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Explaining China's National People's Congress

When it comes to political theater, nobody does it better than the Communist Party of China. Sure, they lack the production values of the United States and the method acting of North Korea, but the CPC more than makes up for it in scale and grandiosity.
March 19, 2013, 4:00pm

When it comes to political theater, nobody does it better than the Communist Party of China. Sure, they lack the production values of the United States and the method acting of North Korea, but the CPC more than makes up for it in scale and grandiosity.

Every year, when winter begins to thaw, cadres from around the country gather in Bejiing for what’s known as lianghui, or “two meetings”: namely the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC).


Now I know what you’re thinking, didn’t we just do this last November? Isn’t Xi Jinping already China’s leader?

The 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China held last November was a meeting of the CPC, where Xi was “elected” as the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China and the Chairman of the CPC Central Military Commission, the two posts in the party apparatus that actually matter.

By contrast, the "two meetings," which ended their two-week run Sunday, are not meetings of the CPC, but of the actual Chinese government, which is controlled by the CPC. Confused yet?


Let’s get the technical stuff out of the way first.

The National People’s Congress is China’s legislature and the highest organ of state power. It is responsible for electing the President of the People’s Republic of China and approving his appointment of the Premier of the State Council, the two highest posts within the state bureaucracy. But that responsibility belies its role as a rubber-stamp parliament that approves decisions made in advance by the CPC, which holds around 70 percent of the seats.

The NPC also approves the appointments of other high-level officials including the Vice-Premiers (China has four), State Councilors (China has five) as well as cabinet ministers, which are all nominated by the Premier. Its power, insofar as it has any, comes from the ability to pass legislation and amend the Chinese Constitution.


The CPPCC, on the other hand, is not part of the government but rather acts as an advisory committee to offer ideas to the NPC after conducting in-depth studies on issues facing Chinese society. Its members, while also handpicked, come from a wider swath of Chinese society and include celebrities like Yao Ming, recent Nobel laureate Mo Yan, and veteran CPC brown-noser Jackie Chan.

It’s not to say that the two meetings are entirely ineffectual, but sometimes it’s hard to take them seriously.

For example, both meetings are dominated by the CPC but contain members from the eight smaller, democratic parties known as the United Front. That would be great, except those parties are actually managed by the CPC and their members combined amount to less than a million, or about one percent of the CPC’s total membership.

In addition, the ethnic minority delegates to the NPC and CPPCC (China has 55 ethnic minorities) often show up to the meetings dressed in traditional garb. It is unclear if this is by choice but, being the only ones not in identical dark suits or military uniforms, they stick out like cosplayers at an anime convention. To get a sense of how strange this is, imagine Native American members of Congress wearing feather headdresses to committee hearings. (I’m looking at you Elizabeth Warren!)

These ham-fisted attempts at showing intra-party democracy and cultural unity end up contributing to the sense that the two meetings are just for show.

Just like the National Congress of the CPC last November, all the important decisions in these two meetings have been agreed upon in advance, in back rooms and private meetings. The face presented to the public is one of calm agreement and harmony.


But not all shows are created equal. In terms of actual importance, if the National Congress of the CPC is Broadway, then the NPC is Off-Broadway and the CPPCC is the improv troupe at your local community college.


Though the two meetings rarely offer any surprises, they are still covered profusely in state media, partly because they are under orders.

Yet for all the coverage, average Chinese pay little attention to the meetings, even this year when they will decide the next era of government leadership. When I ask my Chinese friends why they aren’t following the news, “It has nothing to do with me” is the most popular response, followed by, “Who cares? I can’t change anything.”

In the online realm, however, the response to the meetings has been less fatalistic and more sardonic.

Because the election of China’s president happened the day after Pope Francis was elected, many jokes played on the two opaque and rigid institutions.

To paraphrase a joke on Weibo, China’s popular microblogging site, “1.2 billion Catholics had no idea who their Pope was going to be, but us 1.3 billion Chinese have known for a long time who our next president will be.”

Indeed, the vote for Xi was 2,952 in favor and 1 against with 3 abstentions, garnering him 99.86% of the vote and putting him in the most-loved leader category somewhere between Kim Jong-il and Bashar al-Assad.

To understand how the vote could be this lopsided, we have to remember that the deputies are chosen individually and are not asked back if they dissent too much. The obedient ones go on to have careers as long as any Supreme Court Justice.


Case in point: Shen Jilan. The 84-year-old has been a deputy since the NPC’s inception in 1954 and has served ever since, becoming the first deputy to be appointed to the NPC 12 consecutive times.

Her secret? Never voting no.


It would be wrong to call these two meetings complete spectacle, because they present a chance for China’s leaders to signal the direction in which they want to take the country.

At the beginning of every NPC, top officials deliver a work report, summarizing their accomplishments and setting new benchmarks for the future. This year, outgoing premier Wen Jiabao reviewed his last term in office.

In his report, Wen boasts of the last five years of “steady and rapid growth,” “successfully hosting” the Olympic Games, increasing per capita income, expanding the high-speed rail network, breakthroughs in manned spaceflight and commissioning China’s first aircraft carrier.

But Wen also presided over a widening wealth gap, inflation that detracted from per capita income gains, and increased domestic and international tensions, most notably with Japan. Hu Jintao’s administration also proved powerless to stop environmental degradation due to rampant economic development and widespread corruption that culminated in the purging of Wang Lijun and Bo Xilai.

Though Wen urged the next generation of leaders to focus on the environment, income and wealth disparity, public order, and food safety, it’s more than a little ironic to hear someone whose extended family is worth billions of dollars talk about alleviating the wealth gap.


Also ironic is that six days after Wen called attention to the environment and food safety, 900 dead pigs were found floating in an area of the Huangpu River in Shanghai which is used for drinking water.

As we enter Xi’s decade, the question on everyone’s mind is: will he be the one to reform China?

Xi, the son of a Communist revolutionary and politician, has carefully cultivated an air of humility. An official biography calls him a “man of the people,” despite his family also being insanely wealthy.

Since becoming party chief, Xi has called for an end to official extravagance, especially banquets replete with food and liquor paid for by public funds. He has also called for the CPC to “put up with sharp criticism.”

At the closing of the NPC, Xi addressed the growing inequality in the country and emphasized the need to reject “hedonism and extravagance, and resolutely fight against corruption.” He also said that he will fight for “the great renaissance of the Chinese nation.”

For his part, Li Keqiang, the new premier, has highlighted environmental protection and economic reform, and has promised to fight against corruption and wasteful spending. He also mentioned the need to make sure “power will be exercised in an open and transparent fashion.”

“We are willing to accept supervision from the whole society and media,” he added.

Only time will tell if these promises mean any more than the ones Hu and Wen made a decade ago.


On Wednesday, the day before Xi became president, prominent dissident Hu Jia was allegedly beaten by the police. On Friday, a Sky News journalist was detained after mentioning the 1989 democracy protests while reporting from Tiananmen Square. As of now, the number of dead pigs found in the Huangpu River has increased to over 13,000.

It’s unlikely that China’s new leadership will break the fourth wall and address these issues directly. It’s equally unlikely that Xi and Li will do the hard and unpopular work of uprooting the endemic corruption poisoning the nation.

I suspect next year, around when spring comes to Beijing, we’ll see the same deputies in the Great Hall of the People, smiling in calm agreement, and pretending everything is all right. After all, the show must go on.

Additional research by Irene Xiong.

Images via Xinhua


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