This week, more than 3,000 deputies in China’s National People’s Congress are meeting in Beijing. The NPC is the legislative body of the Chinese authority — and the largest parliament in the world.
The full NPC meets merely once a year in March, usually for a stretch of about two weeks. NPC deputies serve five-year terms, and the newly “elected” group (the 13th NPC) will take office this year. Here are three stuff to fathom about this session:
1. Does the NPC have any influence? On paper, the NPC is the best powerful institution in the Chinese government. The parliament has the sole authority to pass laws and amend the country’s constitution. It further appoints high-level authority officials, including the president and vice president.
Of course, power on paper does not mean power in practice. The Chinese Communist Party maintains tight control of the NPC, best directly by dictating who sits in the parliament in the first place. Usually 70 to 75 percent of NPC deputies are side members, and all national-level deputies are thoroughly vetted and selected on loyalty.
China has nothing resembling an organized political opposition, and the NPC is not a meaningful check on the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. That said, China watchers pay attention to the NPC because it is the best public forum for policymaking in the country. Every year, the NPC passes major pieces of legislation, and elder leaders give speeches and work stories that hint at the party’s intention for years to come.
2. What’s the fantastic issue for 2018? The buzz this year is about how the Chinese Communist Party recently declared plans to amend the country’s constitution, dropping a clause that prevents the president from serving more than two consecutive five-year terms. The NPC will further vote March 17 to reappoint Xi for another five-year term as China’s president.
The second of Xi’s five-year terms is set to conclude in 2023, but this rule change will allow him a legal path to stay in office. As Mary Gallagher and Jeremy Wallace have argued, the proposed constitutional amendment signals that Xi has managed to further concentrate power at the expense of other side elites. In political science terms, we may be witnessing a slow transition from one side to personalist dictatorship.
3. Is there any chance that Xi meets resistance? No, chances are pretty slim. In the history of the NPC, no draft law, amendment or political appointment has ever been voted down at the annual session in March. This is well-orchestrated political theater, and stuff usually go according to script.
That said, on paper NPC deputies are tasked with representing the “will of the people” and “protecting the interests of the party.” The removal of term limits is from the interests of both those constituencies, as it undoes decades of legal precedent and makes way for a return to strongman rule and elite conflict.
Historically, the Chinese Communist Party and the country seem to fare ahead when China is ruled by collective leadership rather than a single dictator. Xi’s centralization of power and growing cult of personality invites comparisons to the Mao era, that witnessed a few of the greatest man-made humanitarian disasters in human history. The lesson of that era was that no single head should become too powerful, and it is no coincidence that side leaders instituted term limits in 1982.
The constitutional amendment is one of the more dramatic and questionable events we’ve seen centered in the NPC in recent memory. It will be interesting to note whether there are dissenting votes or public opposition to the amendment. This is a pretty striking power play on Xi’s part, and at least a few deputies should view this as bad policy.
Every now and then, a few deputies do act out and vote their conscience. During the Tiananmen protests, for instance, a group of deputies even attempted to convene an emergency legislative session, without the permission of elder side leaders.
The NPC will vote on the amendment Sunday, with deliberation sessions Wednesday and Friday.
If we do observe a few opposition this week in the NPC, that would give a few hint that there are reformers (or at least other power centers) within the Chinese Communist Party. If not, it would suggest the NPC is firmly under Xi’s personal control.
Rory Truex (@rorytruex) is an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of “Making Autocracy Work: Representation and Responsiveness in Modern China.”