Membership of the National People's Congress provides wealthy businessmen a powerful platform and secures their support for the Communist Party of China.

When the National People's Congress (NPC), the Chinese Parliament and top legislative body, convenes in Beijing on March 5 for its annual session, it will be bringing together not only China's most powerful political leaders but also some of the nation's wealthiest individuals. The net worth of the 70 richest delegates at the NPC, the country's 3,000-member legislative house, rose by a stunning $11.5 billion last year, according to a new report from Hurun, a Shanghai-based company that publishes a Chinese rich-list every year.

The 70 richest delegates' net worth was $89.8 billion, or 565.8 billion yuan, in 2011.

These figures would perhaps make even India's parliamentarians blush. The total declared assets of India's 36 riches Members of Parliament in the Lok Sabha was $252 million, or Rs.1,238 crore as of 2009, according to the Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR), which describes itself as a non-political group that campaigns for electoral reforms. It compiled a list of India's richest politicians based on affidavits filed before the 2009 elections. According to the ADR's figures, India's politicians are, however, fast catching up with their Chinese counterparts. Their assets rose by 186 per cent between 2004 – when Indian politicians were first required to file affidavits stating their net worth – and 2009, when the number of crorepatis in the Lok Sabha doubled to 315.

Comparing China's NPC and the Lok Sabha is not an exact exercise on several levels. For one, the Lok Sabha's MPs are elected, while the NPC's delegates are chosen by the Communist Party of China (CPC) through often opaque internal arrangements. The NPC is often described as a “rubber-stamp” legislature, which holds far less power than the Lok Sabha. It rarely denies, or even strongly debates, the draft laws put forward by the government. Increasingly, NPC delegates have been drawn from China's biggest State-run and private enterprises, which explains their riches — six of China's 10 richest individuals serve on either the NPC or the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a political advisory body that could be loosely compared to the Rajya Sabha.

Corruption and inequality

According to the Hurun, 173 individuals, representing 12 per cent of the list, serve on government advisory bodies. Among them is Zong Qinghou, chairman of the Hangzhou Wahaha Group, a beverage company, who is China's second-richest person. Others include heads of real estate companies, steel companies, construction giants and financial enterprises. Their appointment to government bodies, Hurun noted, “handed them a powerful platform in a business climate which values official contacts.” The practice of bringing in China's wealthiest individuals into political advisory bodies largely began during the previous Jiang Zemin government (1993-2002). It served two purposes. For the party, giving the business elite a voice in policy decisions was seen as a way of securing their political support. For the businessmen, there was “strong incentive to become ‘within system' due to the relative weakness in the rule of law and of property rights,” as Victor Shih, a professor of Chinese politics at Northwestern University, told Bloomberg News, which reported on Hurun's findings last week.

Public resentment

As different as the Indian and Chinese political systems are, the marriage of business and politics that takes place at the highest levels of both governments has increasingly become a source of public anger and debate in both countries. This has been reflected in the growing resentment towards official corruption and renewed calls for economic reforms, amid concerns about fast-rising inequality. Earlier this month, as China marked the twentieth anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's famous “southern tour” which gave the push for the reform and opening up, a number of Chinese scholars called on the government to continue what they described as a “stalled” process.

“[China's] market development has been distorted by a lack of understanding toward the rule of law, upon which any sound market system is based, and weak institutional controls that fail to prevent the collusion of big power and big money,” wrote Caixin, an influential magazine, in an editorial this month. “We must not shut our eyes to the powerful, vested interests that have been monopolising the benefits of China's reform and opening movement, thus impeding deeper reform. Today's leaders must act as Deng did.”

Caixin's views have been echoed by a number of other scholars on China's political Right. But those on the Left say reforms are not the answer. They see the marriage of business and political interests at the government's highest levels as the legacy of economic liberalisation that took place without the mechanisms in place to ensure balanced growth.

Cui Zhiyuan, professor from the School of Public Administration at Tsinghua University, wrote in an article that “some have preconceived ideas that reform relates to privatisation.”

“I think the core of reform we need is not about opening coastal cities to boost the economy but about paying more attention to people's social welfare,” he argued, calling for a combination of “socialism with innovative reforms.” He says “balancing urban and rural development and reforming the household registration system,” which denies migrant workers access to social welfare when they move to cities, should top the NPC's agenda when it convenes next week. How its millionaire delegates will respond remains to be seen.

ananth@thehindu.co.in

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