China's 18th National People's Congress was held in November last year. You'd think it a droll affair if there ever was one, but step behind the scenes, and drama is everywhere.
The Parliaments of India and China couldn’t be more different. India’s democracy is often described with the adjectives messy, chaotic and raucous; the proceedings of Parliament fit that label (and on occasion, go far beyond those descriptions, as a recent ad campaign by this newspaper memorably captured). By contrast, the most commonly used term you will see in news reports to describe the legislature in China’s one-party State is “rubber-stamp”.
The description is not without merit. In past sessions, the National People’s Congress (NPC) has rarely engaged in lively debate, and has a dubious record of approving almost every single bill that has been put before it. For journalists reporting on the NPC’s proceedings, covering the two week-long session in the Chinese capital, Beijing, can certainly be a monotonous experience, with delegates spending hours on end reading from never-ending work reports.
(The reports themselves usually do little more than list the government’s achievements in glowing terms, and are peppered with such catchy phrases like “Socialism with Chinese characteristics” and the “Scientific Outlook on Development”).
This year’s session, however, attracted more than the usual interest from Beijing’s press corps: top of its agenda was approving the selection of China’s next President and taking forward the biggest plan to restructure the government in 15 years. At the Communist Party’s 18th Congress in November last year – a once in five year Party Congress, unlike the Government’s annual NPC, is the real power-broking body in Chinese politics – Xi Jinping, the “princeling” son of a former reform-minded leader, was chosen as the party’s leader for the next ten years.
Xi has a fascinating background: unlike his predecessor Hu Jintao, he boasts a wide network of personal connections among fellow “princelings” – as the “second Red generation” children of former Party leaders are known in China – and in the Army. In a country where familial ties and personal relationships grease the wheels of the political machine, that is a valuable asset to have.
Xi has also, to be fair, done his time at the grassroots, although local Party officials remain extremely sensitive about discussing his past (as I discovered when I received a rather hostile reception at the village of Liangjiahe, where Xi lived for seven years, when I travelled there last year).
The NPC, true to form, gave little inkling of how Xi will govern. The new leader did little more than sit through a dozen sessions at the sprawling Great Hall of the People, indistinguishable from the sea of suits adorning the stage where the Politburo sat.
As expected, Xi was “elected” – as Chinese State media reports declared – by the NPC’s 3,000 or so delegates, with the rather remarkable margin of 2,952 to one . The margin was hardly a surprise, though I was more puzzled by the identity of the brave parliamentarian who cast the lone dissenting vote (one Chinese journalist I was sitting next to in the press gallery suggested it might have been Xi himself!).
The predictability of the NPC notwithstanding, the two week-long session is still a useful opportunity for journalists to sneak a glimpse behind the walls of the rather opaque Chinese political system. Reporters are given the chance to interview delegates, although few usually respond to requests from foreign media.
Over the past few sessions, I’ve still had the chance to meet a range of interesting figures, from Mao Zedong’s rather portly grandson (who mounted a rather vague defence of his grandfather’s ideals when I asked him about India’s Maoists) to an inspiring construction worker from Chongqing, who has been fighting for more attention for migrant workers in a parliament increasingly dominated by millionaires. This year, I had the chance to briefly meet a legislator with a rather unenviable record – over six decades, she has never cast a single dissenting vote, a distinction that has infuriated China’s increasingly politically aware online community, and come to be seen as a symptom of the problems of the rubber-stamp legislature.
Even the highlight of the NPC from the media’s point of view – the annual press conference with the Chinese Premier - is a scripted and choreographed affair, in keeping with the session’s general aversion to spontaneity. The questions raised at the conference are prepared weeks in advance, and the journalists who will be allowed to ask them are also carefully selected beforehand.
Sunday’s briefing was dominated by questions from official media organisations like the People’s Daily and Xinhua – questions that allowed the Premier to get across to the domestic audience the message he wanted. For instance, official broadcaster China Central Television (CCTV) asked Li Keqiang about his reform plans, while the Xinhua news agency asked the Premier to detail his plans on taking forward urbanisation.
The three foreign journalists who raised questions, I was told, were also selected in advance. An American journalist asked about China-U.S. relations, a Russian journalist asked about ties with Russia, and a French journalist asked about China’s pollution problem. The selection of the questions was, in a sense, more interesting than the answers, providing an insight into what China sees as its foreign policy priorities.
India hasn’t figured at the past five briefings.
The NPC isn’t, however, always a perfect picture of organisation (thankfully). On the rare occasions that the veneer of harmony falls apart, one gets a fascinating glimpse into the inner workings of China’s political machine. Last year’s session provided one such rare unscripted event.
When the former Politburo member Bo Xilai, then the party chief in Chongqing, met the press last March, his political future was under a cloud after his aide fled to a U.S. Embassy seeking asylum.
Bo was rare among China’s politicians in being a charismatic figure – he loved attention and, as politicians who love attention tend to do, often broke from the script. Several hundred journalists turned up to meet Bo in the rather cramped Chongqing Hall. Only two dozen or so reporters were finally allowed to meet him; I was lucky to be among them as I had rather hopefully put in a request to interview Bo before the session began.
In a meeting that ran far beyond the allotted one hour, a confident and charismatic Bo Xilai, seemingly oblivious to the questions being raised about his future, went as far as hinting at his national ambitions and suggested rather modestly that his rule in Chongqing had lessons to offer for the rest of the country. He even cheekily invited the then President Hu Jintao to visit Chongqing and learn about his “model”. And where is Bo today? He’s in a jail somewhere in Beijing, awaiting trial and possibly a rather lengthy jail-term.
That day last March turned out to be his last public appearance. Spontaneity and the National People’s Congress don’t go well together.