Tea Leaf Nation
How to Fix China’s Crooked Congress
The National People's Congress doesn't belong to the people. Scandals will continue to emerge until it does.
Nearly four years into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, Chinese citizens could be forgiven if their eyes glaze over at the news of yet another high official’s fall from grace. But even the most jaded likely could not ignore the revelations disclosed on September 13: meeting in an extremely rare special session, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress dismissed 45 of the 2,987 members of the full National People’s Congress (NPC). The 45 delegates, all of whom hailed from China’s northeastern Liaoning province, had bought their way onto the national legislature, paying at least 452 members of the 618-member provincial legislature the equivalent of untold millions of dollars for the privilege of calling themselves People’s Representatives. (NPC delegates are not directly elected, but are rather chosen by the People’s Congress at the level below. Only at the lowest level are People’s Congress members directly elected, although even those local elections are often manipulated by local officials.) It’s big news, but unlikely to change the NPC’s status as a rubber stamp better known for advancing the careers of its members than serving the Chinese public.
As of this writing, more than ten senior provincial-level officials have been implicated. Those named in the scandal thus far include a vice-governor of Liaoning, the Party Secretary for Fudan University in Shanghai, and a vice-chair of the Liaoning People’s Congress. According to the Singapore-based United Morning News, Liaoning now has the largest number of provincial-level officials brought down for corruption since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft shake-up began back in 2012.
State-run media outlets have called the mass ejection “historically unprecedented.” NPC Chairman Zhang Dejiang called the scandal a “serious violation of Party discipline and national law,” and vowed to show disgraced lawmakers the full measure of Chinese justice. An unnamed official told a reporter from independent newsmagazine Caixin that Beijing had finished its investigation into the case over the summer, and that those who had violated the law would soon find themselves facing either criminal charges or – much worse – the ruling Communist Party’s own often iron-fisted internal disciplinary system.
At first glance, one might think that the purging of 45 corrupt officials could change the way that the NPC does business. Yet the corruption scandal only highlights the NPC’s political irrelevance, despite its constitutional position as the highest organ of state power. True reform would move beyond punishing corrupt office-holders, and would instead focus on a wide-ranging package of structural reforms that would strengthen the NPC’s capacity, its institutional autonomy, and its ability to truly represent the Chinese people. Alas, that is unlikely.
The most important reform Beijing could undertake would involve changing the selection process for Chinese legislators. As the Liaoning scandal showed, both the NPC and provincial-level legislatures are overstocked with officials who also hold other posts, as well as businessmen – and they are overwhelmingly men – looking to parlay their proximity to power into business opportunities. It is no coincidence that the fallen NPC members represent one of the richest legislative bodies in the world, according to a 2015 study by the Shanghai-based Hurun Report. Just over 100 NPC delegates were on Hurun’s list of the richest people in China, which means that billionaires are better represented in China’s Congress than many ethnic minority groups and key professions. This is why people join the NPC: they want to benefit from the official access the NPC provides, and at the same time, NPC membership sends a signal to would-be rivals, warning potential challengers to proceed with caution.
Real reform would also address the institutional autonomy of the NPC. The Party still exercises complete control over the NPC, as it does all state organs. NPC chair Zhang, for example, was selected for his post by Party leadership; that selection was then ratified by the NPC Standing Committee. In other words, Zhang’s true power derives from his senior position in the Party hierarchy, and not from his nominally high perch in the state structure. A smaller, more professionalized NPC would be a significant improvement on the current version. But the NPC will remain institutionally weak unless it is released from the tight grasp of Party oversight.
Reforms to improve the NPC’s functionality may be the simplest element of an NPC reform package. No legislative body that only meets for only two weeks per year can be effective. Yet despite its light workload and generally passive approach to legislation, the NPC, with close to 3,000 delegates, is simply too unwieldy to engage in meaningful legislative work. (By contrast, India’s bicameral legislature, which represents a country almost as populous as China, has a total of 785 members.) A first step in institutional reform could be to significantly reduce the total number of delegates, and to make the body a truly full-time institution. Some scholars have also suggested that the NPC could adopt a true bicameral structure, and divide its theoretically vast powers between the two bodies, rather than, as now, leaving almost all of its work to the Standing Committee. Once those reforms were in place, the NPC could turn to bolstering its bureaucratic staffing to give legislators the support they need.
Unfortunately, it seems more likely that this scandal will come and go, and the NPC will remain what it is today: a weak and ineffectual body largely populated by those serving their own ends, one that exercises few of the powers assigned to it under China’s constitution. In the absence of significant and wide-ranging institutional reforms designed to sharpen the NPC’s capacity, the body’s autonomy, and perhaps most importantly, its representativeness, the NPC will remain a rubber stamp, blithely signing off on decisions made elsewhere by other, more powerful actors.
To be sure, the National People’s Congress is in better shape than it was when the reform era began in the late 1970s. Though calls to shrink the nearly 3,000-member body down to a more workable size have been largely ignored, its roughly 160-member Standing Committee does meet bimonthly. Unlike the NPC as a whole, whose role remains largely ceremonial, the NPC Standing Committee exercises real influence over the legislative process, even though most laws are initially drafted by executive agencies or other government bodies. (According to one recent study, roughly 75 to 85 percent of laws passed by the NPC over the past 20 years were drafted that way.) And the NPC Standing Committee institutional infrastructure is much stronger than it was at the outset of the reform era, with a much larger staff to manage the committee’s day-to-day work.
Overall, however, the NPC and its Standing Committee remain largely powerless. Both bodies are controlled by the Party, which sets the legislature’s agenda. The Party, not the NPC, plays the leading role in brokering any disagreements over key provisions in important new laws. For decades, Chinese scholars have pushed for far-reaching structural reforms that would turn the NPC into a genuinely effective legislative body. Unsurprisingly, the Liaoning vote-buying scandal has led one or two brave voices to repeat the call for such reforms. Some have even argued for truly democratic reforms that would allow the Chinese public to pick their own legislative representatives, risking the wrath of Chinese censors who don’t hesitate to slap down those who push the public debate too far.
It would be smart for Beijing to listen. As with other provinces, the business and political elites in Liaoning purporting to represent the people don’t do so, in any meaningful sense: they represent their own corporate interests, as well as their personal bottom lines. It is hard to imagine how the NPC’s responsiveness to the needs of the public could be improved without some sort of democratic reform that would allow Chinese citizens to choose their own representatives. This remains a red line for the CCP. Yet scandals like the Liaoning fiasco raise the question of whether the costs of continuing to postpone political reform are starting to outweigh the benefits.
It’s hard not to cheer when corrupt officials are brought low. But in the grand scheme of things, the looming prosecution of dozens or even hundreds of Liaoning national and provincial-level legislators and officials is of little consequence. No doubt the 45 new NPC delegates will be less corrupt than their predecessors. But they will be equally ineffectual. And they too will lack any institutional tie to the people of Liaoning. Sadly, in the absence of any far-reaching structural reforms, China’s legislature will remain what it is today: little more than a rubber stamp.
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