By HELMUT MATT
By HELMUT MATT
THOUSANDS of tourists and residents walk through the famous Tian’anmen Square in Beijing, China’s capital, every day. Whoever sets foot in this impressive square is overwhelmed by its huge dimensions.
The eye is inevitably drawn to the Forbidden City, and the portrait of Chairman Mao Zedong above the main entrance. However, there is another building to the left that catches the eye. Flat roofed, with a cornice decorated with glazed yellow tiles above green lotus petal shaped eaves, it is an impressive construction. This striking edifice also appears on the obverse side of the current RMB 100 banknote. We are talking about the famous Great Hall of the People.
Deputies exchange notes before the NPC meeting convenes on March 16, 2016. Dong Ning
The Great Hall of the People was built in the 10 months between October 1958 and August 1959, as one of the young country’s “Ten Great Constructions” to mark the 10th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Its architectural concept impressively reflects the idea of “serving the people.” At the main entrance, at a central spot above the 12 light grey marble columns at the front of the building, hangs the resplendent national emblem of the PRC.
All in all the Great Hall covers more than 170,000 square meters, and consists of around 300 halls and offices. The style and name of each meeting hall denotes a specific regional administrative unit of China.
The Great Auditorium, the biggest hall in the entire complex, seats more than 10,000 people. It is here that the National Congresses of the Communist Party of China (CPC) take place, and also where the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC) meet once a year.
During these meetings the country’s fundamental political and social questions are discussed, and important laws and regulations decided upon.
However, only a handful of the many tourists strolling through Tian’anmen Square each day ever have the chance to enter the Great Hall of the People. I was hence truly honored at my invitation to the Great Hall of the People in the summer of 2008, shortly before the Beijing Olympics, as an award-winner of the CRI (China Radio International – China’s state-owned international radio broadcaster) Olympic Knowledge Contest.
People vote for deputies of the local people’s congress at a ballot station in Linyi City, Shandong Province on December 26, 2016.
A colorful, happy scene awaited us at the entrance to the Great Hall on the day of the award ceremony. Several groups of people dressed in gorgeous traditional costumes – clearly representatives of the country’s ethnic minorities – were gathered on the steps to the main gate.
Many people in Western Europe might not know that China is a multi-ethnic country, home to 56 different ethnicities. These peoples live peacefully together while preserving their respective languages, customs, and traditions.
It was indeed no coincidence that these groups had gathered in front of the Great Hall that morning. China’s National People’s Congress traditionally lays greatest emphasis not only on the proportional participation in China’s politics of all ethnic minorities, but also on safeguarding their equal rights.
The ceremony to award the eight international winners of the CRI Olympic Knowledge Contest took place in one of the smaller, but no less magnificent halls of the building. I had the special honor of giving a representative speech on behalf of all award-winners. We then received our prizes from Chen Zhili, deputy chairman at that time of the National People’s Congress.
The National People’s Congress and Its Political Functions
The system of people’s congresses is the organizational form of China’s state power. It is China’s fundamental political system, based on the Chinese constitution which originated in 1954. In 1982, during the course of Deng Xiao-ping’s reforms, China’s constitution was extended and amended in many aspects.
The constitution of 1982 holds that the socialist system is anchored in the country’s fundamental system which incorporates socialist modernization as a fundamental task. It was thus established to consolidate the achievements of reform and opening-up and to institute a constitutional basis for future political and economic reforms and developments, as well as to strive towards ideals. Furthermore, it states that China’s constitution serves as a constitutive standard for the actions of all the country’s ethnic groups and organizations, and that China’s legislation and constitution act as the highest legislative organs for all individuals and institutions.
Today, the National People’s Congress (NPC) is the world’s largest parliamentary body. It constitutes the highest organ of state power and, as the top legislature, the supreme authority. Deputies to the NPC are elected by people’s congresses of provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the central government. The armed forces elect their own deputies. All Chinese over the age of 18 have the right to vote and run in an election.
