Fiddling with Commas While the Economy Burns

This year’s “Two Sessions,” which concluded on March 11, were more Party-choreographed than ever, as evidenced by the elimination of the premier’s customary post-NPC press conference, the weakening of the State Council via a revision to the State Council Organic Law, the unrelenting focus on Xi Jinping and Xi Jinping Thought, and stringent online censorship to control public discourse about the tepid sessions.

CDT Chinese editors compiled a list of terms (and combinations of terms) censored on Weibo during this year’s Two Sessions. Among them were references to self-serving representatives (“People’s Congress + Representing who?”) and negative or sardonic mentions of Xi Jinping (“Xi Jinping Rules China,” “Xi Jinping + The Emperor is Greatly Pleased,” and “The Great Trump,” a term that dates back to the early days of the COVID pandemic, when netizens used it as a stand-in to circumvent censorship of the name “Xi Jinping.”)

Most every year, there are some complaints online—and attendant censorship aimed at tamping down those complaints—about the rubber-stamp nature of the Two Sessions. In 2023, for example, censors went into overdrive to quash discussion of Xi’s unanimous re-election by the National People’s Congress (NPC) to an uncontested and unprecedented third term as president. While state media hailed that year’s Two Sessions as a triumph for China’s “whole-process people’s democracy,” many ordinary citizens posted comments and memes online to mock the passivity of the NPC delegates. One man even attempted to print and sell t-shirts with the number 2952 (the number of votes cast by NPC delegates in Xi’s unanimous “re-election”), only to be told by his Taobao retailer that the shirts were “not possible to print.” The man later discovered that his Alipay account had been suspended.  

This year, CDT editors have archived and republished two articles, from very different sources, that highlight the contrast between quiescent and activist “people’s representatives” to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Congress (CPPCC). In a year fraught with economic anxiety, stock and property market woes, plus the usual worries about how to afford housing, education, child care, medical treatment, elder care, and retirement, many Chinese citizens seem disappointed by the exalted delegates who claim to represent them. 

The first article was authored by Liu Changrong, Yang Jie, and Qing Zhenzi for the China Youth Daily Online, an online newspaper published by the Communist Youth League of China. A master class in oblique criticism, the article juxtaposes the CPPCC delegates’ impressive names, titles, and accomplishments with their embarrassingly tepid suggested alterations to the government’s annual work report. Although the tone of the piece is scrupulously neutral, the title of the article (Let’s Begin the Discussion With This Punctuation Mark in the Government Work Report”) and the frustrating minutiae it describes suggest a certain sense of deadpan humor on the part of the authors:

“On page 26 of the government work report, I think that the first comma in ‘Deepen reform of public hospitals, improve patient-centered medical services, and promote mutual acceptance of [medical] examination and test results’ should be changed to a period.” At a CPPCC subcommittee meeting on the afternoon of March 6, Zheng Zhe—CPPCC delegate and deputy chief of the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences’ Fuwai Hospital—proposed a [punctuation] revision to the government work report that had been delivered by Premier Li Qiang the previous day.

The agenda of the subcommittee meeting that day was to discuss the government work report. After studying it carefully, Zheng Zhe proposed this extremely specific punctuation revision. As he explained, there are many challenges and difficulties to reforming public hospitals—not merely improving the quality of medical services, but more importantly, improving the management and operating structure of hospitals.

[…] Fu Chuan, [CPPCC delegate and senior engineer at the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Computing Technology], suggested adding a description of disaster preparedness for “new productive forces” to the paragraph about safeguarding national security and social stability on page 27 of the government work report.

[…] Health issues have a major impact on people’s lives and livelihoods. Many delegates who are members of the medical community performed their duties conscientiously and proposed revisions to the government work report. Zhang Wenhong, CPPCC national committee member and director of Shanghai’s National Center for Infectious Diseases, felt that in this passage from page 26 (“focus on promoting priority-tiered diagnosis and treatment [in which priority is given to more serious, hard-to-treat diseases], and lead the way in making high-quality medical treatment and resources available to people at the grassroots”), the words “focus on” should be changed to “continue.” 

[…] Regarding the modification of “focus on,” Xie Liangdi, CPPCC delegate and deputy director of the Research Institute for Hypertensive Diseases in Fujian Province, put forth a differing opinion. He felt that the words “focus on” could perhaps be changed to “make every effort to.”

Wu Peixin, CPPCC national committee member and Party secretary of Peking Union Medical College Hospital, agreed that “focus on” should be changed to “make every effort to.” He explained that “focus on” expresses an attitude and a direction, but “make every effort to” expresses the need to put these attitudes and directions into action. [Chinese

The second article, published by WeChat account 一小时爸爸 (yīxiǎoshí bàba, “one-hour daddy”), discusses the public reaction to a proposal made this year by CPPCC delegate Gan Huatian (甘华田) to offer women workers two years of paid maternity leave. News of Gan’s proposal racked up more than 200 million views on Weibo, and it was widely discussed online, with most netizens opposing the proposal because they felt it would result in even more hiring discrimination against female job candidates. The author notes that despite Gan Huatian’s record of putting forward wildly ambitious but ultimately unsuccessful proposals—on topics that include free education for third children, free medical care for kids under six, eliminating the high school entrance exam, introducing suicide-prevention classes for students, allowing people to make “living wills,” and establishing a national rare disease diagnosis and treatment center—at least he seems to have the people’s best interests at heart. He is making an effort and taking risks, the author argues, rather than just going through the motions like many of his passive fellow delegates:

Henan Daily conducted a survey [about Gan’s proposal] on Weibo. Among the 21,000 survey respondents, 19,000 believed that if the proposal were implemented, women would be discriminated against in hiring, while only about 800 respondents thought that women would not be discriminated against.

[…] Every March, we always see various draft proposals make Weibo’s “hot search” list, but they are only a small portion of the total. Even if we only count the CPPCC, there are currently 2,169 delegates to that conference. Each year, these delegates submit approximately 5,000 draft proposals. For this reason, very few of the thousands of delegates or their proposals are known to the public.

[…] I personally have tried various methods, but have been unable to find a searchable platform that lists the content of all the CPPCC proposals from recent years. (The official CPPCC website has only been updated to early 2016.)

This is why, although I oppose delegate Gan Huatian’s proposal, I wish that there were more opportunities for ordinary people to criticize and discuss such proposals.

I wish that more CPPCC delegates would communicate their proposals to the public through the media or via other means, because this in itself also represents their willingness to subject themselves to public oversight. Regardless of whether the general public is satisfied with a proposal, whether they offer it praise or criticism, it is a productive form of interaction because it helps delegates to more deeply understand the public’s sentiments and concerns, and to improve the proposals they submit. This is much more meaningful than drafting proposals alone, behind closed doors.

Given the choice between delegates making proposals public and risking public criticism, or the public not even knowing what proposals are being made, I would hope for more of the former. [Chinese]


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