In a kind of dress rehearsal for the upcoming Olympic Games, a million volunteers have descended on Beijing to help thousands of security officials maintain order. Not for sports fans from all over the world but for the roughly 3,000 delegates of the National People’s Congress, who have gathered for their annual meeting. At the opening, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao delivered a two-and-a-half- hour speech outlining the government’s priorities and plans for the coming year.
Wen Jiabao's opening speech was two-and-a-half hours long
The National People’s Congress is the highest organ of the Chinese state according to the constitution. But in practice, the Communist Party stands above the state. The Party elects the delegates. They determine the agenda. And they prepare the annual sessions in great detail. The effort is worth it -- since its first session in 1954 the People’s Congress has never once rejected a single law.
Of course, there are fierce discussions about the country’s future course within China too -- the problems are pressing enough. But the discussions take place before the People’s Congress -- in small circles of power where opposing factions within the Communist Party sort out their differences.
So the People’s Congress is really just a stage for a script, which is played out behind the scenes. This year, there are two major matters -- the Olympic Games in August, which will elicit even more emphasis on unity and stability than usual.
All about people
The other is the 17th National Congress, which took place last autumn. The National Congress of the Communist Party meets every five years and sets the rough political agenda. The People’s Congress then has to implement it.
This time it’s all about people. President Hu Jintao and Prime Minister Wen Jiabao will both be re-elected to five-year terms. And because the Communist Party is loath to leave anything to chance, two probable future heads of state, due to take over the reins in 2013, will be appointed vice-president and deputy prime minister. It all has more to do with the rituals of a religious order than with democracy.
The word “democracy” was uttered by President Hu Jintao over 60 times last October in a speech partly devoted to developing “socialist democracy”. However, Hu also made it very clear that the point of the political reforms was to guarantee the long-term rule and stability of the party and state.
No hope for political reform
Jin Zhong, the chief editor of the Hong Kong news magazine “Open” is not optimistic about change:
“There is no hope for political reforms in Hu Jintao’s current term of office. The government already has too many practical problems.”
“It is under enormous pressure because of social instability, the growing gap between the poor and the rich, corruption and the catastrophic state of the environment. And on top of that, there are the Olympic Games this year, which will cost the government a lot of time, money and energy.”
Some public debate
There has been some public debate about political reform over the past year. But conservative voices did their best to quell any demands, which became too loud, says Jin Zhong.
“In China, there have always been debates about political reforms, about the differences between civil society and the government. But the voices are not equally loud. The government controls the state media.”
The People’s Congress will discuss not reform of the political system but reform of the political apparatus. The government wants to re-centralise power as much as possible -- especially in the areas of energy, finance, agriculture, transport and the environment.
However, experts point out that previous drives for administrative reform have led to more public servants only and not really to concrete change.