How to Fix China’s Crooked Congress

by Thomas Kellog / September 29, 2016 / ChinaFile

Nearly four years into Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign, Chinese citizens could be forgiven if their eyes glaze over at the news of yet another high official’s fall from grace. But even the most jaded likely could not ignore the revelations disclosed on September 13: meeting in an extremely rare special session, the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress dismissed 45 of the 2,987 members of the full National People’s Congress (NPC).

The 45 delegates, all of whom hailed from China’s northeastern Liaoning province, had bought their way onto the national legislature, paying at least 452 members of the 618-member provincial legislature the equivalent of untold millions of dollars for the privilege of calling themselves People’s Representatives. (NPC delegates are not directly elected, but are rather chosen by the People’s Congress at the level below. Only at the lowest level are People’s Congress members directly elected, although even those local elections are often manipulated by local officials.) It’s big news, but unlikely to change the NPC’s status as a rubber stamp better known for advancing the careers of its members than serving the Chinese public.

As of this writing, more than 10 senior provincial-level officials have been implicated. Those named in the scandal thus far include a vice-governor of Liaoning, the Party Secretary for Fudan University in Shanghai, and a vice-chair of the Liaoning People’s Congress. According to the Singapore-based United Morning News, Liaoning now has the largest number of provincial-level officials brought down for corruption since Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-graft shake-up began back in 2012.

State-run media outlets have called the mass ejection “historically unprecedented.” NPC Chairman Zhang Dejiang called the scandal a “serious violation of Party discipline and national law,” and vowed to show disgraced lawmakers the full measure of Chinese justice. An unnamed official told a reporter from independent newsmagazineCaixin that Beijing had finished its investigation into the case over the summer, and that those who had violated the law would soon find themselves facing either criminal charges or—much worse—the ruling Communist Party’s own often iron-fisted internal disciplinary system.

At first glance, one might think that the purging of 45 corrupt officials could change the way that the NPC does business. Yet the corruption scandal only highlights the NPC’s political irrelevance, despite its constitutional position as the highest organ of state power. True reform would move beyond punishing corrupt office-holders, and would instead focus on a wide-ranging package of structural reforms that would strengthen the NPC’s capacity, its institutional autonomy, and its ability to truly represent the Chinese people. Alas, that is unlikely.

The most important reform Beijing could undertake would involve changing the selection process for Chinese legislators. As the Liaoning scandal showed, both the NPC and provincial-level legislatures are overstocked with officials who also hold other posts, as well as businessmen (and they are overwhelmingly men) looking to parlay their proximity to power into business opportunities. It is no coincidence that the fallen NPC members represent one of the richest legislative bodies in the world, according to a 2015 study by the Shanghai-based Hurun Report. Just over 100 NPC delegates were onHurun’s list of the richest people in China, which means that billionaires are better represented in China’s Congress than many ethnic minority groups and key professions. This is why people join the NPC: they want to benefit from the official access the NPC provides, and at the same time, NPC membership sends a signal to would-be rivals, warning potential challengers to proceed with caution. Read more…

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