NATIONAL PEOPLE’S CONGRESS: POPULARITY AND POWER

Publication: China Brief Volume: 3 Issue: 6

by Willy Lam

Newly elected President Hu Jintao and his allies should take heart from the results of the recently concluded First Session of the Tenth National People’s Congress (NPC).

Although the Congress is considered a rubberstamp body, the nearly 3,000 deputies did have the right to confirm state leaders recommended to them by Chinese Communist Party (CCP) authorities. And while the parliamentarians were not given a choice of candidates, they could indicate disapproval by casting a “no” ballot, or more commonly, abstaining from voting.

Most members of the Shanghai Faction–including its two leaders, Jiang Zemin and Zeng Qinghong–did not do well at what has been described as the NPC’s “birdcage-like ballot box.” A surprisingly large number of parliamentarians showed their reservations when former President Jiang Zemin was given one more term as Chairman of the State Central Military Commission (SCMC). On March 14, four days before the session’s closure, 7.5 percent, or 220 out of a total of 2,946 NPC deputies, either cast opposition ballots or abstained during voting for the top military post.

Given that the majority of NPC deputies were CCP cadres who were subject to strict party discipline, this was a sizeable show of dissent. Moreover, even though Jiang was the only candidate for SCMC chairman, thirty-six NPC members wrote down Hu’s name on their ballots.

Perhaps in a bid to shore up Jiang’s prestige, a number of loyalist NPC officers came up with the story that the 76-year-old veteran had offered to resign from both the CCP and the state military commissions before last November’s 16th party congress. According to a military delegate to the NPC, General Yu Changqi, Jiang had therefore agreed to remain on the military commission only because “the generals were opposed [to his retirement] and hoped that he would stay on.” This effort at spin doctoring, however, did not sound very convincing.

Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) member Zeng Qinghong, Jiang’s main adviser and alter ego, also suffered humiliation when he was confirmed as state vice president. There were 177 “no” votes and 190 abstentions, meaning he failed to get the support of 12.5 percent of parliamentarians. Put another way, Zeng’s 87.5 percent score was low compared to those of previous holders of the job. For example, the vote counts for former Vice Presidents Hu Jintao and Rong Yiren were 96.5 percent and 97.9 percent, respectively. Even the unpopular General Wang Zhen managed to secure 90 percent of the ballots when he was made vice president at the 1988 NPC.

Two senior Jiang associates, Executive Vice Premier Huang Ju and State Councilor Chen Zhili, were also snubbed by a relatively large number of NPC members. Former party officials from Shanghai, Huang and Chen are widely seen as mediocre officials who owe their promotions mainly to Jiang’s patronage. One day before the NPC’s closure on March 18, Huang got the lowest number of affirmative votes among the four new vice premiers. He secured 91.75 percent of the 2,935 ballots, compared to 98.84 percent, 97.48 percent and 97.48 percent, respectively, for Wu Yi, Zeng Peiyan and Hui Liangyu. Similarly, Chen was the least popular of the five State Councilors whose posts were endorsed at the legislature.

A couple of Jiang associates also fared badly in the advisory Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC). Take, for example, PSC member and long time Jiang crony Jia Qinglin, who was the sole candidate for CPPCC Chairman. On March 13, deputies to the CPPCC, which is seen as a sidekick of the NPC, cast ballots to confirm Jia’s post in addition to those of twenty vice chairmen. Jia’s performance–79 negative votes and 76 abstentions–made him the second least popular cadre among the new CPPCC leadership. The lowest scorer was Ba Jin, the 99-year-old writer who has been under intensive medical care for the past few years.

By contrast, Hu lived up to his reputation as “piaowang,” or “top vote-getter.” He was confirmed state president and vice chairman of the SCMC by, respectively, 99.8 percent and 99.75 percent of the ballots. And new Premier Wen Jiabao, considered a Hu ally, also proved to be spectacularly popular. This disciple of former Premier Zhu Rongji secured 99.35 percent of the votes, a percentage even higher than that garnered by Zhu five years ago.

One indication that Hu has quickly established his hold on the party and government is that he has already begun laying down catchy aphorisms and slogans. Most of these dictums have to do with the imperative of heeding the voice of the people. Thus, almost immediately upon becoming party chief last November, Hu enunciated the so called “Three Do-wells Principle.” It states that cadres must “do a good job in safeguarding, materializing and developing the fundamental interests of the masses.”

Even more famous is his so called “New Three Principles of the People.” It states that “power must be used for the sake of the people; [cadres’] sentiments must be tied to those of the people; and material benefits must be sought in the interest of the people.” This precept was played up in his first speech to the NPC as president, when he told deputies that the new leadership would “be the people’s servants from beginning to end.”

These people-oriented aphorisms have been widely repeated by ministers and regional officials, a sign in Communist Chinese tradition that Hu is assuming the stature of a “leadership core.” Moreover, even Third Generation cadres such as Jiang and former Premier Zhu were at the NPC echoing sayings associated with Hu. The dictum of the “two imperatives” was a case in point. “We must hew to a work style of humility and caution, and avoid being supercilious and impatient; we must maintain the tradition of plain living and hard struggle.”

The “two imperatives” motto was popularized by Hu during his visit to the revolutionary Mecca of Xibaibo, Hebei Province, last December. It was of course Chairman Mao Zedong who had first laid down the “two imperatives” dictum. However, Mao’s teaching had all but disappeared from the media until its enthusiastic revival by Hu.

Of equal significance, ministerial level cadres have begun publicly heaping eulogies on Hu. The most vociferous Hu backer is Minister of Water Resources Wang Shucheng, who was the president’s classmate at Tsinghua University in the 1960s. Wang told NPC delegates and the overseas media that Hu was “a man of the masses” who could be trusted to acquit himself well in the task of president and party general secretary.

It is true, however, that in terms of factional affiliation, the new State Council lineup reflects a rough three way division of the spoils among the followers of Jiang, Zhu and Hu. In terms of geographical distribution, Wen’s cabinet has a surprisingly high percentage of officials from the Greater Shanghai Region (GSR). Thus, fully one third of the nearly forty ministers hail from Shanghai, Jiangsu and Zhejiang. While these GSR affiliated cadres are not necessarily members of the Shanghai Faction, this is a good indication of the residual clout of former president Jiang. And it will take a relatively long time before Hu–even when in alliance with Wen–can assert his authority.

Willy Lam, one of Asia’s best known journalists and authors, is a senior China analyst at CNN’s Asia-Pacific Office in Hong Kong.