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Explaining China’s ‘People’s Congress’ Through the Tales of Three: A Hand-raising Automaton, An Independent Candidate, and An Electoral Activist

Teng Biao, March 12, 2019

Independent candidates and electoral activists: clockwise from top left: Yao Lifa, Tang Jingling (severing a 5-year sentence since June 2014), Xu Zhiyong (released in July 2017 after serveing a 4-year sentence), and Liu Ping (serving a 6.5-year sentence since April 2013).

As the Communist Party held this year’s “Two Sessions” (两会), Beijing activist Hu Jia (胡佳) was kept under control by being forcibly moved across the country to Guangdong. Human rights lawyer Tang Jitian (唐吉田) and Xu Zhiyong (许志永), of the New Citizens Movement, received midnight visits in Zhengzhou and were interrogated without explanation. The number of human rights defenders who are under house arrest or have been disappeared is in the thousands. The security departments at all levels are operating at full capacity on a nationwide scale with the capital at the center, consuming a great deal of manpower and financial resources as they use high-tech means to monitor every corner of society.

In its editorial Bring an Immediate End to the Human Rights Disaster of the Two Sessions (《立刻停止制造“两会”人权灾难》), Minsheng Watch (民生观察) wrote that “each March, the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) hold their so-called Two Sessions. On paper, the Sessions should represent public opinion, and use the insights gather from it to form national policies and regulations. In fact, the Two Sessions have become a tool for obstructing, suppressing, and banning popular will; they have become associated with the abduction, detention, house arrest, surveillance, harassment, and disappearance, of dissidents and human rights activists. The Two Sessions have become a total human rights disaster for the Chinese people.”

Which national parliament meeting needs the protection of over a million personnel from the military, police, public security, national security and civilian security personnel? Who holds a meeting with such trepidation, as if walking on thin ice, mobilizing so many public resources? This lays bare the truth that the NPC is a tool to isolate and oppose the people. Behind this, it reflects the two-track political calculus of the Chinese authorities: to flex its muscles in front of the people by making a show of force and privilege, and to try to cover up the Communist Party’s greatest anxieties.

In fact, even if the petitioners are able to stuff the petition materials into the hands of the people’s representatives, few of the representatives would so much as take a look. These NPC deputies are not elected by the people. According to China’s electoral system, these people were elected by “indirect elections”: at no juncture throughout all levels of the “people’s representatives,” from county to city, from city to province, and from province to the National People’s Congress, does the “indirect” have anything to do with the people who are supposedly being represented. It is, plain and simple, a power game. In the twenty-first century, Chinese citizens are unable to directly select their national leaders and legislators, and unable to directly elect provincial and municipal leaders and deputies to the People’s Congresses on these levels. They can’t even directly elect the heads of county and township.

While in theory county- and township-level People’s Congress representatives are directly elected, those elections are completely controlled by the Chinese Communist Party. Without multi-party competition, freedom of association, and freedom of the press, the election is doomed to be a farce. The majority of NPC deputies are from the Party, the government, the judiciary, and the military. They are legislator, executor, and judge all at once. There is no division of the three branches of power; the unity of party and state amounts to political incest.

On top of this are a small number of models workers, writers, academicians, celebrities, ethnic minorities, and the like, who are arranged to participate for the sake of political decoration. They have no task apart from stay in luxury hotels, give enthusiastic applause, and spew flattery.

The most amazing NPC deputy is an 89-year-old grandma named Shen Jilan (申纪兰). Starting when she was a girl of 18, she has been elected 13 times as an NPC deputy — the only person to hold this distinction. “She supported the Great Leap Forward, the People’s Commune, and the Cultural Revolution. She was in favor of struggling against Liu Shaoqi, and she agreed to fight Deng Xiaoping. Later, she agreed to denounce the Great Leap Forward and the People’s Commune, she agreed to the denunciation of the reforms, and she agreed to rehabilitating Liu and Deng.” She raised her hand in favor of all these contradictory positions, without fail, for decades.

