1. Two sessions 2021
The “two sessions” — annual meetings of the National People’s Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) — are in full swing.
This year’s “two sessions” is seen by Beijing as especially important for at least three reasons. First, in July the CCP will celebrate its centenary, and this year’s “two sessions” provide an important opportunity to tell a positive story. Second, 2021 marks the start of the 14th Five Year Plan (that runs until 2025). The “two sessions” offers the CCP leadership an opportunity to articulate its near term and long term visions both to domestic and international audiences. Third, Beijing is facing increasingly complex and challenging international conditions. These meetings are critical in projecting strength and unity as well as in diplomatic signalling.
This section is split into three subsections. The first and second subsections are brief background notes on the NPC and the CPPCC. Those familiar with these two political bodies should skip to the third subsection for the key takeaways.
National People’s Congress (NPC)
By law, the NPC is the highest organ of the state: the PRC’s unicameral national legislature. But essentially, the NPC is a rubber-stamp parliament that works within the constraints of China’s unique political system. It has limited abilities to exercise the formidable powers that it has on paper. It can, however, prompt public debates on social and economic issues as long as it does not cross the political lines set by the CCP.
The 3000 delegates of the NPC are elected from the provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities directly under the central government, and the People’s Liberation Army. The majority of the delegates are CCP members, those that are not are thoroughly vetted by the Party.
For the overwhelming majority of NPC delegates, their positions are largely ceremonial. When the NPC is in session (usually for 10 to 14 days in March each year), the delegates will discuss issues, pass resolutions on government work reports and plans, and review laws. Apart from this, most are not involved in lawmaking at all.
Outside of the NPC sessions, legislative matters are dealt with by the NPC Standing Committee consisting of 175 NPC delegates. These delegates come closest to what many of us would consider as “legislators”.
The NPC (and its Standing Committee) works under the auspices of the CCP. It does not provide effective checks and balances on other branches of the state as you would in some countries. Government reports, plans and laws usually pass with over 90 per cent of delegates voting in favour.
During Xi’s tenure, for example, the annually presented Government Work Report usually gets approval from over 99 per cent of NPC delegates. There have been rare cases in the past where low support rates highlight widespread opposition. For example, in 1992, the proposal to build the Three Gorges Dam was only passed with support from 68 per cent of the delegates (with 7 per cent voting against, and 25 per cent abstaining). The last time that a piece of legislation did not get through the NPC on first asking was the 2006 Property Law. It was passed the next year, the second time it went before the NPC.
Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)
The National Committee of CPPCC is holding its annual meeting at the same time as the NPC. The CPPCC, in practice, provides a mechanism for China’s non-CCP elite to offer advice and proposals to the government. Like the suggestions (建议) of NPC delegates, the proposals (提案) of CPPCC can lead to policy changes and public discussion. But again, the CPPCC delegates work under the auspice of the CCP, and rarely cross political lines set by the Party.
The CPPCC is a vital part of CCP’s united front system and strategy, with the aim of influencing non-Party elites to advance CCP goals. The CPPCC creates the impression of a broad church under which different political parties, and social and professional groups are meaningfully represented. But this representation does not come with political power.
The CPPCC grew out of the Chinese Civil War. In 1945, the CCP and the KMT opened talks via a multiparty dialogue mechanism called the Political Consultative Conference. When the CCP seized power in 1949, it invited delegates from other political parties to attend a “new” conference, that was later renamed the People’s Political Consultative Conference.
Key takeaways this year
On March 11, the NPC will pass resolutions in support of various government reports and plans, including the Government Work Report (政府工作报告), and the Outline of the 14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-Range Objectives Through 2035 (国民经济和社会发展第十四个五年规划和2035年远景目标纲要). It will also pass a decision to reform Hong Kong’s electoral system, which we will discuss in a separate section below.
Li Keqiang’s Government Work Report (Chinese | English) and the 14th FYP and Vision 2035 (draft copy) contain no real surprises. We have heard a fair bit about the latter two already since the 5th Plenum.
