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.

1 comment:

Tang Xiaoyan said...

i cannot finish reading this blog. i am reaaaaally not interested in the stupid 两会。Please forget the report of main media report, you will find some negative opinions on this public polictic Show.


the fist paragraph of this blog prove that you know the really chinese culture now. I mean when i was a primary students, in the beginning of the article, we must describe the good climate or weather, which is the sign of good things coming.