What really happens at China’s Two Sessions
A sea of jargon and acronyms
Every year in March, the Chinese government organizes a series of meetings in Beijing to approve new laws and amendments and confirm leadership positions. The event is often called the “Two Sessions” (两会 líang huì) because the event comprises two major gatherings: the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
The NPC, which is sometimes referred to as “China’s parliament,” brings together some 3,000 delegates from provincial government organizations, the armed forces, and the central government in Beijing. They are all members of the Communist Party of China. These delegates are responsible for new legislation and appointments of officials.
The Western press often calls the NPC a “rubber stamp” parliament, which Chinese state media occasionally complains is insulting. But it’s difficult to avoid the characterization because the NPC almost never rejects any legislation put before it: The real decisions are made behind closed doors at various Communist Party meetings, the most important of which is the National Party Congress, which is held every five years.
The CPPCC, which has around 2,000 delegates, is somewhat different: Many of its members are not Communist Party members, its role is purely advisory, and it has no legislative power. Many CPPCC members are businesspeople and celebrities, including the basketball player Yao Ming, the actor Jackie Chan, and the tycoons Jack Ma (chairman of Alibaba) and Wang Jianlin (chairman of Wanda). Other members of the CPPCC include officials from China’s eight officially recognized “democratic parties,” which have no power and cannot contest elections but are suffered to exist so the country can call itself a multiparty state.
What actually happens at the Two Sessions?
Even though it is rare for anything surprising to happen at the annual Two Sessions, they are still an important part of China’s political life. So what actually happens?
First, there is a certain amount of debate among the delegates, which does inform and affect the way Chinese laws are made and the choices for leadership positions.
Second, much of the speechifying and discussion is publicized in state media, which allows the government to gauge public reaction to proposed new laws and government initiatives. CPPCC delegates often table proposals that garner coverage in proportion, generally speaking, to the audacity of the proposals and the celebrity of the deputies making them. The speeches and media coverage also allow the government to formally communicate its plans, both to Party members who do not attend the meetings in Beijing and to the public at large. Legislative rituals allow the government to present an image of an orderly and somewhat democratic process.
And finally, although the event is stage-managed, it does offer Chinese and foreign journalists a degree of access to officials — at press conferences but also at informal meetings — that is rare in China. Still, most foreign correspondents in Beijing find the Two Sessions to be a complete snoozefest, consisting mainly of set pieces, stultifying speeches, and press conferences where only pre-approved journalists are allowed to ask only pre-approved questions.
Corruption and murder
Sometimes — very occasionally — interesting things do happen at the Two Sessions. In 2012, an official at the NPC told delegates from the city of Chongqing — a sprawling municipality of around 50 million people that many Americans have never heard of — that “the climate in Chongqing is very different from the climate in Beijing.” Astute observers immediately realized that this remark heralded the biggest political scandal in China in decades: the takedown on corruption charges of Bo Xilai, a charismatic contender for the presidency, which is now held by Xi Jinping. At the time, Bo was the Communist Party chief of Chongqing, and he soon fell from grace, accused of bribery and tainted by his wife’s conviction for the murder of an English business associate.
Will Xi stay or will Xi go?
The most important signal many China watchers are tracking at this year’s Two Sessions is any sign that President Xi Jinping intends to retain the presidency beyond the customary two five-year-term limit, which has been in place since the death of Mao Zedong in 1976. (Jiang Zemin, who was president from 1993 to 2003, did hold the position of Party general secretary from June 1989 until 2002, and held onto the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission for longer still.)
A key indicator is whether Xi chooses to defy convention and allow his trusted right-hand man, Wang Qishan — the man in charge of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign — to stay on as a member of the Communist Party’s seven-member Politburo Standing Committee. Wang is 68, the age at which Party leaders conventionally retire. If this year, the NPC signals that Wang might retain his role despite his age, many observers will interpret that as a sign that Xi himself will turn against the conventions of the past three decades and retain his grip on power beyond his second term as president and secretary general of the Communist Party, which should end in 2022. Much of the government communication coming from the Two Sessions already seems to be laying the groundwork for this: Countless state media articles and speeches by senior officials refer to the importance of regarding Xi as the “core” of the Party’s leadership, a position officially conferred on him at the 6th Plenary Session of the current 18th Party Congress last year.
Rights for fetuses, and a meeting between Donald Trump and Xi Jinping
The Two Sessions still has another few days to run, but some of the more interesting themes have already been publicized:
Next week, the NPC is expected to confirm a new civil code for China that will codify certain rights and responsibilities for citizens. Although the new law is, in Reuters’words, “light on individual rights reforms,” it may, for the first time in China, grant certain rights to unborn babies.
The draft provisions of the new law “describe the fetus as being entitled to some civil rights in terms of inheritance or gifts.” China’s civil law does not currently recognize any rights before birth, but state media says that there is a “growing consensus among legal experts that the law should afford some…protection to an unborn child.” There are, however, limits, as “granting a fetus the right to life may impact on women’s rights.”
Other interesting news has come from a press conference on the sidelines of the NPC given by Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi. He said that China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) have agreed on a draft Code of Conduct for the disputed South China Sea. In his confirmation hearing, U.S. secretary of state Rex Tillerson had complained that China’s island-building campaign was illegal and “akin to Russia’s taking of Crimea.” Wang also warned of a serious risk of a “head-on collision” between the U.S. and North Korea, as Kim Jong-un tests nuclear-capable missiles while America has begun deploying the THAAD missile defense system and conducts “military exercises of enormous scale” with South Korea. Wang also indicated that a meeting between Donald Trump and Chinese president Xi Jinping was in the works, which was later confirmed, apparently, by American government sources.
There are several roundups of this year’s Two Sessions worth reading: “Nothing to see but comfort for Xi at China’s annual parliament” at Reuters, “China’s premier, Li Keqiang, strikes upbeat tone amid U.S. tensions” at the New York Times, and “The many things China doesn’t want: Highlights from Li Keqiang’s press conference” at the South China Morning Post. Finally, Bloomberg has a review of “China’s next class of leaders” of who stood out in one way or another at the Two Sessions, and the New York Times takes a close look at the draft civil code mentioned above.
What to look forward to?
Despite some possibilities for tea-leaf reading by China watchers, it is unlikely that much will be reported by journalists or deemed actionable by hedge fund managers from the Two Sessions this year. So what to watch for? For me, I look forward to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that will take place in the fall later this year.