On taking a closer look at structure of the NPC, its deputies’ proximity to the people, who have elected them and whom they represent, is striking. These numerous deputies come from diverse circles, different regions; they are of different nationalities and from different social strata.
Whoever has witnessed, whether in person or on TV, the entry of NPC deputies into the Great Hall of the People will have seen that they include representatives of all ethnic minorities.
China attaches great importance to ensuring during the process of electing deputies to the NPC that its composition is as representative as possible. All of the nation’s social and ethnic groups and organizations have the right to send deputies to Beijing. This principle is reflected in the well-balanced ratio of men to women, workers to farmers, functionaries to officials, intellectuals to representatives of the armed forces, and, as already mentioned, a balanced representation of China’s ethnic minorities.
Naturally, several reforms to China’s electoral law have taken place over the years. Their aim has been mainly about realizing an even more just and harmonious participation of all the nation’s social groups and institutions.
According to China’s Constitution, the NPC is elected for a term of five years. However, this rule established by the constitution has been strictly adhered to only since the year 1978.
The NPC exercises the state’s legislative power and decides upon essential political questions concerning the state as a whole.
Four Main Functions and Powers of the NPC
– To amend the Constitution and oversee its enforcement.
– To enact and amend basic law governing criminal offences, civil affairs, state organs, and other matters.
– To elect and appoint members to the central state organs.
– To determine major state issues. This includes examining and approving the report on the plan for national economic and social development and on its implementation, reporting on the central budget and more.
The functions and powers of the NPC also include determining the territorial borders of China’s municipalities directly under the central government, autonomous regions, and provinces. Furthermore, the establishment of special administrative zones and special economic zones cannot take place without the consultation and approval of the NPC.
The dominant position of the NPC within China’s political system is reflected in the fact that it is the NPC that makes decisions on who leads the country and who heads the highest state bodies. These include, among others, all members of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, China’s president and his deputies, the premier and his deputies, and all other members of the State Council.
The NPC also decides on the composition of the Central Military Commission, including its president as well as the head of China’s judicial authority, and the leader of China’s public prosecutor’s office.
In all these areas, the NPC also has the right to remove leading personnel from their offices. The NPC has as well the final say on decisions concerning matters of war and peace.
As is well known, in the media of some countries, especially in the West, the notion prevails that China’s National People’s Congress is actually nothing but a toothless tiger, a parliament without important functions that merely nods through the templates of the state’s leaders.
However, if you take a closer look at the extent of constitutionally guaranteed powers as mentioned above, it becomes obvious that this common assumption has little in common with China’s present reality.
During the sessions of the National People’s Congress, all representatives have the guaranteed and unrestricted right to openly express their views in public and to submit proposals and motions to the government and to its subordinate authorities. Therefore, it is not uncommon for active and controversial debates to take place, and it is by no means guaranteed that all inputs and proposals raised at the NPC by the state leadership will pass the plenum without changes.
Another scenario for lively discussions and criticism concerning the work of the government is that of the group sessions of the 35 NPC delegations. However, even during the annual plenary sessions, where, among other matters, the annual government report and the reports of other state bodies are discussed, accepted or refused, open differences of opinion are not uncommon.
Every year the sessions attract attention from the Chinese public and abroad. Not all sessions of the NPC are held behind closed doors. On the contrary, because the NPC is committed to complete transparency, radio and TV journalists as well as representatives of the print media are invited to participate in this political event, from start to finish. All make live, open, and unbiased reports on the daily sessions at the Great Hall of the People.
China’s international TV channel China Global Television Network, as well as its international radio broadcaster CRI, also make live, daily, on-the-spot reports in various languages to a global audience about events in and around the NPC.
The special annual highlight must surely be China Central Television’s live broadcast of the colorful entrance of all NPC delegates. Journalists from international media as well as China’s native media channels CCTV and CRI take great pains to answer questions from overseas audiences, and to explain clearly these political events.
The Multi-party System and the System of Political Consultation
Another important and fundamental component of China’s political system besides the people’s congresses is the system of multi-party cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the CPC.
