More power to the people's congresses

Hu Shuli says strengthening the role of the people's congresses at all levels of decision-making should be top priority for political reform

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 05 March, 2014, 11:09am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 March, 2014, 1:59am

This year's meetings of the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference are the first to be held after the publication of the party's landmark blueprint for reform. Chapter eight of the "Decision on Major Issues Concerning Comprehensively Deepening Reform" deals with political reform. We hope to see signs of change at this week's meetings.

Article 27 of the resolution pledges to improve the legislative system to "keep up with the times". It upholds the people's congresses as the foundation of China's political system and sets out eight targets for change:

  • Perfect the rule of law by improving the quality of the legislation and deterring protectionist behaviour by local interests.
  • Improve government by the people, by enabling the legislature to set laws and supervise official conduct.
  • Ensure official decision-making is properly debated and scrutinised.
  • Enhance the legislature's ability to scrutinise fiscal budgets and national assets.
  • Implement sound tax laws.
  • Improve the communication between the NPC Standing Committee and NPC delegates.
  • Do more to reach out to people through better networking agencies, the internet and other means.
  • Improve operations so that more people can take part in the process of lawmaking.

Undeniably, China's people's congresses have made some strides. They have enacted a body of laws that now form the basis of our legal system, while the formation of various committees have strengthened the legislature's function. Even the recent vote-buying scandals point to the legislature's growth in stature: there's now a buoyant trade of these coveted seats on the black market.

Despite these improvements, the legislature falls far short of the goals set out in the blueprint. For example, it remains a much-mocked rubber stamp. Any reform won't come easily.

Yet it must change. The blueprint calls for more rigorous scrutiny of government budgets and state assets. Given the overhaul of the tax system, we expect to hear about moves to consolidate the fiscal budget this week, as well as new steps to enhance scrutiny of state-owned enterprises.

According to leaked news about the agenda, delegates are unlikely to touch on amendments to the Budget Law. Opinions about how to proceed are clearly divided. However, we hope the people's representatives in Beijing will set some dates to speed up the process, as the draft amendments must be discussed by June this year before they lapse.

With so much to do and so little time, our leaders must set the ball rolling with some near- and medium-term targets.

Immediately, our leaders must strengthen the channels of communication between the NPC Standing Committee and other delegates, and proactively reach out to the people.

In many of the corruption cases that have been uncovered, the liaison committee within the people's congresses played a critical enabling role. Thus, these committees must be subject to more oversight without delay.

The quicker these steps are taken, the sooner they become part of the normal functions of a healthy people's congress. The facts have proved that democratic government cannot be realised without the support of democratic institutions; the essence of democracy can't be separated from its form.

In the medium term, a whole host of issues should be tackled, including reviewing the size of the people's congress. The main function of the legislature is to propose and debate legislation. To do this, it needs a legislature of suitable size; no reasonable debate can be conducted if the number of deputies is too large.

Further, China should consider professionalising the NPC Standing Committee. Its members bear heavy responsibilities, and it is important they have the requisite professional skills and public service experience. There are many factors to consider, of course, including appropriate remuneration. Hence, pilot programmes are a good option.

In 2003, the legislature appointed 19 "special Standing Committee members". And some other local congresses have also started trials of their own. But such efforts appeared to have stalled in recent years. Now's the time to restart them.

Extending the time legislatures are in session will also be helpful.

The people's congresses are a key part of a nation that has pledged to uphold government by the people. Let the recent political unrest in other parts of the world be a lesson to us: a people long victimised by a corrupt government with no avenue for redress will grow angry and agitate for change.

Over 60 years ago, the Communist Party won public support with its promise of democratic government. The party's top leaders made this pledge again in the reform blueprint. They should know the easiest route to democracy is to strengthen the people's congresses.

This article is provided by Caixin Media, and the Chinese version of it was first published in Century Weekly magazine.


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