National People’s Congress Marks Sharp Turn Toward Conservatism

Publication: China Brief Volume: 13 Issue: 6

The Premiership is Handed Over

Chinese intellectuals who harbor expectations that the Xi Jinping-Li Keqiang administration may kick start a new cycle of reforms were sorely disappointed on the first day of the First Session of the 12th National People’s Congress, when outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao delivered his last Government Work Report. Wen, who is the only senior cadre to have called for political reform consistently in the past several years, did not even mention these two words in his 100-minute address at the Great Hall of the People. Moreover, even less controversial reforms, such as streamlining the government and economic structures, have turned out to be much more circumscribed than had been anticipated by the official media.

In his swansong speech to the Chinese parliament, the 70-year-old Wen pointed out that Beijing would “deeply push forward reform and the open-door policy with even more political courage and wisdom.” Unlike past occasions, however, Wen was this time referring, not to political liberalization, but to “the construction of socialist democracy and rule by law.” There were no more references to the “electoral rights” of the people or the right of the masses to take part in politics. Also absent was his familiar dictum that “without commensurate political reform, economic reform cannot succeed” (Xinhua, March 5; China News Service, March 5). 

The conservative tone of Wen’s report reflects the priority that Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) members endorsed by the 18th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress last November have given to preserving the party’s monopoly on power (“The Unrepentant China Model,” China Brief, November 30, 2012). In an internal speech delivered while he toured Guangdong Province last December, CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping warned party members against a disease called “calcium deficiency of the spirit,” which, he said, was responsible for the collapse of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). Xi stated “We must put emphasis on self-confidence in the path [of socialism]” and “We must have self-confidence in [Marxist] theory and institutions” (Ta Kung Pao [Hong Kong] February 16; Apple Daily [Hong Kong], February 5).

The party chief’s instructions were repeated by PBSC member Liu Yunshan, who is in charge of ideology and propaganda. While talking to parliamentarians from Inner Mongolia, the former director of the CCP Propaganda Department pointed out “we must be more insistent on and resolute about the path of socialism with Chinese characteristics.” “We must have true belief in the theoretical system of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” he added (People’s Daily Online, March 6; Wen Wei Po [Hong Kong] March 6). Moreover, in his last Legislative Work Report to the NPC, outgoing parliamentary chairman and former PBSC member Wu Bangguo urged the deputies to “take a firm grip on [the party’s] political orientation” and to “be resolute in countering different types of erroneous thoughts and theories.” Wu echoed CCP General Secretary Xi’s point about the imperative of “having self-confidence in the [CCP’s] path, theory and system.” Wu told the deputies “We will absolutely not copy the political systems and models of the West” (CCTV news, March 8; Xinhua, March 8). 

Most astonishing was the conservative statement made by former Guangdong Party Secretary Wang Yang, who has a reputation for promoting village elections and expanding the scope of NGOs in the southern province. Wang, who has just been appointed one of four vice premiers of the State Council, told NPC delegates from his native Anhui Province that the Western world was afraid of the challenge of the China model. Wang said that China’s achievements in recent years were “a further manifestation of the superiority of the [country’s] institutions and path.” Referring to the global financial crisis, Wang pointed out that “things that the Western world was proud of, such as the free-market system and democracy have failed to work.” “The experience of socialist China shows that there are many models of democracy,” he added, “[Chinese-style] consultative democracy is also practicable” (Southern Daily [Guangzhou] March 9; Ming Pao [Hong Kong], March 9).

Given the CCP leadership’s determination to uphold orthodoxy, it is perhaps not surprising that even less controversial agendas such as streamlining the bloated government structure have met with only limited success. Despite earlier reports in the Chinese media that the central government’s 27 commissions and ministries will be cut to below 20, only two such units have been slashed. Moreover, the State Council will continue to have 16 ministerial-level “general administrations” and bureaus. Perhaps the most eye-catching change is that the much-maligned Ministry of Railways—which has been dubbed a “state within a state” that has run up debts of 2.66 trillion yuan ($427.7 billion)—will be folded into the Ministry of Transport. The merger of the two ministries, which was first proposed in 2003, did not take place due to the vehement opposition of then Minister of Railways Liu Zhijun. Liu is now facing a possible suspended death sentence due to allegations of massive corruption (Ming Pao, March 11; Wen Wei Po, March 11).

Other moves include the amalgamation of the Ministry of Health and the National Commission on Family Planning to form the National Health and Family Planning Commission. The General Administration of Food and Drugs has been established after the merger of existing units dealing with food and drug safety as well as the quality supervision and inspection of commercial products. The General Administration on Press and Publications and the State Administration of Radio, Film and Television have been combined to form a new General Administration of Press and Publication, Radio, Film and Television. Moreover, the jurisdiction of the National Oceanic Administration will be beefed up. It will now oversee the coast guard, the fisheries enforcement command and the maritime anti-smuggling unit—all of which had been under different administrations. Earlier suggestions about setting up “super-ministries” to handle monetary policy, energy and environmental issues, however, have not materialized. This is despite the fact that the record high level of air pollution in Beijing and nearby cities since January has demonstrated the central government’s failure to police polluting-generating companies, including oil and coal enterprises (China Review News [Hong Kong] March 11; Ta Kung Pao, March 11).

