BEIJING – China's take on parliamentary democracy kicked off its annual session Saturday to address national priorities at a time of slowing economic growth. Unlike legislatures elsewhere, China's does little in the way of legislating, is carefully stage-managed and allows no foreign leader to address it.
But like such chambers of power elsewhere, China's has become something of a billionaire's club, where the super-rich sit shoulder-to-shoulder with colorfully adorned Tibetan, Mongolian and other minority delegates and members of the country's vast bureaucracy. The delegates are selected through an indirect voting system that ensures those approved by the party leadership get elected.
Here is a look at the National People's Congress, which runs through March 16:
SOME TALK, LITTLE ACTION — China firmly rejects Western political notions of separation of powers, so challenging the leadership or questioning its decisions are not part of the somewhat nebulous mandate for the NPC's nearly 3,000 delegates. Nor does it draft or seriously challenge the government's budget proposals, instead discussing the various speeches and reports in small groups before voting to approve whatever measures put before it at the close of the roughly two-week session.
The exercise is not entirely without merit, however, since members gain a better understanding of the government's priorities and can also channel up to the leadership some of their grassroots concerns.
The vast majority of the NPC's legislative work is handled by its 171-member Standing Committee, which meets every two months to discuss and pass laws and is more firmly under control of the ruling Communist Party. The full body only occasionally votes on legislation considered especially significant, notably the 2005 anti-succession law aimed at Taiwan. Even among the laws that reach the Standing Committee, most are fairly prosaic, with the truly crucial matters of state handled directly by the party's paramount Politburo Standing Committee.
POMP AND REPRESSION — The NPC strictly proceeds along well established lines, beginning on its first day with the premier's work report, a kind of State-of-the-Nation address that reviews achievements of the previous year and sets out the new year's goals and priorities. Focused heavily on the economy and public services, the report is pulled together by a committee based on submissions from major government departments. Considerable lobbying precedes the premier's 90-minute speech, since a mention of one's pet project can be touted as a high-level endorsement.
The time around the meeting is usually a dismal period for China's embattled dissident community, which may be confined to their homes or taken on out-of-town trips in the constant presence of state security agents. Security is ratcheted up nationwide, but especially in Beijing, where out-of-town petitioners are cleared out and paramilitary guards are posted throughout city. Saturday's opening session at the Great Hall of the People in the heart of Beijing was swathed in multiple layers of security, starting with bag checks in the subway and an additional checkpoint just to look onto the square.
NO ROOM FOR OUTSIDERS — Although Chinese President Xi Jinping has grown fond of addressing his host country's elected assemblies during overseas trips, the NPC doesn't afford the same honor. Partly, that's because of limited availability, with the full congress meeting just once a year, but also because of its rigid structure that brooks no outside interference. Foreign guests may observe from the gallery, but only the premier and other top Chinese leaders are allowed to address the assembly. The most a visiting leader can hope for is a speech at one of China's top universities.
BILLIONAIRE'S CLUB — The NPC includes many of China's wealthiest citizens, with more than 100 billionaires by some estimates. The real number isn't known since delegates are under no obligation to declare their assets, and wealth in China is often hidden. However, observers who run the numbers say the top 10 richest delegates are worth around $184 billion, about 100 times the wealth of the 10 richest American members of Congress. Membership confers both status and access to policy-makers who can help grease the wheels of commerce.
While the NPC's membership originally was drawn from government officials, workers and farmers, former President Jiang Zemin opened it up more than a decade ago to China's newly rich. That's given it a reputation as the world's wealthiest parliament, more likely to draw comparisons to the annual Davos gathering than any true elected assembly. That may seem at odds with the Communist Party's original mandate of seeking capitalism's downfall. Yet they're not so far opposed as it may seem, since many of those fortunes were made in the post-Mao reform era during which the party oversaw the transfer of vast land holdings and other public assets into private hands.