Shen Jilan explained: “The representatives’ job is to listen to the Party, so I have never voted against it.” When a reporter asked her whether she would communicate with the voters during the election process, she said, “We are democratically elected, it’s inappropriate to have discussions with [voters.” This “hand-raising automaton” is a living, breathing specimen of Party spirit (党性). She claims to represent the peasantry, but she is actually a retired cadre at the prefecture level. Many of her family members are local officials. As an outstanding representative of the NPC, Shen Jilan presents, in concentrated form, the falsehood, absurdity, and ugliness of the legislature under the CCP.

In the election of deputies to the county-level People’s Congresses, the Communist Party guarantees the finalists of the audience through various nuanced means, by hook or crook. Candidates recognized by the Party can easily be elected without any need to promote and campaign. However, since the law does not prohibit citizens from independently participating in county-level people’s congress deputies, some brave citizens have tried to explore this approach, and in the case of a slightly liberal environment, some individuals can still be elected successfully. In the election of the (Beijing) Haidian District People’s Representatives in 1980, Fang Zhiyuan (房志远), Wang Juntao (王军涛), Hu Ping (胡平), and Zhang Wei (张炜) of the Peking University constituency successively posted election campaign declarations, organized voters’ meetings, debates, held opinion polls, and published “Electoral Shortwaves” and other neutral publications. In the end, Hu Ping was elected.

Since 1987, Yao Lifa (姚立法) of Hubei Province has written himself in as a candidate in the elections for the People’s Congress of Qianjiang City four times (湖北潜江). He was finally elected in 1998 and was the first People’s Representative to be elected in China after 1988. In 2003 and 2008, Xu Zhiyong (许志永), a lecturer at Peking University of Posts and Telecommunications, was twice elected as a representative of the Haidian District People’s Congress as an independent candidate. One of the aims of the Open Constitution Initiative (公盟) initiated by Xu Zhiyong and myself is to encourage and help citizens from all over the country to run as independent candidates at the grass roots in elections for local People’s Congresses. This has become an important part of the rights protection movement since 2003. The independent candidacy reached a zenith in the election at the end of 2011. Many laid-off workers, students, professors, journalists, lawyers and IT professionals, including well-known online writers such as Li Chengpeng (李承鹏) and Xia Shang (夏商), ran as independent candidates. In encouraging participation in the electoral process through online agitation and offline activism, they built up quite an impressive force.

However, many independent candidates have been harassed, threatened, monitored, and even brutally beaten during the electoral process. Dissident Zhao Changqing (赵常青) became a deputy candidate for the People’s Congress in Nanzheng County, Shaanxi Province in 1997 (陕西南郑县). However, he was sentenced to three years in prison for the crime of “crime of endangering national security” after he exposed illegal acts during the election. In Wuhan in 2006, democracy activist Sun Bu’er (孙不二) was followed, beaten, and forced to withdraw his candidacy during the election. He was later arrested and sentenced to six years in prison. The very few independent representatives who were successfully elected were quickly squeezed out after the authorities realized they were disobedient, or were easily taken out in the next election.

At this juncture, I can’t help but mention my good friend, human rights lawyer Tang Jingling (唐荆陵) who is still serving his prison sentence Guangzhou. In 2006, he launched the “Ballot Redemption Campaign” (赎回选票运动),  a nonviolent non-cooperation movement that fought back against rigged elections and raised civic awareness. By publicly stating that they refused to vote, they made clear that they would not take part in or comply with the pseudo-elections that did not represent the people, and in this way hoped to awaken the voters’ awareness of their rights.

Hundreds of people responded to the campaign and publicly voiced their refusal to participate in the election. I am also one of them. I also wrote to support and promote this movement, analyzing its similarities and differences with civil disobedience. In 2014, Tang Jingling was arrested and later sentenced to five years in prison for “inciting subversion of state power” because of the “Ballot Redemption Campaign” and other pro-democracy and human rights activities. The independent participation of citizens in elections and the visible non-cooperation in the elections are different ways of revealing the fraudulent nature of Chinese elections in different directions.

