Public attention in China has been focused in the past on the so called “two meetings”; the annual sessions of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing.
The NPC is China’s supreme legislative body, comprised of 2,987 delegates. Of those 2,099 are members of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), with 888 coming from smaller CCP affiliated political parties. Delegates are elected indirectly by provincial assemblies to represent broad geographic constituencies, including Hong Kong, Macau, the People’s Liberation Army and one symbolically representing Taiwan. They come to Beijing for two weeks every year, traveling to the Great Hall of the People to fulfill their responsibilities. This spectacle is a classic element of contemporary Chinese politics. As delegates step off planes or trains, they are met by the media, usually with light questions on their goals for the coming session. Delegates from ethnic minorities are inevitably dressed in traditional costume, presenting an image of diversity.
As the national legislature the NPC nominally holds significant authority and responsibility including electing the Premier, State Council and President. While the NPC is not quite as irrelevant as the overused term “rubber stamp” suggests, most of the significant steps it undertakes represent ratification of decisions made earlier by the CCP leadership. This is not because the CCP commands a majority of delegates, or because the Chairman of the NPC is a member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the Party. The dominance of the CCP over Chinese politics and society stems from organization. Delegates are elected to the NPC from Party controlled assemblies; therefore each delegate, whether a member of the CCP or not, has already passed through a formidable gauntlet of screening and control. The prospects for a delegate to challenge the prevailing consensus at any point are dauntingly discouraging.
Despite these concerns the NPC has undergone some notable changes. While not possessing the full range of rights and powers of their counterparts in democracies, delegates to the NPC have incrementally been given a greater role in policy formulation allowing them to bring popular concerns to discussion. Bills have been amended, even rejected by delegates (such situations may reflect subtle political machinations at play). Among the delegates are migrant workers who are at the forefront of China’s development. Elections for some office holders are increasingly open. While the CCP aspires to retain an ultimate veto, the scope for the participation of delegates has shifted.
Another less quantifiable change comes from Xi Jinping. Before the end of this session of the NPC Xi will be elected President of China. Li Keqiang will be elected Premier. As part of a process in which each member of the Politburo Standing Committee meets with a provincial delegation to the NPC Xi was televised meeting with those from Shanghai. Leaning forward in his seat he took notes as each delegate spoke to him. This behavior is somewhat atypical of a CCP leader; usually the delegates take notes. We will never know what he wrote but Xi clearly took a less dominant role in the meeting. He appeared to tell a joke at the end. This behavior was repeated by Xi in other conferences with delegates, including the meeting with those from Tibet. Another influence of Xi on this session has been the campaign of austerity.
Delegates to the NPC have normally travelled to Beijing first class staying in five star hotels. Such extravagances were reportedly prohibited this time. Citizens have posted photographs carefully scrutinizing standards of transport and displays of luxury brands online. A series of photos comparing the same luxury accessories of delegates from last year’s session to now seemed to lend credence to the conclusion that the austerity campaign has begun to take effect.
The other meeting taking place is that of the CPPCC. Founded before the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, the CPPCC is largely an advisory body, with representation from a range of different groups. It is notable for including many prominent non-political identities as delegates, including celebrities and famous sportspeople, and the 11th Panchen Lama. A member of the Politburo Standing Committee inevitably serves as chairman. As an advisory body the CPPCC has less influence than the NPC.
These two bodies may come to play a crucial role in any future political changes. As delegates to the NPC are increasingly empowered they may have greater oversight of the activities of the CCP leadership, becoming more receptive to the public will when formulating legislation. Such changes seem distant now but they are not inconceivable.
Pullout – While the NPC is not quite as irrelevant as the overused term “rubber stamp” suggests, most of the significant steps it undertakes represent ratification of decisions made earlier by the CCP leadership