Legal moves cast doubt on political reform plan
While the Communist Party has made it clear that Chinese political reform will take place only in its own way and at its own pace, two recent legislative amendments have raised questions about whether this homespun style of political change is leading anywhere.
Last week the National People's Congress' Standing Committee passed amendments to the Village Committee Organisation Law and the People's Deputies Law, which govern the fundamental political participation of a Chinese citizen: the election and mandate of village committees and the rights and duties of people's deputies.
However, analysts said the amendments not only failed to close some obvious loopholes, but also shrank citizens' political rights and made it harder for them to monitor the government.
The most controversial is an amendment to the Law on Deputies to the National People's Congress and People's Congresses at Local Levels ('the People's Deputies Law'), which stipulates that these deputies can no longer act on their own.
This means they cannot set up their own representative offices or carry out investigations on their own. Instead, they can only take part in group activities organised by people's congress standing committee offices outside legislative sessions.
Professor Zhang Qianfan of Peking University said people's deputies are already largely considered to be political rubber stamps, and this amendment makes it even harder for the few who try to convey the opinions of people to the top.
Analysts also questioned why the amendments were made when there was no pressing need.
Hu Xingdou, of Beijing University of Technology said: 'Without the right to investigate independently or even to go professional, how could they properly carry out these duties as set down in our constitution?'
'How many organised activities could you organise per month, with the busy schedules of all these deputies? One?' Hu asked.
A string of articles published by the People's Daily recently rejected calls for Western-style democratic reforms. The people's congress system has long been hailed as the cornerstone of Chinese-style democracy.
The amendments also stipulated that people must not quit their jobs to become full-time deputies. A deputy also cannot blur the line between their occupation and their role as a deputy. For example, a deputy who is a lawyer by profession could not make judicial inquiries on behalf of a petitioner.
'These amendments will have a symbolic effect,' Zhang said. 'We don't know what will happen next.'
The first amendments on the Village Committee Organisation Law since 1998 were also disappointing, analysts said.
Elections of village committees are the closest thing the mainland has today to direct elections, and they have been hailed by the nation's leaders as a showcase of Chinese-style democratic reform.
However, two decades after they were introduced, they have been marred by problems ranging from manipulation of the voting and vote-counting procedures to general abuse of power by village committees. These problems have sometimes led to physical clashes.
Six academics even issued an open letter to Premier Wen Jiabao urging the government to use this amendment as an opportunity to push forward political reform.
'Many provisions which should have been amended have not been amended.
'Others that should not have been amended were amended,' said Xiong Wei , a former journalist and one of the six academics.
'The amendments resulted in a regression in the self-governance of villagers,' he added.
One biggest criticism is a new requirement for villagers to register before they can vote, rather than already being automatically registered. This is a disincentive for those working away from home who must now return to register and to vote.
Analysts were also disappointed that the amendments have failed to clarify whether village representatives should be 'elected' or 'nominated'. Previous laws never specify how the powerful village representatives were appointed, even though they are given the mandate to supervise the work and the election process of village committees.
'The village committees are currently vulnerable enough to be influenced by the village [Communist] Party committee and other government cadres,' Hu - also one of the six academics - said.
'But these amendments make supervision by the villagers even harder.'
Perhaps the only blessing is that the amendments did not incorporate a proposal to extend the term of office for village committee officers from three to five years.
Had this happened, it would have coincided with the five-year cycle of government officials and made deputies even more susceptible to intervention from officials.