Thursday, March 8, 2012

China's Two Parliaments

March: the time of year when the heating in Beijing is turned off, flowers and blades of grass startappearing on the capital's streets, and the "two congresses" are held in the Great Hall of the People in Tiananmen Square.

The two congresses ("两会" in chinese) are the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (henceforth CPPCC) and the National People's Congress (NPC), the closest thing China has to a parliament. They last a few weeks each. Many of you may be surprised to realize that the CPPCC includes representatives of different political parties, and the NPC includes elected representatives. However, on a closer analysis, these two assemblies can hardly be seen as examples of Western style rapresentative democracy.

The first time I came to China, I was surprised to read in a government-produced booklet introducing the country that there are a number of different political parties in China, including something called "the Revolutionary Committee of the Kuomintang" and a "China Democratic League". There are indeed 8 officialy sanctioned political parties besides the Chinese Comunist Party (CCP), collected into something known as the United Front, which also includes the All-China federation of Industry and Commerce. Two of these parties have the word "democratic" in their name, although this should come as no surprise to those who know that the Chinese government claims to preside over some form of democracy.

The Chinese political system is referred to in official parlance as "multiparty cooperation and consultation under the leadership of the Communist Party". Basically, rapresentatives from all the different parties in the United Front join CCP representatives and indipendents to form the CPPCC. The proportion of seats allocated to each party is decided by established convention. In practice, it is understood that the CCP has the largest representation and dominates the assembly. It is also understood that the other parties hold no real power independent of the CCP.

The other congress which is held every march, the National People's Congress, is slightly more important than the CPPCC. It is the highest state body and the only legislative assembly in the country. Typically for China, it is the largest parliament in the world, with 2987 members. Since the nineties it has apparently moved away from its role as a rubber stamp parliament for the government, and become a place where genuine differences in opinion within the state are sometimes mediated. The Congress does sometimes actually express its opposition to certain bills put before it, which usually results in them being modified before they are put up for vote. By convention, around one third of the seats are reserved to people who are not members of the communist party, normally technical experts or representatives of certain groups within the society. Rapresentatives of China's 55 ethnic minorities are of course always present. On television they always show shots of them wearing their colourful ethnic costumes, which are in fact only worn in daily life in remote areas.

In theory the delegates to the NPC are elected indirectly by the Chinese people. Ordinary citizens can vote for the deputies of their local people's congresses for five-year terms. These local people's congresses then vote for the deputies of the larger people's congresses which represent entire provinces or cities divided into districts, which in turn then vote for the deputies of the National People's Congress. At the lowest level, there is officially no bar on non-party members proposing themselves as candidates in the elections.
Recent years have seen the appearance of more genuine independent candidates who use the internet to campaign, although this is not encouraged and they have faced harrassment by the local authorities. Just this year, a journalism professor who campaigned as an independent in the constituency of Beijing's Foreign Studies University lost his campaign, and claimed that the authorities did everything they could to disrupt his effort to campaign within the campus, even though he was breaking no law.
Even if independents get elected to the lowest level of the people's congresses, the multi-tier election process means that the governemnt firmly controls who will reach the National People's Congress.

In practice, it is obvious that there is no genuine opposition within this political system, and the amount of debate and dissent allowed is firmly determined by the government. However, it is also easy to see how a move towards a more genuine representative democracy could in theory take place within its framework.

The line of the Chinese government is that China's current political system represents the best choice given China's "specific national conditions", since implementing Western-style multiparty democracy in China would bring to chaos and collapse, because China is still a developing country with such a large population. Articles produced by government organs and newspapers point to the failure of China's only experience of multiparty democracy after the Republican revolution of 1911. They also adore pointing out how elections in Western countries (which they still call "Western capitalist countries", despite being capitalist themselves in most people's judgement) are dependent on which party has the most money to campaign, with the different parties rapresenting different economic interests.

