A RESPLENDENT ETHNICITY: Li Youmei, an NPC deputy of the Miao ethnic group, speaks to a journalist on the sidelines of the Third Session of the 11th NPC in Beijing on March 5 (JIANG XIAOYING)
Western commentators on China's National People's Congress (NPC) and Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) are not always kind. Disparaging remarks about "rubber stamp organizations," "talking shops" and "showcases for photographs of ethnic minority costumes" tend to be the order of the day.
My first reaction when I come up against an assumption or a prejudice is to challenge it. So when I was offered the opportunity to comment on this year's lianghui, or two conferences, i.e. the yearly sessions of the NPC and the CPPCC National Committee, I accepted gratefully. Armed with the determination to "seek truth from fact" I began my research by looking at the question of social development.
The first thing that struck me in the days before the lianghui opened was the degree of unanimity on the issues, which need addressing. Fairer income distribution and unaffordable housing were at the top of everyone's agenda, from netizens participating in online polls, to CPPCC delegates, and to Premier Wen Jiabao in his webcast. Reform of China's hukou, or household registration, system was another hot topic, with Chinese leader Zhou Yongkang writing about the need for reform in Qiushi magazine at almost the same time as 13 Chinese newspapers printed the same editorial advocating it. Media comment on all these topics continued during the meetings.
I will admit straight off that comments in the West about the portrayal of picturesque ethnic minority costumes were not misplaced. A splendid assortment of ladies in ethnic dress featured on the front pages of China's press, though their male counterparts for the most part seemed to stick to less photogenic grey suits. And the diversity of Chinese life was also represented by a diversity of attitudes among delegates. Hu Xiaoyan, an NPC deputy representing some of China's 300 million migrant workers, spoke to the media about her feelings of inadequacy when confronted with the petitions and problems of the people she represents. She was reassured that she was not personally responsible for finding solutions for all of them. On the other hand, one senior official snatched a reporter's tape recorder and threatened to report her to her leaders when she tried to ask him to comment on a well-reported law case in the public domain.
Nor was the CPPCC short of eccentric proposals—one caused an Internet storm by suggesting all Internet cafes should be government run, another drew some hilarity by suggesting husbands should pay their wives a salary—as well as more mainstream proposals, for example to amend the personal income tax system, improve the health and fitness of China's young people, address climate change etc. Media reports suggest that some of these suggestions are under active consideration by the relevant ministries.
So, after all the talking, what has actually been done to address the problems everyone recognizes? And how many of the suggestions thrown up by CPPCC members actually result in some action? I was curious to find any statistics.
On the first point, rural dwellers can take some comfort from the fact that they may no longer be disadvantaged in terms of political representation. Draft regulations are under discussion to ensure that each NPC delegate represents the same number of people regardless of whether they live in the countryside or in the city: one major inequality tackled, and one which the government rightly feels will increase the dignity of all Chinese citizens.
And the NPC seems to be taking its responsibility to oversee the work of the State Council seriously. For the first time the annual work report of the NPC Standing Committee mentioned the right of legislators to hold inquiries and interrogate State Council officials. This power is granted by the Deputies' Law, however, as far as one NPC deputy could remember, though inquiries have been common, there has been no interrogation of a State Council official in the past 30 years. This looks set to change.
And there is a promise to discuss other social issues at more length during this year.
Important and necessary changes. Discussion is good. But somehow I doubt this is an ideal outcome for many people. No one underestimates the difficulty of changing China's social system to reflect modern realities, and no one sensible thinks it could or indeed should happen overnight. Change needs to be well thought through and incremental: Precipitate moves are rarely successful. And perhaps the NPC feels more at ease tackling issues of representation and its responsibilities. But faced with unaffordable housing in cities, and unequal treatment in employment and social services in the countryside, your average Zhou might be forgiven for wondering how much in touch with his reality NPC delegates really are, and how much longer he has to be patient.
And those statistics. One CPPCC member underlined the importance of China producing accurate statistics, pointing out that regional statistics were sometimes used very selectively, or, even worse, faked. Public credibility, he felt, was at stake. One way, of course, of proving to the West that the CPPCC is more than a talking shop would be to produce the numbers of good suggestions that have actually resulted in action being taken by ministries or other government bodies. But despite the plethora of available statistics about the CPPCC that figure seems elusive. Perhaps an idea for next year's press center?
The author is a British researcher in Beijing
(Viewpoints in this article do not necessarily represent those of Beijing Review)