China: democracy in action

Li Datong
19 March 2009

The busy Chinese political calendar in 2009 has already seen two high-level sessions draw to a close. The "two meetings" as they are routinely referred to - the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) - are held simultaneously in Beijing every year. The whole spectacle offers a valuable insight into one of the world's oddest parliamentary systems.

Li Datong is a Chinese journalist and former editor of Freezing Point, a weekly supplement of the China Youth Daily newspaper

Among Li Datong's articles in openDemocracy:

"Xiamen: the triumph of public will" (16 January 2008)

"China's soft-power failure" (16 May 2008)

"China and the earthquake" (2 June 2008)

"China: after the quake, the debate" (16 June 2008)

"China's leaders, the media, and the internet" (4 July 2008)

"China's digital nationalism: Kung Fu Panda under fire" (16 July 2008)

"Death in Shanghai, law in China" (15 September 2008)

"China's power, China's people: towards accountability" (29 September 2008)

"China's stalled transition" (19 February 2009)

"The CCTV fire and the ‘post-80s generation'" (4 March 2009)A report to the NPC by the chair of its standing committee, Wu Bangguo, outlined the congress's guiding principles. It stressed that China's institutional reform path will not imitate the west: no "system of multiple parties holding office in rotation", no "separation of the three powers", and no "bicameral system." He also said that China's people's representatives are fundamentally different to the parliamentarians of other nations: they are "broadly representative, unlike in the west where they represent a certain party or clique."

The National People's Congress is - on paper - China's "supreme authority", the apex of public power and the source of legitimacy. In reality it is a carefully manipulated rubber-stamp. Each year, more than 3,000 representatives arrive in Beijing from across this vast country; but those from different provinces are sequestered in their own hotels, unable to meet or hold discussions with each other. Inside the "great hall of the people", the profusion of empty talk and dull rhetoric also produces moments of unintentional humour that zap derisively around cyberspace (the proposal to name prime minister Wen Jiabao as a "national model worker"; the suggestion that Unesco might designate the "spirit" of Lei Feng, the posthumous soldier-hero of the 1960s, as "intangible cultural heritage"). More shocking was a plagiarism scandal involving a delegate whose contribution was exposed as having been copied from an academic paper.

How it works

How did these people come to represent us? As a Chinese citizen and a resident of Beijing, I do appear to have the right to vote - for a representative to the "people's congress" of my local Beijing district. Every three years someone at work hands me a "voter's card" and a piece of paper telling me about three or four people. But with no more than two hundred Chinese characters per person, all I learn is their gender, age, party affiliation and what they do. I know nothing of their political views, their ability to express themselves or take action, or anything else they've done - good or bad. I am more interested in knowing how, and thanks to whose nomination, they became these sure-to-win "candidates". But nobody will tell me that, or even what the final count is. I wasn't willing to allow someone I didn't know, didn't like and didn't trust to represent me, so I abstained. I had no other choice.

The sham election of these local "people's representatives" is as far as voters' rights go. I have no idea how representatives to the Beijing People's Congress are chosen, much less those to the National People's Congress. I only know that citizens like me have neither vote nor choice at that level.

Yet the internet makes it possible at least to find out who the national people's representatives are. I had a look at the list for Hubei, a mid-ranking province. No less than ninety of the 121 representatives - 74% - are party members. Forty-three are party secretaries, seventy-two are government officials, and forty are company chairmen. The smallest delegation, from Hainan, is made up entirely of party or government officials, none lower-ranking than a county party secretary. The so-called People's Representative Congress is virtually a congress of party members or officials and businesspeople.

Moreover, almost all of China's highest-ranking and best-known officials - from president and premier to provincial governors, city mayors and county heads - are people's representatives. Who exactly are they getting together to represent or supervise, when they themselves are part of the governing system?

But the problem lies in more than the make-up of the representatives - it is also that the congresses do their best to eliminate, rather than encourage, differing opinions.

Among openDemocracy's recent articles on China:

Perry Link, "Charter 08: a blueprint for China" (5 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China in 2009: a year for surprise" (14 January 2009)

Wei Jingsheng, "China's political tunnel" (22 January 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China's giant struggle" (5 February 2009)

Jeffrey N Wasserstrom, "China's anniversary tempest" (24 February 2009)

Kerry Brown, "China local, China global" (11 March 2009)

Tsering Shakya, "Tibet and China: the past in the present" (18 March 2009)

In 2003, a colleague of mine somehow got himself nominated and elected to the district congress. He has no party affiliation, and was excited that he might be able to do some good. But at one vote during the first full session of the congress he was the only attendee to raise his hand to indicate abstention - and that was when the trouble started.

At the end of the day, officials came to speak to him. "Don't you understand you can't just go around raising your hand! You can't just vote any old way!" "Don't abstain or vote against anything. Understand?" "You think having opposing or different views is democratic? Don't be so naive!" He realised then that people's representatives are not allowed to have their own ideas or opinions. After that he always found himself sitting next to a police representative during votes, and he never again abstained - much less objected. When his period of office ended he was not given the option of continuing: he had a "bad voting record".

How it ends

The designers of the system have used two methods to ensure that the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference become pure ornamentation. First, they make certain that 70% of delegates are party members (compared to only 6% of the population). Second, they consistently filter the nomination process to remove any representatives of conscience who might dare to speak out, thus guaranteeing no unexpected votes.

This may all look safe and secure from the standpoint of those in power. In fact it is loaded with danger. A governing elite that never hears opposing or even differing opinions will inevitably favour its own interests in policy decisions, which over time will create social concerns. Officials who do not incur questioning and criticism will gradually become arrogant and foolish. More worryingly, the status of congresses as an appendage of government means they cannot function as an intermediary in the event of any major social unrest. The result of all this is that both government and people will suffer.

I have, however, just heard some good news. Three hundred members of the CPPCC refused to attend, a new record. One hundred of them did not even ask to be excused, as good as a public expression of scorn. It is a signal that this fake democracy will ultimately be abandoned.

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