China’s ‘Parliament’: Clear and Present Challenges

Originally published as जबिन टी. जेकब, “चीन में परिवर्तन की राह में असमंजस,” Business Bhaskar, 7 March 2013, p. 4.

The Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) together form the equivalent of China’s national parliament broadly representing a lower house and upper house respectively. The 12th NPC will ‘elect’ China’s new President and the Premier – Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang respectively – who were in fact decided by the 18th Communist Party (CPC) Congress in November last year. It is also the 18th CPC Central Committee that has approved the candidates for China’s new cabinet of ministers (or the State Council) and the heads of China’s equivalent of the Supreme Court and of its investigative and prosecution agencies.

While the Party continues to be the more powerful than the government in China, the symbols of state such as the NPC are increasingly vocal. This 12th NPC will see discussion over a variety of topics that will keep China’s new leaders engaged over the next decade. Since, he took over as General Secretary of the CPC, Xi has publicly called for the Party and government at all levels in China to combat corruption. Party and government bodies have visibly cut down on lavish spending and ostentatious displays of wealth under pressure from Chinese citizens who use the medium of the Internet to publicly expose instances of official corruption and to criticize undue privileges for government and military officials. Remember also, that it was at the NPC last year that Bo Xilai’s fall from power first began.

Some of the proposed administrative reforms at the 12th NPC such as the merging of the Railway Ministry into the Ministry of Transport and the fact that food and drug safety supervision will be integrated into a new regulatory mechanism have at least partly to do with past corruption and consumer safety scandals in these ministries or departments. It is also quite possible, that the country’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, might become more autonomous of the government – crucial in order to resist political pressure to divert more money into inefficient and poorly-managed public sector enterprises.

That said, proposals to reduce the number of government ministries from 28 to below 20, are aimed at improving efficiency and reducing tensions between the different ministries and departments.

The other big issues that the NPC and the CPPCC are likely to discuss include China’s one-child policy, effects of the country’s massive environmental degradation, rights of migrant workers and rising cost of housing in the country.

Of late, both political reformers and economists have been arguing for an end to China’s draconian one-child policy – China might in the coming decades see a fall in its working age population while having to support a larger population of retirees.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s air pollution has reached critical proportions and is an example of the consequences of three decades of fast and unregulated economic growth. Several of the frequent protests around China are, in fact, related to environmental issues, with local communities opposing the construction of polluting industries, including nuclear plants, in their localities.

Great Hall of the People
Great Hall of the People

Migrant workers from the interior provinces have for decades provided the cheap labour that fuelled the exports of China’s manufacturing industries in the coastal region. This in turn propelled the country’s rapid exports-led growth but China’s urban residency laws have always discriminated against these workers denying them access to health care and even education for their children.

Out of the 12th NPC’s some 3,000 delegates, only about 30 are migrant workers. While this is a ten-fold increase from the last NPC, it shows that progress towards reforming laws that discriminate against migrant workers might continue to remain slow. Meanwhile, the housing market continues to expand but does not cater to the budgets of China’s migrants and government schemes to provide low-cost housing are far from successful.

Even as Xi Jinping calls for innovation-driven growth and development, there is also opposition to adopting political reform, or indeed a political system, copied from elsewhere. In particular, the new General Secretary appears as reliant as his predecessors on the support of the military. Xi has visited army units and met commanders and troops several times since taking over from Hu Jintao and looks set to continue to increase military budgets. He has declared that absolute military obedience to the CPC is essential to ensure that the experience of the Soviet Union’s collapse is not replicated in China.

This reliance on the army creates difficulties in the path of the eventual separation the Party and the state that would be essential for any long-term political reform to take hold in China.

As one official Chinese newspaper put it, ‘[a]fter decades of rapid development, society’s rough edges have become noticeable.’ The annual NPC and CPPCC meetings are intended to smooth these rough edges. But China’s new leaders will take time to consolidate their positions and cannot afford to loosen the Party’s strong control over state and society. Thus, it remains to be seen if the anti-corruption crusade or the apparent receptivity of China’s leaders to public opinion herald long-term commitment to political change and reform.

 

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