Political season has officially started. China’s top law-making body, better known as the National People’s Congress or NPC, is in session.
I’ve never been good at understanding the mechanisms of politics, be it in Australia, the US or any other country. China’s political system is particularly mind-baffling. But here’s my best shot at breaking it down.
Cynical expats in China will tell you the whole gathering is little more than a glorified rubber-stamp legislature, more show than go. China’s state media will skirt around using the word “democracy”, but sell it as an all-inclusive forum that lays the blueprints for progress through an open exchange of ideas and voices. The truth is somewhere in between. It’s wrong to dismiss the gathering as a PR circus, but it’s equally ill-informed to believe China’s leadership isn’t keeping its fingers on the pulse of its people, particularly regarding socio-economic progress.
The NPC includes more than 2,000 deputies (like Members of Parliament) who are elected at different levels from the backwater provinces to the top law-making body. The higher they are, the more likely they are to be appointed by standing members. The lower they are, the more likely they are to be elected in village committee elections. This is China’s “grassroots democracy”, as trumpeted in the state media. The village chief is essentially elected by his constituents – farmer Wang, shopkeeper Liu, etc.
The NPC’s tenure is five years. In a nutshell, the 2011 session is the third annual plenary session of the 11th NPC (since the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949). When each NPC is formed, they put out a five-year mandate. It’s basically a list of goals they hope to achieve for the country over the period – think typically Politburospeak like “improving people’s livelihoods, sustained economic growth”.
China is coping with economic hurdles like rising inflation and mapping out its development for 2011, the start of its 12th Five-Year Plan and the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China (CPC).
Last week, Premier Wen Jiabao delivered his annual “work report” to the NPC. It was China’s equivalent of the US State of the Union Address. In it, Wen stressed China “still faces an extremely complex situation for development this year”.
“The world economy will continue to recover slowly, but the foundation for recovery is not solid. We need to correctly strike a balance between maintaining steady yet rapid economic development, restructuring the economy and managing inflation expectations, pay more attention to maintaining overall price stability, and prevent large economic fluctuations.”
Here are some key numbers to come out of the NPC session:
- 7% – China’s target to increase its gross domestic product (GDP) over the next five years.
- 4% – the optimal peak for the consumer price index (CPI), a major gauge for inflation. In January 2011, this mark hit 4. percent while food prices surged 10.3 percent.
- Over 9 million – the number of jobs China wants to create in urban areas to keep the registered unemployment rate at 4.6 percent or lower. NPC delegates are also concerned about plugging a shortage of workers in the lifeblood sector of China’s labor, manufacturing.
- 16% – further reduction of energy intensity by 2015. This is good news for the environment, as China gradually moves to wean itself off its dirty, deadly, yet domestically rich coal reserves. It also could usher in closer clean energy cooperation with the European Union that, like China, has a growing dependence on gas from Russia to meet its energy needs.
- 12.7% – the increase to China’s military spending in 2011. The renewed double-digit hike has caused some panic internationally, especially among China’s neighbors and the West wary of the PLA’s ever-growing firepower. NPC spokesman Li Zhaoxing insisted the budget hike “doesn’t threaten any country” – a carefully worded phrase given Taiwan’s political status. But he also pointed out China’s defense spending is “relatively low” as a percentage of GDP. US military spending is still six times greater than China. Granted, the US is involved in more wars and has more bases overseas than any other country. Still, it puts things into perspective.