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Regaining Reform Momentum: A Preview of the Upcoming NPC Session

Mar 04 , 2014

The annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC) in China is normally associated with political symbols and pro forma procedures.  In a year where leadership transition is scheduled, such as 2013, these sessions tend to attract more attention because they formally appoint senior party leaders to key administrative positions in the central government, particularly the State Council (the country’s cabinet).

Minxin Pei

However, in years where no leadership change is expected, the NPC’s annual sessions perform three functions.  One is to pass important legislations or make constitutional amendments.  Another is to reaffirm the Communist Party’s top policy priorities.  And the third one is to gauge the public mood through the discussions of the delegates.  Despite the highly choreographed nature of the proceedings, the NPC sessions sometimes feature unexpected drama and provide a revealing glimpse into the political mood of China’s elites.

As Beijing gears up for this year’s NPC annual session, most analysts are focusing on whether, in the aggregate, this gathering will inject fresh momentum into Xi Jinping’s ambitious reform agenda, which was unveiled at the third plenum of the Communist Party’s Central Committee in November last year.  In the three and half months since Xi surprised the world with his proposed reforms, only small steps have been taken to fulfill his bold vision.  For example, among the major reforms, only the relaxation of the one-child policy has been implemented.  All the other key initiatives are either being debated or translated into actual policy inside the Chinese bureaucracy.

Politically, it is critical that Xi and his colleagues take advantage of the NPC session to dispel doubts about their ability to push through the announced reforms.  Of course, given the vast scale and complexity of their reform agenda, it would be unrealistic to expect them to produce anything more than a few specific policies during this year’s NPC session.

Based on the announcement following the recent conclusion of the Central Committee’s Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reform, which was formed at the end of the third plenum and is now headed by Xi himself, it is possible to identify the key objectives Xi and his colleagues want to achieve in this year’s NPC session.

First and foremost, the Chinese leadership will seek formal legislative approval of some of the signature reform proposals announced last November.  Even though China is ruled by a one-party state and the Chinese Communist Party usually has the last word, Chinese leaders since Mao have tried very hard to follow formal legal procedures in turning their policy initiatives into law.  In this year’s case, Xi clearly needs a green light from the NPC for two of his boldest initiatives: land and legal reforms.

One may recall that the third plenum promised to grant farmers greater property rights.  At the moment, it seems that this proposal is being debated fiercely inside the Chinese bureaucracy because it is technically difficult and politically controversial.  Most local governments and bureaucracies fear that this reform would make it more difficult to requisition land or lead to effective privatization of land.  Although the debate is unlikely to end soon, whatever compromise reached inside the Chinese state must be formalized as law.  Specifically, land reform would require a constitutional amendment and significant changes in the “Land Management Law.”

To safeguard his reform, Xi also proposed legal reform that would make China’s local courts and procuratorates more independent.  While the idea behind this proposal is forward-looking, putting it into practice, again, requires legislative action.  Existing organic laws governing the courts and procuratorates must be amended.

Due to the technical complexity of changing these laws, we should not expect this year’s NPC session to pass the necessary amendments.  Instead, we might see initial moves that will start the process.  For observers, it is worth parsing the language of proposed changes and the initial reaction to such changes at the annual NPC session.

The second specific goal of Chinese leaders is to reassure the public that they are up to the task of addressing China’s unfolding environmental disaster.  Even though environmental protection was not given sufficient salience in the party’s third plenum, the crisis of air pollution since then has elevated the issue to the top of the policy agenda.  That is why the Central Leading Group on Comprehensively Deepening Reform referred to a report on major reforms in economic system and “ecological civilization.”  The substance of this report is expected to be unveiled, or at least discussed, during the annual NPC session.  To be sure, Xi and his colleagues face a high hurdle on this issue.  Regaining public confidence requires not just more investments in environmental protection, but systematic changes in economic management and local governance.  A credible strategy for responding to China’s environmental degradation will need to include strong enforcement mechanisms, strict accountability, and a vigorous role for the Chinese media and civil society.

Last but not the least, Chinese leaders would like to reinvigorate the impression that the reform package of the third plenum is on track. While the language of the various policy proposals presented or discussed during the session will attract much attention, the most important political accomplishment of the NPC annual session will be in the realm of public perceptions.  Observers will judge the outcome of this session in its totality, not just individual or specific results.   That is why the demeanor, tone, and body language of top Chinese leaders might be more revealing than the official communique that announces the successful conclusion of the 10-day conclave.

Minxin Pei is the Tom and Margot Pritzker ’72 Professor of Government at Claremont McKenna College   

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