It’s once again this time of the year when the unique institutional design of the People’s Republic of China displays its highest degree of sophistication: March corresponds to the convening of the “two meetings” or “two sessions”, the gathering of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference that started last Friday, a purely consultative body that has been likened to a gentlemen’s club, and the plenary session of National People’s Congress, supposedly the highest organ of state power.
The CPPCC is the translation of what we call “united front work” in China, meaning in official speech a “multi-party [8 small parties] cooperation and political consultation led by the Communist Party of China”, that is to say the closest thing to a ritualized form of consultation process under the very strict guidance of THE Party in lieu of any democratic undertaking, with no actual power. In this cenacle of happy few — a bit more than 2,000 members — happenings are always possible though, as when Luo Fuhe, a vice-chairman of the CPPCC and the executive vice-chairman of the China Association for Promoting Democracy, breaks ranks and denounces openly the heavy hand of censorship over the internet as hampering scientific research and economic development in the country. He of course stops short of denouncing censorship for its adverse effects over freedom of speech, but then, can anyone imagine Edmund Ho or Tung Chee-hwa, both of them equally vice-chairmen, doing the same? After all, they represent the “second system”, in which — fear not — liberal ideas are tolerated and alive, despite the very limited and ever-shrinking grounding of democracy.
The NPC is in another league, with its slightly less than 3,000 members. On paper it can amend the constitution, enact and amend laws, ratify and abrogate treaties. It also approves the state budget and plans for national economic and social development, and can elect as well as impeach top officials of the state (including the President) and judiciary, and supervise the work of the executive, the military and the judiciary. Zhang Dejiang, its chairman who will retire next year, ranks No. 3 of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee of the Party. Yet, in reality, the NPC plenary session serves mainly as a nation- wide nod giving bonding ceremony that bestowed 80%+ approval rates to decisions already taken by the Communist Party — hence the “rubber-stamp” characterization.
Both congresses are in their twelfth installment, and mandates span over five years. Next year will see the swearing-in of supposedly renewed representatives.
Hong Kong and Macao do participate of course. Hong Kong sends 36 NPC deputies and 203 CPPCC delegates, and Macao respectively 12 and 29 — there are actually more CPPCC delegates from Hong Kong and Macao, but they represent other functional constituencies.
If we turn our eyes exclusively to Macao, there is no doubt that our CPPCC delegates describe perfectly what a former member equated to “a sort of chamber of commerce” for the rich and powerful to mingle, to the point where actually some NPC deputies and almost all our CPPCC delegates are members of the Macao Chinese General Chamber of Commerce — a venerable institution that counts more than 150 (!) members in leadership positions! All but one in the CPPCC, as Ng Lap Seng has been under house arrest on corruption charges in the United States since September 2015.
For the NPC, the Macao deputies can be best described as long-term Beijing loyalists. In that respect, they resemble their ancestors of the fourth National Congress (1975-1978), in which the first deputies for Macao were “great patriots” representing business (Ho Yin, the father of Edmund Ho), the central authorities (O Cheng Peng), trade unions (Liang Pei) and education (Sin Wai Hang). Today is about the same — tradition is a Macao thing — except that we also have the President of the Legislative Assembly and a serving Secretary of Economy and Finance! No such thing in Hong Kong of course, but in Macao, conflicts of interest(sss), actual or perceived, are part and parcel of the system.