hands only, why do they bother going to Beijing from afar, since they could do the same on the internet?”

Cai Xia, a professor at the Central Party School, has also written recently about the “structural problems” of the NPC, in an influential article published by the Shanghai Social Sciences Association. Described as a “well known Party insider” by website The China Media Project, Cai outlines the NPC’s five major “flaws”.

The first is that the meetings do not go on long enough for substantive discussion; and the second, that the delegates themselves have limited knowledge and are not competent to decide on major national policy matters.

But Cai says the delegate problem goes deeper: there are too many delegates to make real decisions or be accountable; and the part-time nature of the position means they don’t act as true representatives to their constituents.

In fact, Cai says that deputies become mere “stage actors” since the Standing Committee (i.e. the government) – with its full time staff and information advantage – has already decided the agenda.

A good example of the failings? Cai points out that the NPC is supposed to discuss the financial transparency of the government. But at the NPC gathering in 2009, there was no provision on its agenda to debate or review the progress of the Rmb4 trillion stimulus programme.

Will this change?

If the NPC were thoroughly reformed along the lines that Cai describes, perhaps it could serve as more of a check on the senior leaders of the Party. That’s precisely why it’s unlikely to happen. But the NPC’s character, as well as its national role, isn’t set in stone. Perceptibly, it is being modified by the country’s changing economic dynamic and through technological change.

In the case of the former, the nation’s parliament is increasingly stuffed with successful businesspeople. In fact, Bloomberg reports that the richest 70 of this year’s NPC delegates are worth a combined $75 billion, evidence of the success of the Party in co-opting a once derided capitalist class.

Still, as a group they offer probably the most coherent alternative to the government in proposing policy ideas. Take Zong Qinghou, who last year ranked as China’s richest man (worth $12 billion). The founder of beverage firm Wahaha tabled nine proposals, all of which were well scoped out. They ranged from social policy (allowing the children of migrant workers to go to city schools free if they’ve lived in the locality for more than a year) to business law (a requirement that all profitable listed companies pay a dividend, or provide a detailed explanation of why they are hoarding cash).

Li Dongsheng, the chairman of TV maker TCL, proposed that the personal income tax threshold should be raised to Rmb5,000. He also canvassed for ideas on his weibo. In a matter of days his ‘followers’ increased from 360,000 to 490,000 as citizens forwarded him their own ideas.

Indeed, the weibo phenomenon has become a key part of this year’s NPC. As reported in WiC95, over 100 million Chinese have weibo accounts, which have become a key method for discussing news and opinion. According to the China Daily, NPC deputies are also using weibo to communicate and receive feedback – with 200 delegates signed up for Sina’s dominant service. The most senior politician to launch a weibo (via Tencent’s QQ) is Zhang Chunxian, Party chief of Xinjiang. “I opened the micro blog because I believe it is one of the most efficient channels to receive people’s comments and ideas,” he wrote.

True, weibo do not make China democratic, but they do reflect an NPC that is more open to input from its citizenry.

Lots of talk, any action?

WiC has looked through previous years proposals and it’s clear that a lot of the legislation that gets talked about at the NPC is not acted upon. For example, a proposal to have government officials detail their family’s assets has been repeatedly rejected. Sometimes that’s because the ideas are less practical. One this year called for a new ‘ministry of children’ to be established. Will that ever get off the ground?

In fact, what happens on the sidelines of the event often gets more attention. For example, Wang Qishan, the vice premier, attended an event hosted by Shandong province in which he admitted to being “embarrassed” by the country’s poor food safety record. Wang was then quoted by the Beijing Times as saying that the Party has spent the previous decades ensuring the country had enough to eat, but that now he and other senior leaders were more worried by the hazardous chemicals finding their way into food. The issue today was “how one eats with his mind at rest,” admitted Wang.

Wang’s remarks were soon the talk of the weibo world. Blogger ‘Metal Fox’ noted “In the past there was no such practice as apologising to the people – so this is a minor victory.” The South China Morning Post columnist Wang Xiangwei said it was an example of a top leader displaying “refreshing honesty”.

Costly talk?

The other much discussed topic on weibo is how much the whole affair costs to stage. Senior spokesperson Zhao Qizheng was asked this by a foreign journalist, and professed to have been taken aback. He would have to revert back when he found the answer, he promised.

Surprising many, he came back a couple of days later with a figure. The total cost: Rmb59 million ($8.9 million), he claimed.

This could well be an underestimate (likely, as each province and city also host lavish events during the NPC).

But even so, it must be conceded that China’s 10 days of ‘democratic’ due process look a relative bargain versus the amounts spent in the US. MSNBC says America has the world’s most expensive democratic apparatus: a presidential election year costs the country upwards of $5 billion, it calculates.


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