Shen Jilan spent her life as a tool and accomplice to dictatorship, while it is those like Yao Lifa and the imprisoned Tang Jingling who truly represent the Chinese people’s bitter and courageous struggle for democracy.

Teng Biao is a Chinese human rights lawyer who now lives in New Jersey.


For Over 36 Years, Grassroots Elections in China Have Made No Progress – An Interview With Hu Ping, November 1, 2016.

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Criminal Procedure Law: What are they amending?

By Yaxue Cao

The Chinese microblogs are in an uproar about amendments to the country’s Criminal Procedure Law, already passed Sunday afternoon by the 170-member presidium of the National People’s Congress with only one objection and one abstention. It will be voted on by the 3,000 NPC representatives on Wednesday, March 14, 2012.

The wide contention focuses on two proposed revisions which allow secret detention and disappearance. They are article 73 and 83. Article 83 provides, in part, that “Upon detaining a suspect, relatives of the detainee shall be notified within 24 hours unless the suspect is allegedly involved in crimes of harming state security, crimes of terrorism, and notifying family may impede investigation. Or when there is no means to notify relatives.”

Article 73 allows that, “for [suspect] allegedly involved in crimes of harming state security, crimes of terrorism, or major allegations of bribery, when monitored residency in own home may impede investigation, with the authorization of the People’s Procuratorate or public security organ on higher level, the suspect can be placed under monitored residency in a designated location, but not in detention centers or places where the case is being handled.” (Yaxue’s note: Translation my own, may not match the official translation in wording, should there be one.)

Article 83 and article 73 are referred to, by Chinese legal professionals and netizens alike, as the “secret arrest clause” and the “extralegal detention clause” respectively. The “extralegal detention clause” is also alternately referred to as the “disappearance clause”, “the Ai Weiwei clause” (referring to his secret detention in an undisclosed location last year), or “the Jasmine clause” (referring to the widespread detention of people whom the authorities suspected of organizing, instigating or attending public gatherings to call for democracy last spring).

Also opposed are articles that expand authorizations on communication surveillance and require suspects to “confess wrongdoings” in exchange for leniency (as opposed to the right to remain silent).

Smaller details that have escaped closer scrutiny online are noted by Xiao Han (萧瀚), associated professor at China University of Political Science and Law and an outspoken intellectual whose blogs and Weibo accounts are frequently shut down.

In his latest blog post (link), he points out that article 62, 72, 73, 77, 83, and 148-152 are ten articles designed to legalize human rights abuses, and they are “a complete set of boxing moves…encompassing secret evidence collection, secret arrest, illegal long-term imprisonment, and technical aspects of investigation, sufficient to go and get anyone.”

To be sure, all of the above have been commonly practiced by authorities in China, and making them legal is to add wings to tigers and remove whatever scruples they may still have about cracking down on political dissidents and so-called “terrorists.” Chinese netizens and legal professionals fear that human rights abuses, as bad as they have already been, will escalate and spiral out of control.

Ironically, the words “respect and safeguard human rights” are proposed for the first time in the revisions. And there are a few procedural improvements to go with them (whether they will be enforced is entirely another matter).

But in a blog post (link) to call off the vote on the amendments, Tong Zhiwei (童之伟), a professor of Chinese Constitution with East China University of Political Science and Law, warned that, “If these few words are written into the law but the ensuing articles are not amended accordingly, then it is a false gesture to merely mollify the public.”

He went on to say that “too many problems have been exposed over the last 16 years when the current Criminal Procedure Law has been enacted, and the best proof is that, over the last a few years, the criminal justice has been in a shambles. But the relevant organs refuse to face these basic facts, and they seem to have no intent to amend the Criminal Procedure Law in favor of human rights protection.”

