This week, more than 3,000 deputies in China’s National People’s Congress are meeting in Beijing. The NPC is the legislative body of the Chinese government — and the largest parliament in the world.
The full NPC meets just once a year in March, usually for a period of about two weeks. NPC deputies serve five-year terms, and the newly “elected” group (the 13th NPC) will take office this year. Here are three things to know about this session:
1. Does the NPC have any influence? On paper, the NPC is the most powerful institution in the Chinese government. The parliament has the sole authority to pass laws and amend the country’s constitution. It also appoints high-level government officials, including the president and vice president.
Of course, power on paper does not mean power in practice. The Chinese Communist Party maintains tight control of the NPC, most directly by dictating who sits in the parliament in the first place. Usually 70 to 75 percent of NPC deputies are party members, and all national-level deputies are thoroughly vetted and selected on loyalty.
China has nothing resembling an organized political opposition, and the NPC is not a meaningful check on the authority of the Chinese Communist Party. That said, China watchers pay attention to the NPC because it is the most public forum for policymaking in the country. Every year, the NPC passes major pieces of legislation, and senior leaders give speeches and work reports that hint at the party’s intention for years to come.
2. What’s the big issue for 2018? The buzz this year is about how the Chinese Communist Party recently announced plans to amend the country’s constitution, dropping a clause that prevents the president from serving more than two consecutive five-year terms. The NPC will also vote March 17 to reappoint Xi for another five-year term as China’s president.
The second of Xi’s five-year terms is set to conclude in 2023, but this rule change will allow him a legal path to stay in office. As Mary Gallagher and Jeremy Wallace have argued, the proposed constitutional amendment signals that Xi has managed to further concentrate power at the expense of other party elites. In political science terms, we may be witnessing a slow transition from one party to personalist dictatorship.
3. Is there any chance that Xi meets resistance? No, chances are pretty slim. In the history of the NPC, no draft law, amendment or political appointment has ever been voted down at the annual session in March. This is well-orchestrated political theater, and things usually go according to script.
That said, on paper NPC deputies are tasked with representing the “will of the people” and “protecting the interests of the party.” The removal of term limits is against the interests of both those constituencies, as it undoes decades of legal precedent and makes way for a return to strongman rule and elite conflict.
Historically, the Chinese Communist Party and the country seem to fare better when China is ruled by collective leadership rather than a single dictator. Xi’s centralization of power and growing cult of personality invites comparisons to the Mao era, which witnessed some of the greatest man-made humanitarian disasters in human history. The lesson of that era was that no single leader should become too powerful, and it is no coincidence that party leaders instituted term limits in 1982.
The constitutional amendment is one of the more dramatic and controversial events we’ve seen centered in the NPC in recent memory. It will be interesting to note whether there are dissenting votes or public opposition to the amendment. This is a pretty striking power play on Xi’s part, and at least some deputies must view this as bad policy.
Every now and then, some deputies do act out and vote their conscience. During the Tiananmen protests, for instance, a group of deputies even attempted to convene an emergency legislative session, without the permission of senior party leaders.
The NPC will vote on the amendment Sunday, with deliberation sessions Wednesday and Friday.
If we do observe some opposition this week in the NPC, that would give some hint that there are reformers (or at least other power centers) within the Chinese Communist Party. If not, it would suggest the NPC is firmly under Xi’s personal control.
Rory Truex (@rorytruex) is an assistant professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of “Making Autocracy Work: Representation and Responsiveness in Modern China.”