What to Expect at the 12th National People’s Congress

The annual meeting of China’s National People’s Congress – the rubber-stamp legislature that is, in theory at least, the head of the Chinese state – is set to commence on March 5 at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. At this year’s meeting, we will see the ongoing decennial leadership transition come to its completion with the official “election” of China’s head of state (President) and head of government (Premier of the State Council). As has been tradition since 1993, newly appointed party positions have already determined that CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping will take over the presidency, while the premiership will go to the second ranked member of the CCP Politburo Standing Committee, Li Keqiang.

The upcoming NPC meeting will give the newly empowered Xi-Li duo a chance to reveal their objectives and new administration. Since being granted their power at the 18th Party Congress in November of last year, pledges have been made to crackdown on corruption and limit extravagance in the party, curb the nation’s massive pollution problem through green energy policies, and deepen economic reform. A piece from Bloomberg Businessweek comprehensively outlines what is to be expected at the NPC, noting that the nation Xi and Li inherit is much different than it was when Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao convened the 10th NPC as new leaders a decade ago:

As they try to deliver on [their] promises, Xi and Li face an unprecedented level of public scrutiny, with China’s online community expanding more than eight-fold since their predecessors took power 10 years ago. At stake is their ability to maintain the ruling Communist Party’s legitimacy as it adjusts to slower economic growth after an average of 10.5 percent expansion over the past decade.

“Xi and Li take over a nation characterized by far more large-scale corruption, inequality of wealth and environmental degradation than was the case a decade ago,” said Kenneth Lieberthal, director of the Brookings Institution’s John L. Thornton China Center. “The population is now demanding that the government treat it with greater respect.”

[…]China’s citizens have used the Internet to increasingly express discontent over issues from pollution to graft to income disparities. China added 51 million web users last year to bring the total to 564 million, underscoring the challenge faced by Xi and Li in ensuring the government’s message remains dominant.

As the party holds supreme power in the PRC, real policy decisions are usually made at plenary meetings of the CCP’s central committee, while the NPC (with help from the mass media) has acted more as a mechanism to guide public opinion. However, Brookings scholar Cheng Li thinks that the upcoming NPC will have more policy implications than in the past. Wall Street Journal reports:

First, there is a sense of urgency on the part of Mr. Xi to lift public confidence by initiating major policy changes, especially to please the middle class and to do so now rather than waiting another seven months.

Second, Mr. Xi is now in his “honeymoon period,” and he should cash in his political capital to carry out new policies promptly.

Third, in contrast to the previous 10 years when there was often policy deadlock resulting from the factional infighting of the top leadership, Mr. Xi now has a six-to-one concentration of power in the Politburo Standing Committee — a great advantage that should allow him to do substantive things .

And fourth, Li Keqiang is under tremendous pressure to demonstrate his leadership ability. Evidence seems to suggest Messrs. Xi and Li understand very well their need to support each other. Their different policy preferences can also complement each other, resonating well in different sectors and with different classes throughout the country.

In the lead-up to the NPC, there have been attempts to urge leaders into addressing sensitive topics at the NPC. Deutsche-Welle reports on an open letter calling for China to ratify a UN human rights treaty; and Channel News Asia notes that, after much public discussion and media coverage, the controversial re-education through labor system may be discussed.

For more on the soon-to-be-complete leadership transition, see Patrick Chovanec’s perpetually helpful primer, which includes an overview of the separation of powers in China.

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