Frozen in time
A time traveller who left Beijing three decades ago and returned today would find the Chinese capital unrecognisable. But there is one place he should have no trouble identifying: the annual session of the National People's Congress. The imposing Great Hall of the People, the seat of China's national parliament, has retained all its Soviet architectural features and should help our time traveller get physically oriented. The scene of nearly 3,000 appointed delegates duly rubber-stamping legislation drafted by the ruling Chinese Communist Party is the one that our time traveller would find most familiar.
Such a contrast between two Chinas - one totally transformed by three decades of socio-economic modernisation and one frozen in political time - encapsulates the contradictions embedded in the neo-authoritarian regime, which embraces (raw) capitalism but rejects liberal democracy.
Whether neo-authoritarianism is responsible for producing China's rapid economic transformation over the past three decades (particularly since 1992) remains a matter of debate. Obviously, the Communist Party would like to think so. But a persuasive case can be made that other factors, such as high savings, the demographic dividend, and globalisation, may have played a far more important role in economic development than one-party rule.
One undeniable consequence of China's neo-authoritarian model is the stunted development of channels through which the people can participate in politics and in the making of policies that affect their lives. Nowhere is the gulf between a diverse, complex and vibrant Chinese society and a closed and stagnant political system more visible than the annual session of the NPC.
For one thing, despite its title and nominal constitutional status as the body of supreme authority, the NPC hardly reflects China's popular will. None of its members is popularly elected. The make-up of the delegates, all selected by the party, is an accurate reflection of the ruling party, but not of Chinese society. For example, of the current group of delegates, picked in 2008, 143 are workers in state-owned enterprises, 16 are workers in private firms, and 13 are farmers. In addition, there are 235 private businessmen. The overwhelming majority of the delegates, about 85per cent, are officials and civil servants.
One indicator of the elitist nature of the NPC membership is that 92per cent of them have a college-equivalent degree (compared with fewer than 10per cent for the general population) and roughly 70per cent are members of the Communist Party.
As a glorified appendage of the ruling party, the NPC is inherently incapable of performing its vital constitutional responsibility: to articulate the voice of the people and translate it into national policy. The emasculation of legitimate channels of political participation has produced predictable consequences. Ordinary people feel disenfranchised, alienated and cynical.
Had the party continued some of its tentative reforms in the mid-1980s to make the NPC more autonomous, things could have been quite different. Before the Tiananmen crackdown in 1989, the NPC was a far more lively institution. Its delegates, more representative of Chinese society than today, were more outspoken and willing to challenge the government. Unfortunately, even such modest progress in strengthening the NPC has been reversed in the past two decades. The result is that the gulf between the ruling elites and the people has grown much wider.
The political risks entailed by this growing gulf are self-evident. Social frustrations will find an outlet in anti-system protests and riots, not in peaceful ways and through participatory institutions. An ever-growing proportion of the population, now better educated and more politically aware, will increasingly see their rulers as illegitimate. Political radicalism, eradicated through repression and growth since Tiananmen, could gain support among those who have come to realise that the current system is beyond salvage because its ruling elites reject incremental reform.
For all the media limelight thrown on its proceedings, this year's NPC annual session is really only a political sideshow. Everybody knows that the most consequential political event for China in 2012 is the 18th party congress in the autumn. The agenda will undoubtedly be dominated by the intra-elite bargaining over personnel appointment. However, it seems that the party's new top leadership should also start thinking about the dangerous political gulf separating the party from the people, and do something about it.
A very good place to start would be the NPC. Making the election of a quarter of its delegates free and competitive would help reshape the make-up of the institution and change its political dynamics significantly.
Another more substantive reform - expanding the size of the NPC Standing Committee (which actually wields far more power than the annual session) and making at least 20per cent of its members competitively elected by the NPC delegates, rather than appointed by the party - could go a long way towards strengthening the NPC's autonomy and legitimacy.
This modest proposal is not going to make China democratic, but should be enough to convince our time traveller, if he returns in another decade, that China will not remain frozen in political time.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College