A sea of jargon and acronyms
Every year, the Chinese government organizes a series of meetings in Beijing to approve new laws and amendments and confirm leadership positions. The event is called the “Two Sessions” (lianghui or 两会 in Chinese) because it comprises two major gatherings: the National People’s Congress, or NPC, and the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, or CPPCC.
The NPC, sometimes called China’s parliament, has around 3,000 delegates, many of whom are government officials and representatives from around the country, or serve as military leaders. Most of the delegates are members of the Communist Party of China and are responsible for new legislation and appointments of officials.
However, much of the NPC seems symbolic. In fact, many Western media outlets call it a “rubber stamp” parliament, a term Chinese state media occasionally complain is insulting to the system of government. But it’s difficult to avoid the characterization since the NPC almost never rejects any legislation put before it. Instead, many of the real decisions are made behind closed doors at various Communist Party meetings, the most important of which is the National Party Congress held every five years.
The CPPCC, on the other hand, 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. As a result, many CPPCC members are business people and celebrities, including the basketball player Yao Ming, the actor Jackie Chan and the tycoon Wang Jianlin. Other members of the CPPCC include officials from China’s eight other political parties outside of the Communist Party, parties which have no real legal power and cannot contest elections but provide the ruling party a means of calling the state a multiparty government.
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?
Firstly, there is a certain amount of debate amongst the delegates which does inform and affect the way Chinese laws and the choices for leadership positions are made.
Secondly, much of the discussion is heavily publicized in state media (see for example these special pages created — in Chinese — on the websites of government news agency Xinhua and the Communist Party house newspaper People’s Daily), which allows the government to gauge public reaction to proposed new laws and government initiatives. 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 and heavily regulated, it does offer Chinese and foreign journalists a degree of access to officials — at press conferences but also at informal meetings — a level of access that is rare in China, particularly with government functions. Still, most foreign correspondents in Beijing find the Two Sessions to be a snoozefest, comprised of set pieces, stultifying speeches and pressers where only pre-approved journalists are allowed to ask only pre-approved questions.
Corruption and murder
Sometimes, though 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 in southwestern China ― that “the climate in Chongqing is very different from the climate in Beijing.”
Observers quickly realized that this remark heralded one of the biggest political scandals in China in decades, referring to the state of politics in the city, rather than the actual temperature of the region. The remark about the weather actually signified the takedown of Bo Xilai, who at the time was a charismatic contender for the presidency. Bo was 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.
But while Bo’s scandal and the statements that surrounded it served as interesting fodder for journalists and the general public, slip ups like this are rare at the NPC.
Will Xi stay or will Xi go?
Instead of corruption and murder scandals, this year the most important signal many China watchers are tracking at the Two Sessions is any sign that President Xi Jinping intends to stay in power — whether as president or as general secretary of the Communist Party. If he wishes to extend his reign of power, the move would put him beyond the customary two terms limit that has been in place since the death in 1976 of Mao Zedong, the founder of modern China.
A key indicator of his intention to stay prominent in the party in some capacity will likely be a move from Xi to allow his trusted right-hand man Wang Qishan, who currently manages the anti-corruption campaign, to stay on as a senior member of the Communist Party’s Politburo, a group that serves as the overhead authority within the Communist Party.
Wang himself is 68, the age at which party leaders are conventionally asked retire ― and as such, allowing him to maintain power would go against traditional conventions of the party. 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 other conventions of the past three decades and retain his grip on power beyond his second term as president and general secretary of the Communist Party that should end in 2022.
Much of the government communication coming from the Two Sessions already seems to be laying the groundwork for this, as countless state media articles and speeches by senior officials refer to the importance of regarding Xi as the “core” of the party’s leadership.
Rights for fetuses and a Trump-Xi meeting
As the Two Sessions nears its end, here are some notable developments.
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, as reported by Reuters, “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, according to Xinhua, “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, the state media outlet quotes a civil law jurist as saying, but, it continues, there is a “growing consensus among legal experts that the law should afford some some recognition and protection to an unborn child.” There are, however, limits, one Chinese law professor and CPPCC member told the publication: “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 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations have agreed on a draft Code of Conduct for the disputed South China Sea. The contentious islands were the topic of remarks earlier from U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who said 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 both nations test their respective weapons capabilities in a sort of military escalation ― North Korean leader Kim Jong Un recently tested a nuclear-capable missile, and the U.S. began deploying the THAAD missile defense system and conducting large-scale military drills with South Korea.
What to look forward to
Despite some possibilities for tea leaf reading by China watchers, it is likely that there will not be much that will be reported by journalists or that will be actionable by hedge fund managers to emerge from the Two Sessions this year.
So what should people watch for? I look forward to the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China that will take place in the fall later this year — that’s when we’ll learn a lot more about Xi Jinping’s plans for his succession, or his plans to keep control of the levers of power beyond the conventional limit of two terms as president.
In the meantime, one big wild card is China’s relationship with the U.S. After poking China in the eye by publicizing his phone call with Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, Donald Trump softened his tone in a later call with Chinese President Xi Jinping. Some believe China threw him a bone by reportedly fast-tracking trademark applications his company had applied for in China in a range of business areas, an act the Chinese government denies was special treatment despite comments to the contrary.
Whether Xi and Trump succeed in lowering the tensions between the countries in the coming months or not, the Chinese president continues to pursue a new role as the champion of globalization in contrast to the “America First” rhetoric emanating from the White House. After Xi’s speech at Davos where the leader looked to fill the gap of a more isolationist United States, state media reports from the Two Sessions have parroted the position, with Xinhua news agency commenting that “his strong defense of free trade and warnings against protectionism … have surprised and delighted observers.” This annual political gathering may not have definitive answers to China’s role in the global order, but the Two Sessions are a glimpse into what the world should be paying attention to.