How will China’s legislature vote on changes to the constitution?

Analysts say the secret ballot will be highly choreographed and ‘delegates will not feel free to vote whichever way they choose’

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 12:35pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 10 March, 2018, 11:16pm

Nearly 3,000 NPC delegates will descend on the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Sunday afternoon to cast their votes on proposed changes to the constitution, including a controversial move to scrap term limits for the presidency and vice-presidency.

At least two-thirds of them must approve the amendment for it to pass, which would allow Xi to stay on as president well past the end of his second term in 2023, cementing him as the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.

The National People’s Congress vote will be conducted via a ballot, according to a document released by the legislature’s presidium.

Each delegate will be given one ballot paper written in Chinese and seven ethnic minority languages – Mongolian, Tibetan, Uygur, Kazakh, Korean, Yi and Zhuang, according to the document.

Representatives will be instructed to fill in the box above their corresponding choice – approve, object or abstain – and place it in one of 28 ballot boxes.

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Votes will be counted with an electronic system, in a process supervised by a 35-member committee with representatives from each regional delegation, including Hong Kong and Macau.

The final vote will be recorded by the committee’s two designated chief supervisors and is expected to be announced by outgoing NPC chairman Zhang Dejiang, who has led a task force – set up personally by Xi – on the amendment over the past five months.

The voting process, which is closed to the media, is the same as it has been for the past four revisions to the constitution, which was written in 1982. While most other decisions at the legislature are usually made by raising hands or selecting buttons on electronic devices, a specific voting rule applies to constitutional amendments, including the use of ballot papers, to highlight its political significance.

But analysts say voting by the NPC, which is largely a rubber-stamp body, will be highly choreographed, given the power Xi has amassed within the ruling Communist Party and the embarrassment it would cause to the leadership if the amendments failed.

“The party would not risk significant opposition in the NPC when proposing the amendments publicly,” Zhu Jiangnan, an associate professor at the University of Hong Kong, said. 

In practice, representatives fear that even their secret votes will be revealed, and that they will suffer political repercussions as a result, analysts said.

“I strongly suspect that whatever procedures are devised for the ballot, and however votes are counted, delegates will not feel free to vote whichever way they choose,” said Neil Munro, a senior lecturer in Chinese politics at the University of Glasgow. “That is not what they have been selected to do.”

Still, a small number of delegates may vote against the proposal, or abstain from voting. Abstention would also signal dissent over the term-limits change, said George Chen, an expert on China’s political system at Berlin-based think tank the Mercator Institute for China Studies.

Xi is likely to strive to keep the number of non-approval votes as low as possible, he said, aiming to be lower than the 10 opposing and 17 abstentions in the 2004 amendment vote, and the 21 opposing and 24 abstentions from the 1999 vote.

Chen said even if there was opposition within the NPC, it would be kept away from the public eye.

“We do not expect much to be reported in public – there might be some talk, some discussion, some debate, but we probably won’t see it,” he said. 

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While the amendment vote will not be completely unanimous – to give an appearance at least of a legitimate process – it is “fair to assume that the [party] leadership aims to achieve an approval rate of 99 per cent”, especially considering the unprecedented domestic criticism and global backlash, said Pak K. Lee, a senior lecturer in Chinese politics at the University of Kent.

“The Chinese leaders are keen to demonstrate to both overseas and domestic audiences that the process is democratically and legitimately discussed and then approved by the NPC deputies,” he said. “What the [party] leaders, especially Xi Jinping, are in need of is a stamp of legitimacy.” 

Chen added that all of the 21 revisions that are expected to be voted through – including adding Xi’s political theory to the constitution and establishing a new anti-graft agency – showed a general trend towards centralisation of power, and rectifying the name of the party state. 

While previous constitutional amendments have been much less controversial, Xi’s predecessors allowed far more time for consultation and preparation before they were put to the NPC vote.

The 2004 changes included adding former president Jiang Zemin’s “Three Represents” theory to the constitution and they were discussed for nearly 16 months before the ballot, which was broadcast live on state television.

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Revisions in 1999 enshrined the political thinking of late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who 17 years earlier introduced the presidential term limits in a bid to avoid a resurgence of dictatorial one-man rule.

This time, the amendments have been discussed only since September, according to state media.