Status, power, connections ... what’s behind the unprecedented voting fraud in electing China’s most powerful organ?

Although national legislators have little real influence on state policies, they can use the positions to promote their own interests

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 14 September, 2016, 2:26pm
UPDATED : Monday, 12 June, 2017, 10:55pm

When Xi Jinping became general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party in late 2012, he was poised to become president of the country the following March. However, he still had to go through a “voting” process at the Great Hall of the People during the full plenum of the National People’s Congress, when nearly 3,000 NPC delegates “elected” Xi to the state president position so he could officially and legally become the state leader.

That’s part of the function of China’s National People’s Congress, often slated as a rubber-stamp parliament but – on paper at least – China’s most powerful organ. In theory, the annual gathering of nearly 3,000 people’s delegates, who are “elected” every five years, has the authority to decide every major state policy, review government work reports and approve top state leaders, including the president, the premier, all ministers and the nation’s military commission chiefs.

On most days when there’s no full-member gathering, the NPC’s Standing Committee exercises the day-to-day parliamentary functions of approving state laws and hearing reports from government ministers.

So, when Beijing announced on Tuesday that as many as 45 members of the Liaoning delegation of the NPC, or almost half that provincial delegation, had been elected by fraud and deprived them of their memberships, it was a scandal on a scale previously unheard of in the history of the People’s Republic. It also raised major constitutional questions about China’s political system, such as, if the people’s delegates are frauds, what then of the decisions that they’ve voted for or endorsed?

Former Communist Party chief of Liaoning province expelled over alleged election graft

Zhang Dejiang, the NPC standing committee chairman, said in a statement that the Liaoning election fraud was “a challenge to China’s socialist democratic politics” and “touched the bottom line of the Chinese socialism system and the rule of the Chinese Communist Party”.

Here are some background facts about China’s National People’s Congress:

The role of the National People’s Congress

According to China’s constitution, “all power in the People’s Republic of China belongs to the people”, and the organs through which the people exercise state power are the National People’s Congress and the local people’s congresses at provincial, municipal and lower levels. While the NPC is often seen as a rubber-stamp parliament because it always endorses “proposals” from the ruling Communist Party, it is an important institution to “legalise” those policies as state law.

The fraud in Liaoning, therefore, tears a large hole in the cloak of parliamentary democracy of Communist Party rule in China.

How are NPC delegates elected?

Chinese citizens can only directly vote for people’s delegates at township and county level, choosing from candidates recommended by the Communist Party. A few dissidents have tried to bypass the Communist Party to participate in local elections as “independent candidates” in the past, but their attempts were crushed the Chinese authorities, who said there is no “legal basis” for independent candidates to take part.

Delegates to the NPC are elected by provincial People’s Congresses – and the candidate list is often dictated by the provincial Communist Party Committee.

Why become a national legislator?

Although the close to 3,000 national legislators have little real influence on state policies, major decisions or the appointment of senior officials, the position is still very desirable for tens of thousands of provincial legislators because it gives a special status in the legislator’s province.

Hengyang case shows graft widespread in China's 'flawed' legislative system

Such a status can help them form business and political connections to promote their own businesses. The annual full plenum in Beijing is also an excellent occasion for networking with others of China’s political and business elites.

A membership in the NPC also brings certain privileges against police and judicial investigations, such as the arrest of NPC members requiring approval from the NPC.

Does this scandal signal a chance for reform in China’s legislative system?

That remains to be seen. The people’s delegate system in China suffered a major scandal in 2013 in Hengyang, Hunan province, when 518 of 529 members of the Hengyang city-level people’s congress were said to have taken bribes to elect delegates to the provincial NPC.

Hunan bribery crackdown signals more heads will roll

The Liaoning fraud is worse, however, as it involves a higher level of power. According to Xinhua, more than half of the 62 standing committee members of the Liaoning people’s congress were disqualified because of fraud, paralysing the provincial lawmaking organ.

In addition, in the current scandal, 523 Liaoning provincial lawmakers reportedly helped rig the elections that sent their 45 colleagues to the national legislature – where they then voted on the most important policies in China.

Who are the 45 Liaoning delegates involved in the fraud?

Many were business executives with fat wallets that allowed them to buy votes. Some oversaw large state-owned enterprises, such as Wang Zhanzhu, former head of the Shenyang Railway Bureau; and Fang Wei, board chairman of the Liaoning Fangda Group, a major industrial conglomerate widely engaged in the carbon, iron and steel, and chemical industries. Others were self-made entrepreneurs of successful private enterprises, which often have close ties to local governments.