Chinese parliamentary sessions 2014
The annual Chinese "lianghui" of 2014, or plenary meetings of China's top legislative and consultative bodies, the National People's Congress and the National People's Consultative Conference, will take place in Beijing in early to mid-March. The NPC sessions are scheduled to begin on March 5, and the CPPCC meetings to commence on March 3.
China's NPC meeting of little or no consequence
Chang Ping says when the party holds all the policymaking power, the NPC is but a poor joke
The annual sessions of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference are taking place this week. Chinese internet users wryly noted that many of the delegates attending had rushed back to Beijing from different parts of the world in order to take part. Some Chinese even took to the streets to protest against the interference of these "foreign forces" in local politics.
The detractors were, of course, pointing out the irony that many members of the privileged classes live abroad, some with their entire family.
From this perspective, the nation's top legislative meetings are truly a "world-class" affair.
Accordingly, China's media companies have mobilised for action. Their ace reporters, duly dispatched to cover the event, wait alongside members of the foreign media, all hyped up and ready to pounce, as if major news is about to break.
Not everyone is allowed in, of course. For local media, getting accreditation to cover the meetings is already an achievement. So they think hard about what to report. In the end, they do as successive journalists have done: they talk about the glamour of the celebrity delegates, the colourful costumes of ethnic minority deputies, the elegance of the women delegates and modesty of the women service staff, and, last but not least, the "beautiful scenery" provided by the fairer sex among their own ranks.
Of course, they also report on the ideas raised and legislative proposals tabled. China's legislative meetings may be the most voluble of such meetings anywhere, covering all kinds of topics from livelihood issues to space exploration, from traditional culture to future development, from early childhood education to retirement plans. In short, everything under the sun - except the one issue that really counts, policy and politics.
In the newspapers, readers get page after page of fluff, and comments that are downright daft. Take those by Guangdong CPPCC delegate and economics professor Luo Biliang, who at the recent provincial meeting likened "girls" to a "product". There are "girls who fail to sell themselves after more than 20 years on the shelf... [this shows that] getting a doctorate degree, far from adding value to their worth, devalues them".
Naturally, many women academics were outraged. One fellow delegate sought to defend Luo, saying the professor was merely engaging in idle chat, as people do during these meetings, and did not expect his words to be reported. He spoke the sad truth.
Delegates come a long way from all corners of the world to sit in the great hall, looking all serious but discussing nothing serious. All they need to do is to stay awake and clap enthusiastically when cued. If they have to say something, or if they wish for a turn in the limelight, they must be careful not to touch on real problems. So they reach for the frivolous. This accounts for the many ridiculous ideas we've heard over the years.
I was in Japan for a meeting a few years ago when the Japanese parliament was debating its education budget. While chatting to us, the guide who received us at the airport gave us a good summary of the main points of contention, the sums at stake, and the positions of the different parties.
At the time, a fellow visitor lamented the political apathy of the Chinese people, so unlike the civic-minded Japanese. I think this misses the point. The Japanese could engage in public debate because their legislative meetings discuss real issues and real problems, whereas our national congresses talk about nothing. No speaker takes what he says seriously, so no one bothers to remember what was said.
This is not because China has no major issues worth discussing, of course, only that no major issue may be voiced.
By law, the NPC is the country's most powerful political organisation, and the CPPCC is the major advisory body representing the spectrum of Chinese society. The meetings, held at huge expense, should be the venue for matters of national importance. Yet all major decisions in politics, economy, the law and society have already been made at the Communist Party's third plenum last November. This includes the convening of the leading group for overall reform and the leading group on security matters, as well as the abolishment of the labour camp system.
The party's resolution issued at the time - the "Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reforms" - already gave the final word. It's all done and dusted; all that is left for legislature to do is applaud the "decision". Policymaking in China is done behind the scenes.
North Korea is one other country that conducts its political affairs this way. But, in terms of the number of delegates, the scale of the meetings and the extensiveness of media coverage, China wins hands down for hosting the world's most absurd legislative meeting.
Chang Ping is a current affairs commentator writing on politics, society and culture. This commentary is translated from Chinese