Though still derided by some as a "rubber stamp", the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the country's top advisory body, are actually making noticeable progress every year. Taking into account China's overall political and social conditions, we'll find that such progress or improvement, though not so radical as to convince radical commentators, has never come by easily and should be credited and valued by the public. Quite contrary to the "rubber stamp" prejudice, my argument is that given time and reform, China's NPC and CPPCC systems shall have the potential to become the world's best decision-making bodies at the national level.
Let's just look at some simple facts. This year's sessions of the NPC (held on March 5-14) and the CPPCC (held on March 3-13) were in some way different, in the first place by the good number of "apologies". From a cultural and sociological perspective, the capacity to make apologies is always to be welcomed and should be seen as the best part of the human conscience. However, observers of Chinese politics must also have realized that apologizing was rarely considered a decent alternative by Chinese officials before. But if they have been carefully watching the ongoing sessions, they might think differently.
At an NPC press conference on March 5, head of the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) Zhang Ping took responsibility for failing to halt China's CPI- increase within the planned 4 percent, while admitting that his Commission has not done a good job at certain aspects of the macro-regulation. Two days later, China's Minister of Environment Protection Zhou Shengxian apologized before a gathering of NPC deputies for the Ministry's failure to fulfil its promise of reducing nitrogen oxide emissions. He also pledged that a zero increase in nitrogen oxide emissions will be achieved in the following year.
Premier Wen Jiabao himself set a very good example for Chinese officials during their displays of candour and confidence. On March 8, when joining CPPCC members from the economic and the agricultural circles, he apologized for being 4 minutes late due to certain issues requiring his immediate attention.
Prior to this, in his Government Work Report which he delivered to the NPC on March 5, Wen straight-up admitted that "there are still some deficiencies and shortcomings in the government's work. Targets for conserving energy, reducing emissions, and controlling prices are not being met. The problems concerning land expropriation, housing demolition, workplace safety, food and drug safety, and income distribution are still very serious…."
What's behind such public apologies or clarifications, is a maturing political psychology featuring candour, care, courage and confidence. And from the responses of the media and public opinion, we can see how warmly people have welcomed this change. They like to see the government, or the entire public establishment for that matter, more conscious of its own inadequacies and more ambitious in making things better, rather than always proclaiming its almightiness and infallibility.
If another "label" can be used to describe the ongoing NPC and CPPCC sessions, in addition to the word "apology", it would most probably be "criticism" or the "free airing of disagreement".
On March 7, CPPCC member Professor Ge Jianxiong of Fudan University demanded an apology from Yuan Guiren, the minister of education, for the exam paper leak of the 2012 graduate school entrance exam. The minister, though not complying by making a formal apology under the given circumstances, had to report on the latest progress in the investigation and vowed to punish any officials that might be involved.
The next day, NPC deputy Wang Jianlin openly protested that he was "very unhappy" with the reply he had received from the Ministry of Finance regarding his previous proposal concerning a luxury tax reduction. He even made the complaint in a funny, colloquial tone to the effect that "the Ministry of Finance was just fooling me."
Quite similarly, CPPCC member Zhang Guojun harshly criticized China's taxation system. He made his remarks in a tongue-in-cheek manner that "the government increases levies at a speed of Liu Xiang's running, but when it comes to tax reduction, they are like snails." He also condemned local governments' overreliance on selling land as a means of generating fiscal revenue.
It's a gratifying development that the whole atmosphere in the NPC and the CPPCC meetings seems to favour pragmatic and constructive contributions over apple polishing-styled empty talk. Vice Premier Wang Qishan emphasized when he joined in the discussions of the Shandong delegation that deputies and officials should talk less about achievements and focus more on offering suggestions.
The apologies from responsible officials and the criticism from role-conscious deputies and members are both significant indicators of the growth and progress of China's top legislature and top advisory body. While such new changes can be so refreshing and encouraging, the quintessence or underlying spirit was actually put in place over thirty years ago: the principle of "emancipating the mind and seeking truth from fact" developed by the late leader Deng Xiaoping.
The transition from a unanimous "show of hands" to constructive airing of views for the good of the country and the people, demonstrates a growing consciousness and capability of both deputies and members to perform the duties entrusted to them by the people.
Of course, it would be pretentious to say that China's NPC and CPPCC need no improvement. As I made clear at the very beginning, it's going to take a lot of "time and reform" to make them outstanding exemplars of democracy on the political stage. As an observer, I think: First, the efficiency of deliberation and consultation may still have room for improvement and there should be mechanisms to ensure and monitor the effectiveness of proposals. Second, meetings could be held in more eco-friendly and cost-smart ways to better meet the requirements of political and ecological civilization. What's more, gaps could be further bridged to facilitate better communication and problem-solving.
The author is a China.org.cn columnist. For more information please visit: http://www.china.org.cn/opinion/luohuaiyu.htm
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