Defining Reform Under Xi Jinping (Updated)

With the annual session of the National People’s Congress now underway, observers are waiting to see how Xi Jinping, who will be sworn in as president at the end of the session, will deal with a number of issues confronting the country. Global Times gives an overview of the meetings, which include gatherings of both the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and the National People’s Congress:

About 2,200 members of the 12th CPPCC National Committee will discuss major issues including the election of new leaders of the top advisory body and proposals for the coming National People’s Congress (NPC) on Tuesday. They will also review government work reports and hear recommendations for improvement.

“This year’s two sessions have a distinct feature, which is to witness the transition of the top government leaders,” Yun Jie, director of the administration research department at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times on Sunday, adding that a smooth leadership transition is crucial to China’s future over at least the next five years.

Chi Fulin, director of domestic reform think tank the China (Hainan) Institute for Reform and Development, expects the meetings to shed light on China’s future reforms because NPC deputies and CPPCC members will make proposals to the government on issues concerning people’s livelihoods and state affairs.

Lü Xinhua, a CPPCC spokesman, said 840 proposals had been submitted by members as of Saturday noon. The Global Times found many of the proposals tackle issues including fighting corruption, institutional restructuring and environmental protection, particularly curbing air and water pollution.

While last year’s congress was held amid the breaking scandal involving former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, this year’s congress aims to refocus public attention elsewhere. From the New York Times:

Most analysts agree that the proceedings this year will ignore the plight of Mr. Bo, who is being detained awaiting prosecution on charges of corruption, abuse of power and obstruction of justice.

This year, the party’s new top leaders, Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, have paved the way for the 13-day session with vows to end flagrant privileges and self-enrichment by officials and their families. They have also vowed to create a more efficient government, and reduce the acrid smog that has enveloped Beijing and other northern Chinese cities for weeks this winter.

“They’ve already taken many steps that have raised hopes among ordinary people — now we’re looking for signs that the hopes can be satisfied,” said Deng Yuwen, an editor for The Study Times, a weekly newspaper published by the Central Party School in Beijing. “The congress won’t have any breakthroughs, but it can indicate where and how fast the leaders want to take things.”

Yet the congress itself is widely viewed as a rubber stamp, with any debate or negotiations taking place behind the scenes. For the many journalists who attend the proceedings, it can be difficult to gain access to key players or to inside information about how proposals are introduced and debated. The Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time reports:

While delegates to the two meetings will get to discuss key plans for streamlining the government and even make recommendations, it’s hard to conceive of this pageant as much more than a talk shop when there is only one full session a year.

The quest for authoritative and objective reporting might be easier with a little less secrecy surrounding even the simplest information. A list of all delegates to the advisory body was released without explanation of what any of the more than 2,000 representatives did to get into this august body. Even the time of the CPPCC’s opening session was kept under wraps until the last moment – and they were similarly coy with the closing date for the parliament session, which formally opens Tuesday.

That presents a bit of a challenge for serious news coverage, leaving state media to occupy the role of stenographer. CPPCC chairman Jia Qinglin noted that over the last five years the advisory body had organized more than 500 in-depth studies, zeroing in on the economy, people’s livelihood and regional development, state media reported. Xinhua revealed that a total of 28,930 proposals had been submitted by CPPCC members over the past five years, and 26,583 of these had been addressed. There were no details on which had actually made it into policy or law.

For domestic media, reporting on the congress is tightly proscribed. CDT recently translated a list of ten topics that are off-limits for reporting during the session.

One piece of data – the annual military budget – was not revealed at the press conference on the eve of the session’s opening as expected [See update below]. As AP reports:

The legislature’s spokeswoman defended booming military spending Monday, saying the vast investment has contributed to global peace and stability, though she did not announce the coming year’s percentage increase, as usually has been done on the eve of the legislature’s opening.

With China now the world’s No. 2 military spender after the U.S., the amount of this year’s increase will be a barometer of the complicated relationship between Xi and the politically influential military. A big boost would show Xi wants robust backing for the People’s Liberation Army at a time when China has tense territorial disputes with neighbors and wants to reduce U.S. influence in the region. A smaller increase would show that Xi feels he already has strong military support without the need to pander to its recent demands for ever-larger outlays.

Growth in the military budget should match or exceed last year’s rate, if only to keep up with rising inflation, said Ni Lexiong, a military expert at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law. Tensions with Japan and others, he said, should ensure a bigger voice for the military.

Other changes that are expected to be announced during the congress include an administrative reorganization of government ministries. Notably, the scandal-plagued Ministry of Railways is expected to be demoted and broken into commercial and operational arms. From Reuters:

“Part of the Ministry of Railways will be merged with a super-Ministry of Transport,” said a second source who has leadership ties, requesting anonymity to avoid repercussions for speaking to foreign reporters. The source was referring to the operations of the railways.

A state-owned enterprise will absorb the ministry’s commercial arm, which has responsibility for passenger ticketing and freight operations, the sources added.

The Railways Ministry has faced numerous problems over the past few years, including heavy debts from funding new high-speed lines, waste and fraud. The government has pledged to open the rail industry to private investment on an unprecedented scale.

Individual delegates to the CPPCC and other activists have issued public calls for specific reforms at the NPC. As the New York Times reports, some delegates are calling for an end to re-education through labor, or laojiao, camps, following vague promises from the government on the issue:

“The reeducation-through-labor system to a certain extent makes citizens live in fear,” said Dai Zhongchuan, a delegate and law professor from Huaqiao University in Fujian Province, in a report by, the news portal of the State Council Information Office and the National Internet Information Office.

“Not to go through the courts to decide on a crime is to deprive and limit personal freedoms. Not to take steps to restrict and monitor this can very easily lead to the abuse of power,” said Mr. Dai.

Human Rights Watch issued a letter to Xi Jinping calling for the abolition of laojiao and a number of other reforms.

But as the New York Times article quoted above points out, deeper political reforms are unlikely to come to fruition at the current congress:

The apparent scaling back of the plans for administrative changes reflects how difficult it will be for the leadership to deliver on promises to free up the economy from state-owned enterprises and fight corruption, while still preserving single-party rule, said Zheng Yongnian, director of the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore. “In all these issues, there’s the same basic problem of deep distrust between the people and the government,” Mr. Zheng said. “Because there is so much distrust, the government is reluctant to make deep reforms. What they call reforms turns out be reassigning powers within government, not giving up powers to society. That’s not real reform — and then people feel increasingly frustrated.”

UPDATE: Early Tuesday morning Beijing time, Xinhua released the military budget:


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