Say the word “Congress” to almost any sentient American these days, and prepare for a response combining harshly negative evaluation and abysmally low expectations.
Say “National People’s Congress” (NPC) and prepare for incomprehension.
Say “Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference” (CPPCC) – no, don’t bother.
But even among American observers who do follow the famous “Two Meetings” (Lianghui) of the NPC and CPPCC in Beijing each March, expectations are usually muted.
Constitutionally, the NPC is the highest organ of power in the Chinese government. The CPPCC, for its part, is inevitably referred to as the “top advisory body.” Their annual gatherings are the subject of heavy coverage in Chinese media, and they serve as an essential means of communicating messages from the top to the bottom of China’s political structure.
To foreign observers looking for nuggets of idiosyncrasy amid the cascading streams of familiar rhetoric and billows of accompanying statistics at the “Two Meetings,” it is actually the CPPCC, in spite of its statutory powerlessness, that offers greater ground for hope.
Descended from a National Political Consultative Conference (Guomincanzhenghui) established in 1938 shortly after Japan’s invasion of China as a device for knitting together China’s then disparate political parties and building national consensus under conditions of the most extreme emergency, the CPPCC under the People’s Republic theoretically provides a platform on which China’s several “Democratic Parties” and other constituencies within China’s huge and complex society can offer views on current problems, raise issues that the government needs to deal with, and even offer critical comments within political limits. Those who attend the CPPCC are a modestly varied lot, suggesting the enormous diversity of custom, geography, culture, and interests that characterize the Chinese populace. A close reading of reports on the CPPCC’s deliberations can occasionally offer hints of a more varied social and intellectual tapestry than the ponderous pronouncements of the CCPCC’s leadership.
In the end, however, the CCPCC has no law-making power.
The NPC is the more commanding of the two Meetings. The NPC legislates. While the annual plenary convocation lasts only for a couple of weeks, the NPC’s Standing Committee operates throughout the year, and comes up with a continual flow of laws and legally-binding measures.
The big Beijing meeting in March serves a couple of purposes. One is schmoozing: the NPC is like a giant convention of a big trade association, a time when Deputies from all the provinces and Autonomous Regions, with their staffs and hangers-on, come together in the capital. In a political system characterized by complex networks of interests, favors and obligations, this matters.
The other key function of the annual NPC March meeting is to receive, review and ratify what the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presents to it. This happens when the Premier, the Finance Minister, and the Chairman of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) deliver – in lengthy, sometimes brain-numbing speeches to the vast NPC audience — the annual Work Report of the government, the annual Budget Report, and the annual report on China’s implementation of the nation’s current Five Year Plan.
These three Reports, by which the leaders of the government fulfill their responsibilities to the Congress that formally places them in their offices, will provide fodder for domestic and international analysts in the days immediately following their presentation. The NPC will discuss the three documents, mostly behind closed doors, before finally adopting the three Reports (with minimal amendments, if any) at the close of its annual meeting.
The PRC has, since the end of the political tumult of the 1970s, labored with considerable success to establish regularity, stability, and predictability in national-level political processes. Term limits, retirement age requirements, calendrical certainty now prevail. Routinization, to the public eye at least, is the dominant characteristic. The system is biased against surprises, unplanned distractions, or any signs of uncertainty or disarray. It is perhaps dull, but that dullness carries, for some, its own reassuring message. Americans who might find all this exasperating may tend, of late, to keep their opinions to themselves, given what they experience closer to home.
And yet, given the assiduousness with which the Party and government leadership attends to the management of public image and message, both to the nation and to the world, much of seminal importance tends not to be visible in the scripted documents emanating from the “Two Meetings.” The NPC in particular ratifies the “line,” the national priorities, and the targets laid down by the leadership; it does not, at least in public view, take up divergent alternatives or bottom-up approaches to some of China’s real challenges.
The biggest of those challenges can be summed up as the future of Reform.
There appears now in China to be a widespread perception that the tides of economic and social change which swept over the country in the 1980s and 1990s receded in the past eight to ten years, and that the very changes in the fabric of China’s national life wrought by the reforms of earlier years have now brought China face to face with new and pressing choices.
Most of the essential features of the current dilemma are not new: widening inequalities of income and wealth, rampant official corruption, epidemic seizures of farmers’ lands by profiteering developers in collusion with local officials; excessive indebtedness of local governments; massive wastes of resources; crises of public safety, whether in food or in transportation; environmental degradation on an almost unimaginable scale. These and other problems have been recognized repeatedly by Party and government leaders throughout the ten-year incumbency of those leaders whose terms will conclude this year and next.
What has not been publicly acknowledged by China’s political leadership, but has been discussed with increasing frequency among a diversifying community of political opinion in China, is the deeper problem of the structure and distribution of power throughout Chinese society. In a word, reformers (and foreign analysts) perceive the emergence of a self-perpetuating array of “interest groups” – interwoven networks of those in high political position and those in command of giant state-owned business conglomerates, sometimes allegedly rooted in direct familial relationships – to impregnable positions throughout Chinese politics and the Chinese economy.
The “Two Meetings” opening this week in Beijing will provide important glimpses of where China has been over the past year and where it is going in the year to come. Occasionally, a vivid comment about a real-life situation may emerge from the general rumble in the media. The nation – and the world – will hear the Line, and the following weeks and months will see provinces, cities, counties and towns working to synchronize their actions with what Beijing ordains. The distillations of essential content by diligent journalists and scholars will provide value to all who seek to remain abreast of the ever-changing Chinese social and economic picture.
But, if past be prologue, the implicit emphasis at the “Two Meetings” will be on continuity, not new departures; on regularity, not color; and on ritual, not reinvention. With far-reaching personnel changes at the apex of the Chinese political pyramid expected to take place on schedule this fall (in the case of the Chinese Communist Party) and next spring (in the case of the government hierarchy), the serious ongoing discussions of the choices that China must make at each fork in the road to wealth and power are likely to be found elsewhere.
Robert Kapp is a veteran of more than three decades in the US-China relations field, and served as president of a leading Washington, D.C.-based China-focused business organization from 1994 through 2004. He currently manages a China consultancy based in Washington State, USA.