Features | Politics | East Asia

China’s Revolutionary Hope?

Strange, ritualistic and stuck in a time warp—it’s easy to discount the annual People’s Congress. And a mistake, says Minxin Pei.

There’s something peculiar about the annual sessions of China’s National People’s Congress (NPC). Nominally the supreme decision-making body under the Constitution, the NPC actually exercises little real power, other than endorsing the policies already approved by the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Yet it would be a mistake to believe that the convening of the NPC each March should not be taken seriously. After all, the Chinese government expends enormous manpower and resources to ensure that the NPC’s annual sessions are flawlessly staged. The capital gets a scrubbing, the censors work overtime to ensure that no bad news or controversy spoils the occasion and the secret police haul in dissidents to prevent them from disrupting the congress.

Meanwhile, the venue of the congress, the Great Hall of the People, is a replica of Stalinist architecture that stands out as one of the most glaring incongruities between an increasingly diverse and fast-changing society and a post-totalitarian state frozen in political time. If one compares Chinese society today with three decades ago, it would be hard to find many similarities.

But if you dig up an old photo of the NPC annual session from 1980, you’ll be struck by the remarkable similarities. Of course, Chinese leaders today are much younger and better dressed. But the setting of the congress, with the top leaders seated on the stage and the smiling delegates holding up their hands to rubber stamp legislation proposed by the Communist Party, is essentially the same.

And, in a fundamental sense, the NPC has little connection with real Chinese society.  The delegates—2,908 in all—are picked by the Chinese Communist Party. In terms of background, the NPC delegates reflect the Chinese party-state rather than society as a whole, because a majority of them—more than 70 percent—are government officials, CCP functionaries and military officers.

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Things would have been quite different had the post-Mao leadership followed through on their pledge to reform China’s political system. Under Deng Xiaoping, the revival of the NPC was accorded top priority. During the 1980s, a decade now considered by Chinese liberals as the golden age of reform, the NPC made real progress in turning itself into a policymaking body with its own institutional identity and interests. However, after the Tiananmen crackdown in June 1989, the liberalizing trends were reversed and the role of the NPC in China’s policymaking process declined.

Today’s meets are a far cry from the 1980s, when the debates during the annual NPC sessions were far more lively, even raucous.  Some observers might remember, for example, the highly-publicized debate in the 1988 NPC session over the proposed construction of the Three Gorges Dam, or the heated (but open) discussion on China’s Bankruptcy Law the same year.

Sadly, such openness in policymaking is hard to imagine today. In terms of law-making, the NPC has become virtually irrelevant, with not a single piece of legislation passed in the last 20 years having been proposed by an NPC delegate, even though official Chinese data boasts that each NPC annual session generates several hundred legislative proposals from its delegates (all NPC-approved legislations are proposed by the State Council, the Chinese cabinet.)

So, if the NPC is not part of the policymaking equation, why should the Communist Party bother with an elaborate staging of its annual sessions at all?

Cynics would argue that the party needs to show off its success in managing the economy and pretend that it’s a caring government that responds to the voices of the people. The NPC may not be a genuine forum for deliberating China’s policies, but its annual sessions do provide a convenient platform for senior leaders to rattle off endless statistics on economic growth and rising standards of living. As political theatre, nothing inside China is remotely comparable to the NPC. Here, you can see senior party officials adopt populist notes and angrily denounce corruption, inequality and abuse of power in front of Chinese TV cameras (though nobody expects the NPC to do anything about these vices).

Yet, behind these elaborate political rituals, there could actually be some glimmers of hope that China’s political system could begin to unfreeze itself. At least once a year, China’s ruling elites have to deliver a report card to the Chinese people. Although the Chinese people cannot, in any meaningful sense, grade the party, the NPC sessions are rare opportunities for them to put the all-mighty CCP on the defensive.

And it’s here the experience of the Soviet collapse offers some cause for optimism. Before Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika, the Soviet equivalent of the Chinese NPC was nothing but a rubber stamp. But once real political reform began, the Soviet people’s congress quickly established itself as an institutional rival to the Soviet communist party. Boris Yelstin rallied the opposition to the party not on the street, but inside the halls of the Soviet people’s congress.

Obviously, such a scenario is not one the current Chinese leadership would like to see repeated in China.  But in all likelihood, and to the extent that future political opening in China will be driven by CCP politicians acting like populists (what else can they be?), the NPC will almost certainly be the ideal political platform to exploit if a challenge to the party itself is mounted.

Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College and an adjunct senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace