Pure political theatre

Legislators arrive at the Great Hall of the People for annual meet

Pure political theatre

Enthralling stuff: film director Feng Xiaogang attends the CPPCC

When China decided to build the Great Hall of the People in 1958, Wang Huabin, a leading architect involved in the project, told the then premier Zhou Enlai that the building’s design was “good for nothing, but it’s big”.

Regardless of Wang’s fairly blunt appraisal, Zhou ploughed ahead, building one of the world’s biggest congressional compounds.

Just how big is it? The Great Hall covers a floor area of 1.8 million square feet, large enough that the mere act of renovating its banquet hall justified an entry in the Guinness Book of Records (for the most wooden tiles in a single room). And when it comes to monetising the venue, China is also in a league of its own. Run by the General Office of the Party, the Great Hall charges admission fees to tourists, contracts out its logo to merchandisers (including the occasional cigarette manufacturer) and offers its meeting places for hire. This holy of holies in Chinese politics has even tried its luck with pop stars, hosting concerts by Pavarotti and even a run of the musical Cats by English composer Andrew Lloyd Webber.

As the China Times put it this week, the Great Hall has now become “Beijing’s money-growing tree”.

Of course, the Great Hall also needs to be roomy enough to house the world’s largest legislature. The National People’s Congress (NPC) has 2,987 indirectly-elected delegates, while its advisory body, the Chinese People’s Consultative Conference (CPPCC), carries an additional 2,237 appointed members. But the commercialisation of the venue makes sense for another rather simple reason too: it isn’t needed much for political purposes. The NPC and the CPPCC gather in March every year, but this typically lasts for less than a fortnight. And when the so-called “Two Meetings” aren’t in session, the work of government goes on elsewhere, in smaller, more senior bodies like the State Council and the Standing Committee.

The Great Hall’s infrequent use for political gatherings hasn’t gone without comment. “Democracy is about the people’s representatives meeting every day and making decisions for the government to execute,” legal expert Liang Jianbing argues on his blog. “We have that giant meeting room but it is essentially empty throughout the year. Countless proposals never become laws.”

Liang’s observation attracted more than 100,000 page views in five days, provoking wider debate about the role of China’s parliament, and its apparent lack of lawmaking authority. While the legislature is yet to witness a private member’s bill, NPC members are allowed to table motions and proposals. The data suggests they do so with gusto, despite the limited likelihood of a final outcome. Wu Bangguo, the NPC chairman until earlier this month, noted in his final report that 37,527 delegate proposals had been processed during his five-year chairmanship, resulting in 38 legislative amendments.

One of the lucky proposals to become policy came from Guangdong police officer Chen Weicai, an NPC delegate who made headlines in 2010 by proposing a real-identity registration system for mobile phone users. Keen to fight crime, Chen went a step further this year suggesting Singapore-style caning for offenders. (More liberal netizens supported the idea in principle, but suggested that it be modified for lashing corrupt officials.)

CPPCC members can also table their own proposals, although their voices generally carry even less weight. And while proposals can be made throughout the year, most legislators prefer to wait until the “Two Meetings”, when they have a better chance of grabbing the media spotlight. Bai Yansong, a CCTV anchor and CPPCC member, noted that more than 6,000 proposals were tabled by his CPPCC colleagues during the two-week conclave, but barely 200 over rest of the year.

“Too many and too late” is how the Science and Technology Daily regards this sudden flood of legislative ideas, complaining too that the logjam means more serious proposals lack a chance for discussion.

The newspaper also noted that some delegates intentionally play to the gallery in a bid to be heard, with outrageous propositions. Picking the most laughable suggestions over the Two Meetings fortnight has become an annual ritual for Chinese web users. (“It’s like the Golden Raspberry Award for Chinese politics,” one wrote.)

Among those up for consideration this year: Chen Guangbiao, a showman philanthropist who sells cans of clean air, (see WiC183) is suggesting a ‘no-child policy’ for people with less than nine years of formal education; while Mao Xinyu, the PLA’s youngest general, seems to believe that the military thinking of his grandfather Mao Zedong should be adopted as a guiding principle for digital warfare. But Hong Kong actor Jackie Chan, another CPPCC delegate, topped the list according to many, after confessing that he didn’t even know how to table a proposal.

“Many NPC and CPPCC members lack basic political knowledge and they don’t know what they are doing,” complains Ge Jianxiong, an outspoken two-time CPPCC member. Ge, a history professor, says too that the legislature must spread its workload throughout the year, instead of cramming it into its annual session. The suggestion was even carried by the People’s Daily. Then again, new CPPCC chief Yu Zhengsheng told delegates this week that “Western-style reform” isn’t on the agenda.

Or to put it another way: if the rubber stamp ain’t broke, why fix it?

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