When Shen Jilan was first appointed to China’s Parliament in 1954, Mao Zedong had been ruling the country for five years; farmers in her native Shanxi were still working in communes; and Xi Jinping, the present leader, was a six-month-old infant.
A sprightly 83 today, the farmer from the rural hinterland is serving a record 12th term in the legislature, having dealt with five generations of the Communist Party of China’s (CPC) leadership.
However, as the National People’s Congress (NPC) meets this week to formalise the once-in-a-decade transfer of power and appoint Mr. Xi as President, Ms. Shen finds herself at the centre of a debate about how much — to be precise, how little — China’s political system has changed since she attended her first session at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People some five decades ago.
Parliament is widely seen as a rubberstamp legislature — rarely fulfilling its assigned role of supervising the government, representing citizens and debating laws.
Ms. Shen has come to symbolise Parliament’s ‘rubberstamp’ tag — in her 60 years as a parliamentarian, she has never voted against any proposal that has come before her.
“I’m not well educated and do not speak well. But for so many years, I only voted for those things I supported with my heart”, she told state media in an interview. “As for those I didn’t”, she added, “I abstained from voting”.
On Friday morning, Ms. Shen, dressed in a navy blue suit, read out a brief statement announcing her proposals for the current session as the Shanxi provincial delegation met on the sidelines of the NPC session.
In keeping with her non-confrontational style, she simply read out a statement praising the government work report delivered by outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao earlier this week.
Criticism and counter
Her performance brought renewed criticism against the NPC’s legislators, especially from China’s active online community and pro-reform voices, who have called for direct elections to allow people to choose their people’s congress representatives. At present, the CPC only allows direct elections at the lowest level of the administration, at the county or township-level.
The Party-run Global Times hit out at the criticism, saying “some netizens attacked Shen Jilan... to purposely malign the system”. They were “not of any help to Chinese political civilisation”, a commentary thundered.
Others have welcomed the debate as a long overdue step toward making more Chinese people aware of their political rights.
“It is through the discussion of this phenomenon that more people understand the basic ideas of representative democracy, such as what kind of person qualifies as a delegate, what procedures and processes a person needs to go through before he or she is selected, and how one serves as a competent delegate,” wrote the well-known writer Murong Xuecun in a message to his 3.5 million followers on the popular Chinese Twitter equivalent Sina Weibo.
“If we can’t even discuss these basic questions”, he added, “what’s the point of talking about political civilisation”?