The Season of Legislature in China

By Huiyu Yin

Every year in March, the annual meeting of the National People’s Congress (the NPC) opens in Beijing. It is the largest legislative body in the world, with about three thousand representatives from all over the country. During this meeting, the NPC passes laws, and approves the government budget and appointment of senior government officials. For the rest of the year, the NPC’s 175-member standing committee in Beijing is in charge of legislative issues.

The Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference’s (the CPPCC) annual meeting is held simultaneously. This advising body with no legislative power is composed of independent representatives and members of political parties other than the Chinese Communist Party (the CCP). Its role is somewhat analogous to a top advisory legislature.

For years, the NPC has been criticized as “a rubber stamp” because it has never voted down a single piece of legislation proposed by the Chinese government. However, it started to show some signs of growing independence in recent years. In 1999, it delayed passing a law imposing an unpopular fuel tax and has also been given greater leeway drafting laws in areas like human rights.

Last year, Financial Times China published an article revealing the problem of money buying power with the NPC and the CPPCC-- making it somewhat analogous to the American system. The statistics suggested that last year thirty-one members of the NPC had personal assets of more than $1 billion. A researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Science, a think tank for the Chinese government, said that in order to protect their wealth, businessmen either support a politician or become a government official themselves. The article casts serious doubt on the legitimacy of representation and constitution of both meetings.

On the other hand, some NPC and CPPCC members have fought successfully for transparency and other reforms of the government. For example, Southern Weekly, considered as China’s most influential liberal newspaper, reported the story of Hong Jiang. Jiang, a former representative of the People’s Congress of Shanghai City and a current member of the CPPCC, spent 10 years lobbying his proposal until the local and the central government responded and published detailed government budgets. Stories like this demonstrate how the two annul meetings function and how a single representative can fulfill his obligations for the people.

The NPC meeting is worth its own attention for some other reasons. First, the Premier of China will deliver a speech at the start of the meeting. It usually runs about two hours and the Premier presents his economic plan and political moves for the next year. This year Premier Keqiang Li announced a target of economic growth at about 7.5 percent and a few other key growh numbers. Coupled with reports released by other agencies, the speech outlines his 2015 priority that the government plans to downsize the public sector and boost the private sector. CNN and other major media publish editorials to summarize Beijing’s priorities. Second, this is the only time most senior officials of the Chinese government, i.e. the Premier, holds a conference and take questions from the press in front of a live TV audience. Even though these questions are often prescreened, this is still a unique opportunity to get an insight view of how they intend to run the country.

Article I: The Road To Making Government Budgets Public

Chinese source: 南方周末 at http://www.infzm.com/content/84697
Summarized and translated by Huiyu Yin
Posted on 2013-1-4

To make China a better place, Jiang Hong (蒋洪) discovered his own way by pushing the government to publish its specific budgets.

Jiang was a scholar focusing on fiscal policy and theory analysis. His research heavily relied on timely government budgets. However, he had usually only a few budget numbers published with serious delay.

In 1997, the 47-year-old was elected as a member of People’s Congress of Shanghai City. He thought he would have more access to these budget numbers, because one of obligations of representatives was to review and approve government budgets. To his disappointment, the report was no better than what he had seen before. So he abstained from voting, because he didn’t think he had enough information to make an educated  decision on the matter. Jiang was the only one abstaining from voting among over 800 representatives.

Since 2008, Jiang Hong has become a member of the CPPCC. The CPPCC is somewhat different from the NPC in the way that it allows representatives to speak in the meeting about their proposals. Upon the second request to speak, he was finally permitted to raise the issue in 2009. His speech appealing for transparency in fiscal policies drew wide attention at the meeting.

At the same time, his team at Shanghai University of Finance and Economics started an independent research program. In 1998, the Regulation of the People’s Republic of China on the Disclosure of Government Information (政府信息公开条例) became effective. It allows people to request disclosure of government budget information. The team designed a formula to evaluate the transparency of provincial governments, depending on what the government would disclose upon request or voluntarily. An annual list would be published, ranking provinces from the most transparent to the least transparent.

Jiang hoped that all of his efforts would change the mindset of general public. It is a demanding task. There is still long way to go, but this is a start.