Professor Tong is wary that, once passed, the amended law which is not in any substantial way better than the original, will be maintained for a long time to come. “Frankly speaking,” he wrote, “it is my opinion that China’s current Criminal Procedure Law is among the criminal procedure laws in the world that strays farthest from the country’s Constitution, has the fewest measures to safeguard basic human rights, and is the weakest on curbing the state power.”

On the Chinese microblogs, netizens, legal professionals and intellectuals have been shouting as loudly as they can over the last few days, to try to avert the passing of the law. Some appeal to the representatives, reminding them of Liu Xiaoqi (刘少奇, former president of China, tortured to death during the Cultural Revolution) and Wang Lijun (王立军, the head of public security in Chongqing until recently); others appeal to the public to sign online petitions or voice their objection through online votes. In an online vote initiated by the financier Xue Manzi (薛蛮子), over ten thousand people voted within hours and 93% voted against the amendments, until it was blocked a few hours later.

Posts calling for postponing the vote on the amendments easily got reposted over ten thousand times in a matter of a day or two.

On top of the overwhelming nay-saying, journalists and lawyers pointed out that the scheduled vote on Wednesday in fact violates China’s own Legislation Law. According to which, the last draft of the law must be presented to the representatives one month before the vote, but it was not given to them until they had arrived in Beijing just days ago.

Will the clatter in microblogs have any bearing on the outcome Wednesday?

Few believe it would, knowing what the Party is like. “Secret detention and monitored residency in a designated location, these two articles are tailored for people like us,” the dissident intellectual Mu Zhixu (莫之许, @mozhixu) tweeted the other day.

In another tweet, he went on to say, “To state it simply, the work-unit system and the commune system have disintegrated, pro-government organizations are yet to develop, the result is that the majority of the societal members exist outside the direct control of the system, and stability maintenance has to rely on wide use of fear tactics on the one hand and, on the other, removing locally leader-like figures who have some power to mobilize people. This is the logic behind the amendments. Therefore, expect no dramatic turn of events.”

China’s Trump Card – Stability

With growing unrest in the Middle East, China’s gov’t has been a bit more on edge than usual. News of what is happening in Libya and elsewhere is pretty hard to come by. The official gov’t position on Libya is that the violence should end, but is purposefully vague as to what that means.

The argument I feel like I have been bludgeoned with this last week is “stability” (it’s my own fault for reading the People’s Daily every morning). On the front page of the People’s Daily website today we have headlines like “World Craves for Peace, Stability”, “Crack Nut with Tenderness – China seeks soft approach to social stability”, “The Leadership and Stellar Growth”, along with several other gag inducing buzz words.

The message is clear: stability means growth, and only the Party can provide that stability.

This is just part of the media blitz that comes in the run up to China’s two most important annual meetings, the National People’s Congress, and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Note: During this time it is common practice for newspapers to abstain from publishing anything that could appear to be negative on their front pages.

So what are the government’s top concerns heading into these meetings that will set the agenda for the next year? (based on their online survey, and past headlines)

The top eight concerns are: 1)Measures to boost economic development 2)Quality supervision on food and drugs 3)Employment of college students 4)Environmental protection 5)Widening gap between rich and poor 6)Anti-corruption 7)Medical reform 8)Measures to bring housing prices under control.

Here’s the part that may come as a surprise, except for number 1, all of those issues have been taken up by activists in the last few months (read between the lines). It is no secret that these are the very issues that would affect China’s precious stability.

A few more things to watch for with China in the next year include:

  • Cutting investments to highly polluting factories, and improving enforcement of current laws
  • Further publicizing stories about gov’t officials using the internet to improve their relationship with their public (this is worthy of a full post)
  • China’s increasing role in international affairs (we might finally see them do something besides drag their feet on global warming and North Korea, but is the West ready for it?)
  • Focused attempts to promote China’s image overseas