Commenting on the structural changes in the State Council, noted public intellectual and Beijing University Professor Xia Yeliang pointed out that structural changes had met with obstacles due to the stubborn resistance of vested interests. He also warned “There must be enough oversight over ministries that have become bigger and more powerful.” “Ministries must give the public a more transparent explanation as to how China’s resources are being distributed,” he said, “There must be better safeguard against abuse of power” (Cable News Hong Kong, March 9;, March 9).

Equally significant is the Xi-Li administration’s apparent failure to push reform for the 120-odd centrally-held state owned enterprise (SOE) groupings (yangqi)—many of which have ministerial status. Having cartelized lucrative sectors ranging from oil and gas to finance and telecommunications, the yangqi are seen as arrogant and non-transparent behemoths that militate against free-market precepts. Even the official media has complained that conglomerates such as the three oil majors—China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), Sinopec and China National Overseas Oil Coorporation (CNOOC)—have made so much money that “they should to return wealth to the people” (“Chinese SOEs a Target of Hu-Wen’s ‘Inclusive Growth’?” China Brief, January 14, 2011). In the latest round of structural reform, the National Energy Administration—which will continue to be subsumed under the National Development and Reform Commission—has been given extra regulatory authority over the electricity sector. There are no indications, however, that the NEA can effectively rein in the excesses of the three oil-and-gas giants (Apple Daily, March 11; Ta Kung Pao, March 11).

In his Government Work Report, ex-Premier Wen pledged to “deepen the reform of state-owned enterprises.” He reiterated his pledge that private-owned enterprises should operate on the same level playing field as giant SOE groupings: “We must unswervingly provide encouragement, support and guidance to the development of non-state-sector [enterprises].” The goal, he said, was that firms of different ownership systems would be in a position to “make use of production factors fairly and that they can participate in market-oriented competition on a fair basis” (People’s Daily, March 5; China News Service, March 5). Although an estimated 90 NPC members are non-state-sector businesspeople with assets of more than 1.8 billion yuan ($289.4 million), it seems unlikely that the government’s treatment of private firms will improve significantly in the near future (Financial Times, March 7; Bloomberg, March 6).

Even more than past sessions of the NPC, the authorities have put weiwen or safeguarding socio-political stability, above reform. Dissidents such as veteran human rights activist Hu Jia and “Tiananmen mother” Ding Zhili have either been forced to leave Beijing during this period or put under tight 24-hour surveillance. Police and state security agents beat a couple of Hong Kong reporters when they tried to approach the apartment building where Liu Xia, the wife of incarcerated Nobel Prizewinner Liu Xiaobo, is kept under virtual house arrest (Ming Pao, March 9; Cable TV News, March 8). Statistics revealed last week at the NPC showed that for the third year in a row, public expenditure on weiwen has exceeded that of the publicized budget for the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The central government will this year make available 769.1 billion yuan ($123.7 billion)—a jump of 8.7 percent over 2012—for the police, the Internet police, spies and other elements of China’s labyrinthine internal security apparatus. By contrast, the official PLA budget for 2013 is 720.6 billion yuan ($115.9 billion), which is 10.7 percent higher than that of last year (South China Morning Post [Hong Kong] March 6; China Review News, March 6).

Not long after his ascendancy at the 18th Party Congress, General Secretary Xi pledged to introduce “constitutional socialism with Chinese characteristics,” that is, a socio-political system where the Constitution and the laws will be fully respected (“What Direction for Legal Reform under Xi Jinping,” China Brief, January 4). There are clear-cut indications that Xi, who has direct control over the country’s political-legal establishment— which oversees the police, state security, the prosecutor’s offices as well as the courts—is adamant about using this formidable control apparatus to crush dissent. It is notable that in his report to the NPC, the outgoing President of the Supreme People’s Court Wang Shengjun affirmed the party’s unquestioned leadership over the judiciary. Wang urged judges and other “judicial workers” to profess “total loyalty to the party, the country, the people, and the Constitution and the law.” In other words, obeisance to the party has pride of place over respect for the Constitution and the law. This is despite the fact that Wang also vowed to promote “public confidence in the judiciary” as well as “judicial fairness and integrity” (Xinhua, March 10; CCTV News, March 10).

On the eve of the NPC, more than 100 Chinese scholars, writers and public intellectuals published an Internet petition asking the legislative authorities to ratify the United Nations’ International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. They pointed out that, while the Chinese government had signed on to the covenant as early as 1998, the document cannot be applied in China unless it is ratified by the NPC. The petitioners—who included well-known professors such as Qin Hui and He Weifang—pointed out that a key to China’s modernization was “dovetailing with global norms on basic human rights.” The petition, however, was quickly removed from China’s Cyberstance, and a number of signatories received verbal warnings from their work units (Yazhou Zhoukan [Hong Kong] March 10; Apple Daily, March 1). It seems apparent that the Xi-Li administration has to do a lot more to convince Chinese and foreign observers that its obsession with stability—and the party’s monopoly on power—will not deal a frontal blow to most aspects of reform.