Clean up the National People’s Congress, then give it a real role
Scandal over bought seats in China’s legislature a reminder that transparency is key to restoring confidence in nation’s highest organ of state power
The National People’s Congress is, constitutionally, China’s highest organ of state power. As the country’s parliament, it is a showcase for participation in a one-party system of government, though sometimes dismissed as a rubber stamp for decisions by Communist Party leaders. The reality can be less benign. Wealthy businessmen covet a seat in the NPC for the opportunity it offers to advance vested interest and network with counterparts and officials. In the case of a scandal in Liaoning (遼寧) province that has led to the mass dismissal of national lawmakers and most of the provincial congress, they secured election by bribing provincial deputies. This has sparked fears ahead of elections next year of similar practices elsewhere.
According to a mid-ranking source in Liaoning, aspirants for legislature seats may offer targeted electors red packets containing 500 to 5,000 yuan (HK$5,800) at special banquets, or give huge bribes of up to tens of millions of yuan to politically powerful “brokers”, such as the heads of regional legislatures. A money-back guarantee for big donors if they miss out on a seat says something about the extent to which perversion of the constitutional process has been institutionalised.
As a result of bribery by businessmen in Liaoning, electors rejected Beijing-backed candidates, angering the Communist Party leadership. This has prompted the anti-graft campaign spearheaded by President Xi Jinping (習近平) to target the legislatures ahead of a major leadership reshuffle at the party congress next autumn.
In a sign of the way the wind is blowing, official media have been reporting that the NPC has more millionaires than the US Congress. As long as four years ago, American research citing the Hurun report, which tracks China’s wealthy, found that the net worth of the 70 richest NPC delegates easily surpassed that of all 660 top officials in the three branches of the US government.
Such concentration of wealth, political influence and institutional power casts a shadow over China’s achievement in eradicating poverty. Xi’s recent reminders to the party of its original aim to serve the poor is timely.
The crackdown on corruption in elections is a good beginning if people are to retain faith in the NPC system. It is a worry that so many businessmen are elected, while academics for example are poorly represented. More transparency and broader representation of the community is key to public confidence.The second step should be political reform to give the NPC an effective check-and-balance role in monitoring the government.