Is China’s Biggest Public Political Event Relevant?

By Didi Tang 13 March 2015

BEIJING — It’s China’s biggest public political event of the year, but with little in the way of debate to report, local media have resorted to issuing photo galleries of attractive journalists or delegates who dance ballet to relieve their fatigue.

Much of the National People’s Congress coverage looks more like celebrity-watching than political journalism, and many members of the Chinese public are increasingly disenchanted over their lack of involvement in an annual legislature that does little to hold the government to account.

Instead, they see congressional delegates not only endorsing, but raving about, the summary of past successes and directives for the future contained in the annual “work report” of the Communist Party-controlled government.

“Everyone expresses full support for the document but never questions its inadequacies or raises doubts. They are not fulfilling their duties as people’s representatives, but have come to Beijing simply to attend a study session for 10 days or so,” said Beijing-based historian and independent commentator Zhang Lifan.

Since Premier Li Keqiang delivered the report at the opening of the congress on March 5, the key activity of the 2,964 delegates has been to gather in groups to evaluate it before the close of the session on March 15.

There have been no disapproving voices. Delegates have enthusiastically commended the report as pragmatic, innovative, reassuring and inspiring. State media echo those remarks.

A popular joke circulating in China’s social media this year is that the Communist Party is its own drama critic, and that the congress is a show “written, directed, performed—and praised” by the party.

Delegates can abstain or vote “no” on the work report, which is considered embarrassing to the leadership, though those votes are always a tiny minority with no sway over any outcome.

Nobody illustrates the rubberstamp nature of the legislature better than Shen Jilan, 85, from the northern province of Shanxi. She has served in every National People’s Congress since the founding of the People’s Republic of China and takes pride in the fact that she has never voted “no” since becoming a delegate in 1954.

“To be a people’s delegate is to listen to the party, and I have never cast a ‘no’ vote,” Shen has been quoted as saying in state media reports.

Shanghai accountant Zhu Yin is typical of many Chinese in saying she feels no connection to the congress or its delegates.

She said she has pressing issues for which she’d like their help, including transferring her mother’s social insurance benefits to another location. But she added, “I don’t even know how to contact a delegate.”

Shi Gaole, a salesman for an electrical company, said he has never voted for a delegate and believes they are selected from famous people. “I don’t know who designates them to be delegates, and I do not want to know,” Shi said.

The vast majority are drawn from the Communist Party, though about a fifth are from token parties that give the legislature a veneer of diversity. It’s supposed to be a forum for bringing concerns of the provinces to the leadership, but often appears more of a top-down event disseminating the leadership’s priorities.

That top-down nature has only expanded under party leader and President Xi Jinping, who has consolidated his powers at the expense of other institutions, including the NPC, said Ming Xia, a political scientist at City University of New York who studies China’s legislative system.

The congress has become increasingly detached from the public, and its makeup of businesspeople, government officials and party members has become increasingly elite, Xia said.

The full NPC rarely votes on legislation; six of the 10 most recent sessions did not have a single bill on their agenda. This year’s session, which includes an amendment to a procedural law, is among the exceptions.

China’s Constitution grants legislative powers both to the NPC and its Standing Committee, a much smaller group of about 150 members who are much more tightly controlled by the Communist Party.

That committee, which meets all year, deals with most legislation. For instance, it is handling an anti-terror bill that has drawn concerns of foreign governments over plans for China to demand keys to encryption of secure communications.

Some news does emerge from the congress’ stage-managed proceedings at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People, including the government’s economic growth target for the coming year—this year pegged at 7 percent, down from 7.5 percent last year.

The session also offers a rare chance for foreign reporters to question government ministers, including the premier. However, government officials work behind the scenes with reporters to vet their questions ahead of time, and only those with pre-screened questions are called upon at the news conferences.

Proposals perennially popular with the public, such requiring public officials to disclose their assets, never gain traction in the legislature.

To try to keep the public interested, state media have issued photo galleries of good-looking female journalists—including foreign ones for an exotic flavor—and of young, pretty waitresses who arrange the delegates’ teacups in perfect lines. Delegates taking selfies have been prominent this year, as have images of female delegates dancing ballet in a group.

Over the weekend, the official Xinhua News Agency carried articles by a reporter who showed unapologetic admiration for legislative spokeswoman Fu Ying, calling her a “goddess.”

Another Xinhua reporter expressed her excitement at interviewing Chen Daoming, an aloof celebrity actor who serves on the NPC’s top advisory panel, which meets concurrently with the legislature in Beijing. The reporter gushed that Chen not only agreed to be interviewed but helped her edit her story, line by line—an admission that drew derision online over the journalistic integrity of state media reporters.

Columnist Song Zhibiao wrote in an article circulating online that state media reporters unable to write about anything substantial were resorting to vignettes.

“When there is nothing to report but you must keep up the appearance of liveliness, vignette reporting is the best genre of news,” Song said.