By Stanley Lubman, The Wall Street Journal, China Real Time Report
Stanley Lubman, a long-time specialist on Chinese law, teaches at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Law and is the author of “Bird in a Cage: Legal Reform in China After Mao,” (Stanford University Press, 1999).
Western observers writing about China’s governance often resort to the stock description of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and local People’s Congresses (LPCs) as “rubber stamps.” Recent scholarship, however, suggests that the label should be reconsidered. At the national level such a cliché diverts attention away from a more sophisticated analysis of legislative processes in the NPC. At the local levels it is sometimes contradicted by meaningful participation in governing by some LPCs, even if it is not in a democratic manner. Articles about the role of the Chinese legislatures in a recent issue of the journal Modern China provide useful Chinese and Western perspectives that enhance knowledge about Chinese governance beyond the usual clichés.
Writing about the NPC, Jiang Shigong, a law professor at Beijing University, states that it is indeed a “rubber stamp,” and has always been intended to be the body that translates the policies of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) into law (“Written and Unwritten Constitutions: A New Approach to the study of Constitutional Government in China”). An astute commentary in the same journal by my Berkeley colleague political scientist Kevin O’Brien (“How Authoritarian Government Works”) notes that Jiang’s article is significant because it emphasizes the importance of “a set of institutional relationships” among the party and the NPC, the state chairman and other power holders, and the center and local governments. These relationships must be studied because in practice they reflect fundamental principles that underlie political behavior, including relations between central party committees and local party committees, which he states (not surprisingly) are more important than relations between the NPC and LPCs.
In addition, the processes by which laws are proposed, drafted, and discussed before they are adopted need to be better understood. The “rubber stamp” label is a barrier to deeper insight into the complex and opaque relations among Party departments and NPC units such as committees that draft and debate legislative proposals with outside experts and government departments. As Professor Donald Clarke notes in his article in the same journal (“New Approaches to the Study of Political Order in China”), ”we cannot understand what the NPC actually does if the questions we ask about it are always based on a preconceived notion of what it ought to be doing.”
It is especially necessary to escape the “rubber stamp” cliché in order to analyze the functions and activities of LPCs: Given the high degree of decentralization of China’s administration, some LPCs (their vitality varies considerably by region) are changing China’s politics. Professor O’Brien, reviewing two books on the LPCs, Young Nam Cho, “Local People’s Congresses in China: Development and Transition,” (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2008) and Ming Xia, “The People’s Congresses and Governance in China: Toward a Network Mode of Governance” (Routledge, 2007) (reviewed in “Local People’s Congresses and Governing China,” The China Journal, No. 61, January 2009) emphasizes that “energetic LPCs are first and foremost a sign that where Chinese politics takes place has changed,” and that they are concerned with “state building, restructuring bureaucratic ties and making Party rule predictable and effective.”
O’Brien writes that both books show that LPCs are more active than previously thought, and that “many are closer to the local center of power” than the NPC is in Beijing despite its physical presence in the capital. Some LPCs introduce innovations, such as consumer rights and protection of children, which are noticed and emulated in other regions of China, The authors also try to understand reasons for variations in legislative activism. Although more research is necessary, these books provide evidence that some LPCs are becoming important in making and carrying out policies.
The LPCs perform a number of different functions. One is lawmaking, which in recent years has involved a good deal of experimentation, especially in the economy. A notable example of provincial innovation is the adoption of the Hunan Provincial Administrative Procedure Provisions, effective October 1, 2008 (in Chinese here), which greatly expands opportunities for public participation in decision-making on a range of important policy matters. Other provinces, such as Guangdong, have also used hearings to expand (on a small scale) public participation in law-making. In the meantime, although Open Government Regulations were issued by the State Council after considerable local experimentation, enactment of a comprehensive national administrative procedure law has been under discussion within the NPC for years.
Another function of LPCs is oversight, sometimes carried out by organizing inspection tours that look into matters such as alleged imposition of unlawful fees and violation of property rights—although many of these inspections do not bring about change. LPCs also appraise local officials and award marks to some that affect their careers, yet these activities do not denote anything near democratization.
LPCs have a representation function, although according to Ming Xia, there is “minimal electoral connection between the elected and those who elect them.” However. O’Brien notes that some members of LPCs do “speak up for groups or localities, and some try to nudge policy in a desired direction.” Some also try to spend time responding to complaints voiced to them in letters and visits.
These small steps may not seem to add up to much, but one author, Ming Xia, writes optimistically of “the inevitable coming of an authentic democracy to China,” and suggests that that the LPCs may act as a “bridge leading China from its authoritarian past to its democratic future.”
What should interested foreign readers make of these analyses? At the moment, only an awareness that beneath the labels that foreigners often affix to Chinese governmental institutions, such as the LPCs, the roles of the LPCs in making policy and increasing transparency are expanding because of the growing complexity of Chinese society and the economy. That shift shouldn’t be overlooked.