In any case, the Chinese press is currently full of reports on the decisions which are being taken in the "two meetings". The talk is all about the reform of the legal system, with 保障人权(protecting human rights) the watchword. The reform includes provisions on preventing forced confessions, notifying an arrested person's family within 24 hours, and "killing few, killing carefully" when it comes to the death penalty. I can only hope these reforms are succesful and implemented in practice, which is all to be seen.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Chinese Press

My Chinese has reached the point where I can read Chinese newspapers and understand them, albeit slowly and painfully. Before my language abilities reached this level, the only Chinese press accessible to me were the two Chinese newspapers published in English, in other words China Daily and Global Times.

So what is the press in Chinese like? The main thing I have discovered is that, just like in other countries, every newspaper is different. I have found two papers which particularly struck me, for opposite reasons. One is the 南方周末(Southern Weekly), a weekly paper published in Guangzhou. It is well known within China for being particularly serious, open and indipendent, and for publishing reports on sensitive topics, pushing the limits on free speech. It is no accident that it is published in Guangdong, traditionally the province where society is least affected by the central government.
I have found that it does indeed have a superior style to other Chinese newspapers, publishing serious reports on government corruption and discussions on social problems, with a complete lack of nationalistic rabble-rousing or towing the Party line. I also find it much harder to understand than other publications, since it tends to use more serious and literary language. I have heard from Chinese people that the owner of the newspaper has been put under great pressure by the government to moderate its publishing line. Recently, a stack of Southern Weekly newspapers was set on fire by some people in Taiyuan, who called it an instrument of US imperialism which denigrates China's government. I was also told by a Chinese friend that it contains "extreme" anti-government opinion, although by Western standards it is hardly revolutionary.

The other newspaper which has struck me is the Chinese version of the Global Times, 环球时报, which is very different from the English version. It is also well known for having a controversial approach, but for quite different reasons from the Southern Weekly. Basically, it focuses almost entirely on international affairs, taking a decidedely nationalistic and anti-Western line.
The front page headline is often something sensationalist related to world news.
For instance, today's headline is "Putin's victory makes the West unhappy", with an editorial inside the paper entitled "Break free from Western public opinion, look at Russia objectively". The articles are usually full of quotations from major Western newspapers designed to further the idea that the West is biased against the developing countries and China.

Another newspapers I sometimes read is 信报,the free paper they hand out in the subway. It is basically similar to such publications in other parts of the world, except that in the last week they have been going on about the government campaign on "the spirit of Lei Feng", in common with all other newspapers. I have never dared to buy a copy of the People's Daily, the official organ of the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party, which looks as boring as hell and probably is.

My general opinion of the Chinese press in Chinese is that it is not as censored and propagandistic as many outsiders probably imagine, with reporting on many national and international issues at the same standard as you might expect in the West. Even the Arab Spring has been reported on honestly and completely, in spite of the fact that it could be seen as a sensitive topic. Intelligent commentary on social issues can also be found.
However, it is clear that there are lines which cannot be crossed, and topics which cannot be mentioned. The famous events of '89, for instance, are completely off bounds. I have only ever seen oblique mentions of "the political disturbances of the eighties" buried in the middle of articles on China's recent history. Any reporting on the government's activities, Taiwan or separatism within China which doesn't follow the official line is also quite unthinkable, as are calls for a radical change in China's political system. Disturbances and protests (for instance illegal strikes) within China are sometimes reported on, but it is hard to know how much of it goes unreported.

I was also surprised at the way that the passing of North Korea's leader Kim Jong Il was reported on recently. There was absolutely no mention of the fact that he was seen in most of the world as the leader of a particularly brutal regime and of the most closed country on earth, or of the famine which occurred in the nineties under his rule. Even the Southern Weekly stuck to a rather pointless article on a troupe of North Korean actors touring China who suddenly had to go back home because of their leader's death.
All this even though North Korea is generally seen as a poor, backward and ridicolous anachronism even within China. I can only suppose the press had received instructions to keep their reporting completely neutral and non-critical of North Korea, so as not to affect the two countries' relations at such a delicate time.