Many people in the Western world are not aware of the fact that, in addition to the CPC, there exist eight other political parties in China, the so-called democratic parties. The Chinese constitution guarantees their legal status and their organizational independence.
The origin of the majority of these parties dates back to the period of the Chinese People’s Liberation War and the War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression. In general, it can be said that these parties acknowledge the leading role of the CPC and firmly support the Communist Party. The basic policy and principle concerning cooperation among all Chinese political parties is: “Long term coexistence, and mutual supervision, treating each other with full sincerity, and sharing weal and woe.”
Thus, the democratic parties are an inextricable part of China’s political system, and a contributive power in governing the country. The cooperation between these different parties and groups takes place at the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
The CPPCC consists not only of representatives of the Communist Party of China and democratic parties, but also of non-party experts and representatives of ethnic minorities, the country’s mass organizations, special representatives of Hong Kong and Macao special administrative regions, and Taiwan.
The plenary assembly of the National Committee of the CPPCC takes place once a year, normally at the same time as the sessions of the National People’s Congress. The agenda includes state policies and fundamental topics that affect the lives of the people. As a state body, the National Committee performs the function of supervising the work of other state bodies and observing compliance with the constitution and China’s laws. The CPPCC thus plays a key role within China’s legal system.
Moreover, members of the CPPCC are often also invited to take part in the NPC session as non-voting delegates whenever important issues and discussion are on the agenda.
Historical Development and the Current Situation
China founded the National People’s Congress almost 63 years ago, in September 1954. However, even decades before, under the Beiyang government, which ruled the country in the years between 1912 and 1928, there had been strong efforts to implement the political principle of the separation of powers.
However, after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the new government realized that the separation of legislative, executive, and judicative powers, as practiced in most Western countries, did not work for China. Instead, the country decided to establish the system of people’s congresses.
This system has since been revised and improved several times over the years. In 2012, for instance, it was decided to determine the number of representatives from urban and rural areas in proportion to their respective populations.
Furthermore, the establishment of direct elections at the county and municipal level was accelerated. While reforms and restructurings in China’s party and state leadership took place, pilot projects were implemented for the abolishment of the system of lifetime civil servants, and the principle of rotation of civil servants in governmental or administrative bodies was established.
The structure and formation of the NPC has also experienced several reforms and improvements over the years. Their main goal was to reflect more precisely the will and demands of the Chinese people in all their diversity.
The complexity of such an undertaking is evident when bearing in mind that China is a country with a vast territory where people of many ethnicities, languages, and cultures live.
Seen from this angle, the system of people’s congresses, as well as the way deputies are elected, has been proven beyond doubt over the decades since the founding of the People’s Republic to be a perfectly democratic form of rule.
The NPC and the CPPCC supervise compliance in the country with the rule of law.
The political leadership of the CPC is unquestioned. However, NPC deputies and CPPCC members do have the right to criticize the decisions of the Party and to demand improvements should any doubts arise.
It was just recently, at the National Committee of the CPPCC New Year’s reception, that Chinese President Xi Jinping requested that the democratic institutions of the NPC and CPPCC deepen their involvement in the process of political decision-making, and that they “sincerely fulfill their functions of democratic monitoring and participation in state affairs”.
Xi cited 2017 as a crucial year when not only the 19th CPC National Congress takes place, but also when “the 13th Five-Year Plan will be further implemented and supply-side reforms deepened.”
China’s current development shows that the country chose the right path in instituting democratic representation of all Chinese people, regardless of their ethnic or cultural background. There is, though, as always, still room for improvement.
But all in all, the system of the National People’s Congress, hand-in-hand with China’s Political Consultative Conference, is eminently suitable as a system through which to represent the Chinese people, to listen to and address their wishes and ideas, and to put these into practice within the legislative framework.
Therefore, I wish all NPC deputies and CPPCC members every possible success and a positive outcome for their sessions in 2017!
HELMUT MATT is a writer and sinologist based in Germany.