National People’s Congress starts in constrained political atmosphere


The annual session of China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress, begins on 5 March in Beijing. Draconian legal initiatives and stricter media controls imply that the Chinese leadership wants to continue its course of narrowing the space for political expression. Foreign actors within China will also have to expect limitations to their activities.

We spoke to Matthias Stepan, Head of Programme Domestic Politics at the Mercator Institute for China Studies (MERICS).

According to media reports this week, the United States, Germany, Canada, Japan and the EU have expressed their written concerns over China’s new anti-terrorism law as well as two other planned security laws in two letters to the Chinese government. Do you expect a reaction from Beijing?

The concerns are over proposed legislation on cyber security as well as on regulating foreign NGOs. I do not expect an official response from China to these letters, which were addressed to the Minister of Public Security. I also view it as highly unlikely that the Chinese government will change its mind.

The joint protest of four influential countries and the EU as well as the fact that it was leaked to the media shows two things very clearly: 1. There is growing concern over China’s domestic legislation among foreign governments. 2. Previously existing back channels to influence important legislative decisions in China seem to have been closed.

How likely is the adoption of the law on foreign NGOs, which has caused controversy in China and abroad?

After the publication of the law’s second draft in May 2015, there has been no official reporting. At this point, it looks unlikely that the law will be passed in March. If this should happen against current expectations, it would be a clear signal from the Chinese leadership that it will not change course in the face of foreign criticism and that it prepared to systematically rid itself of foreign influences which it deems politically threatening or no longer economically necessary.

In the case that the limitations for foreign NGOs in China become law, the party and state leadership has already worked out a solution to compensate for the potential gap left by foreign donors. Since October 2015, the Chinese government and the NPC’s Standing Committee have been working on a draft for a Charity Law, which is meant to encourage rich Chinese to donate money. The law would make it easier to set up and run charitable organisations. Clear guidelines on the tax deductibility of donations are supposed to strengthen the financial basis of these organisations. The adoption of this law at this year’s NPC seems highly likely – especially as it could signal a progressive policy approach aimed at strengthening social justice.

Which topics will dominate this year’s sessions of the NPC?

The main topic this year is the adoption of China’s 13th five-year plan. Its main themes will be the structural change in China’s economy, environmental protection and sustainability, social justice as well as the reforms of the military and the judicial system.

An issue of concern for foreign observers and China’s regional neighbours will be the military budget for 2016. Experts expect an increase of over 10 percent in spite of China’s slower rate of economic growth. But even more important than this number will be the complete restructuring of the People’s Liberation Army ordered by President Xi Jinping.

The party leadership promotes a rule-based administration, transparency and stricter government supervision. Will these changes have any impact on the political weight and influence of the NPC?

Up until now, the act of legislation was usually at the end of a years-long process of political experimenting, and the NPC entered at a very late point in the debate. According to Party leader and President Xi Jinping the legislation should be the first step, which would create legal clarity for all involved. This would mean an upgrade of the NPC’s status, especially since debates would be more focused on legal aspects than on experiences from the regions. Even today, the actual legislative work happens in a core parliament of about 170 full-time delegates and not among the almost 3,000 participants in the plenary session.

Such changes in the political process would also enable an increase in efficiency: One example is the quick adoption of China’s first law against domestic violence, which the NPC’s Standing Committee passed after only two readings this past December – by the way, this was after the topic had been in the focus of the German-Chinese Rule of Law Dialogue.

How transparent is the NPC?

When it comes to transparency, the processes in the NPC give a mixed picture. While the results of votes in the plenum are published, the voting process in the Standing Committee remains secret. For example, there is no public information about possible controversies about the anti-terrorism law, which was passed in December 2015 – even though the way in which this law expanded the influence and discretion of the security apparatus met a lot of criticism even within China.

What role do private entrepreneurs play in the NPC?

The total number of private entrepreneurs represented in the NPC is not publicly known. But it is an interesting fact that 114 of China’s richest entrepreneurs have a seat in the legislative body, among them Pony Ma, the founder of the IT company Tencent, and the multi-billionaire Robin Li, chairman and CEO of online search engine Baidu. They use the NPC to introduce their own initiatives.

Outside the annual legislative session, private entrepreneurs advise the government on issues ranging from innovation to structural change in the economy. Companies like Alibaba and Tencent even set up their own think tanks to draft policy recommendations. Both of these institutions mostly work on draft legislation relating to the Internet as well as to economic and industrial policy.

Private entrepreneurs were more involved than ever before in the drafting of China’s 13th five-year-plan. And when China’s parliament passes the document in the coming days, it is likely to contain their recommendations.

What is new at this year’s NPC?

The pledge of allegiance to the Chinese constitution: For the first time this year, newly elected committee members had to take this oath on 26 February. This symbolic act is meant to show that delegates as well as staff members of the NPC must respect and safeguard the constitution. In theory this means that delegates could oppose legislative drafts that violate the constitution. But in practice this would not be in the interest of the CPC, which has already approved most of these initiatives before the NPC votes on them.


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