Parsing the NPC

Rubber stamp, formalized ass-kissing, the gloss of respectability, political theater–this is the reputation of the National People’s Congress of China. And while my shallow investigation in the last few days confirms that basic premise, I did come across a few little wrinkles. And like botox has taught us: the wrinkles are where the life is.

First, a few basics on the NPC. It’s the highest legislative branch of the government of China. It passes the laws; picks the judges, presidents and premiers that run the government; and approves ‘work plans’ for all government agencies. Sounds important, but they don’t do any of the bill drafting, work plan writing, or people appointing themselves, just the approving. Thus rubber stamp.

The NPC is made up of about 3,000 delegates, who of course are elected, just not in the way most people use the word ‘elected’. They are chosen from an approved ballot by a committee made up of people chosen from approved ballots by another committee that itself was chosen from an approved ballot and so on down the line. In the end about 70% are actually members of the Communist Party. There are also seats reserved for people with special qualifications like engineers, environmental planners, artists, minorities and such. Oh, and they only meet 2 weeks a year.

Taking 3,000 pre-approved people without any particular governing qualifications away from their jobs for 2 weeks to decide on the entire course of government policy from fisheries and child care payouts to international trade and testing standards seems the model of farce. Apparently lively and substantive debate is supposed to occur. It should be no surprise then that 100% of bills up for vote have passed.

But there are signs of life yet. Since economic reform starting in ’79 the NPC has slowly started to exercise more independence, if not power. So while every measure passes, some of them garner a few dissenting votes along the way and as a result raise public awareness. Because the party maintains such strict control when protest votes stray over 10% of the total into the 20 and 30 percent range, people take notice.

The Three Gorges Dam Project for example passed with only 2/3 approval in 1992, most of the dissenters abstaining instead of casting a ballot. Most other major dissenting votes occurred around political appointments, including the largest dissenting vote to date of 36% against approving Jiang Chunyun as Vice-Premier in 1995. That his appointment was a proxy battle between then president Jiang Zemin and his political rivals takes away a bit from reading this as a sign of NPC independence.

The case of China’s Property Rights Law is a more subtle example of NPC influence. First proposed in 1994 the law wasn’t brought for a vote before the full NPC until 2007 presumably out of fear that it might not pass. But it’s possible that the hesitancy stemmed from disagreement higher up in party leadership not a fear of the NPC. It ultimately passed with 97% approval.

More recent dissent has focused around courts and the judiciary. Since 2000 the work reports submitted to the NPC often bring in over 20% approval. This year 26% disapproved of the plan for China’s courts. Legal reform is often cited as a promising avenue to bring accountability and transparency to government and business in China, and the NPC’s dissent helps put a little more pressure in that direction.

But perhaps the most important wrinkle is growing public awareness that the NPC is kind of ridiculous. For example, Southern Weekend, one of the more aggressive newspapers in China, published an interview with a retiring NPC deputy who had participated in every Congress since it was established in 1954. The deputy said, “I support the Communist Party very much. A deputy is supposed to obey the Party’s orders; I have never cast a negative vote.” Internet comments afterward were less than sympathetic to her complacency.

The occasional story like that as well as a feeling from conversations with Chinese friends gives me the impression that media is increasingly taking a tone of hyperbole and sarcasm in their coverage of the NPC and it’s influence.

There is even the occasional call for reform, though usually limited to making relatively minor changes. During the last Congress in March of this year the NPC passed electoral reform increasing the number of deputies coming from the countryside in response to broad belief that cities were over-represented. While not sweeping in it’s implications bringing political reform out of the black box is probably a step in the right direction.

So while the wrinkles in the NPC are relatively minor and it is likely to continue to deserve the label ‘rubber stamp’, that it is ostensibly democratic and ostensibly the highest legislative authority in the China is perhaps itself a little wrinkle in the complete authority of the Communist Party.

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