Here are the key priorities for the 14th FYP and Vision 2035:
- Improving the quality and effectiveness of development and maintaining sustained and healthy economic growth
- Pursuing innovation-driven development and accelerating modernization of the industrial system
- Creating a robust domestic market and fostering a new development pattern
- Advancing rural revitalization across the board and improving the new urbanization strategy
- Improving regional economic structures and promoting coordinated regional development
- Advancing reform and opening up across the board and bolstering the momentum and vitality of development
- Promoting green development and ensuring harmony between humanity and nature
- Improving people’s wellbeing and striving for common prosperity
- Ensuring both development and security and ushering in a new stage in building a Peaceful China
According to Li’s report, here are China’s development goals for 2021:
- GDP growth of over 6 per cent
- over 11 million new urban jobs
- a surveyed urban unemployment rate of around 5.5 per cent
- CPI increase of around 3 per cent
- steady increases in both the volume and quality of imports and exports
- a basic equilibrium in the balance of payments
- steady growth in personal income
- a further improvement in the environment
- a drop of around 3 per cent in energy consumption per unit of GDP
- a continued reduction in the discharge of major pollutants
- grain output of over 650 million metric tons
On economic growth, China is aiming for 6 per cent growth this year, which is not too ambitious given the post-COVID recovery.
On technology and innovation, Li points out that “innovation remains at the heart of China’s modernization drive”. Beijing will improve China’s innovation system by developing national laboratories, try to make breakthroughs in core technology in key fields, and increase R&D and basic research spending.
On the environment, Li promises that Beijing will meet its targets in contributing to the response to climate change by 2030. This will be based on expediting the transition of China’s growth model to one based on green and high-quality growth.
In short, Beijing is pretty clear about its larger development priorities: domestic-driven growth, economic resiliency, innovation and tech self-sufficiency.
2. Poverty alleviation
Poverty alleviation (脱贫) is the topic that has received the most amount of attention in China’s state media over the past year. Foreign media, in comparison, has not paid as much attention to it. This is probably because it’s perceived to be a domestic issue without major international implications.
We think poverty alleviation is an important topic because it helps us better understand state policies that are upending and transforming millions of Chinese lives. Poverty alleviation is also important to Xi Jinping and the CCP because they’ve tied their legitimacy to it.
Early this year, a TV drama about poverty alleviation was released. 山海情 (Minning Town, available on YouTube with English subtitles) is a compelling drama on one particular poverty alleviation project in Ningxia in the 90s. Unlike some propaganda TV shows, this one is actually very watchable. It emphasises the effort that ordinary people have put in to move towards poverty alleviation — it’s definitely not smooth sailing. The accented Mandarin spoken (quite unusual on TV these days) also adds to the realism.
Back to Xi Jinping. Last week, with much fanfare, Xi commended those who worked on eliminating poverty in China. Xi called China’s elimination of poverty a “miracle”.
What is poverty?
In early 2020, the Jiangsu provincial government was mocked online for announcing that only 17 people (out of 80 million) are living in poverty. Many questioned this data.
It’s important to emphasise that poverty here refers to “absolute poverty” (and not “relative poverty”).
In 2010, China formulated the national poverty line at 2,300 Yuan, equivalent to US$2.30 per day, higher than the World Bank’s International Poverty Line of US$1.25 per day that year. But the International Poverty Line is used to measure global extreme poverty.
The World Bank has developed separate poverty lines for middle income classes. China is an upper middle income country, and the Upper Middle Income Class Poverty Line is US$5.50 PPP per day. Richer countries typically go a step further and use relative poverty (50 per cent or 60 per cent of national median incomes).
Considering this, while China’s efforts at poverty reduction have indeed been admirable, it may not be as amazing as the slogan sounds.
No doubt Xi Jinping wants “his” poverty elimination to be seen as a historically momentous achievement. He quoted Qu Yuan (屈原), one of the earliest poets in China, to demonstrate the long-standing fight against poverty.
Xi then attributed more recent poverty to feudalism and Western invasion, which caused political instability and war (由于封建统治的腐朽和西方列强的入侵，中国政局动荡、战乱不已、民不聊生).
According to his narration, the turning point was the establishment of the People’s Republic. Xi specifically mentioned land distribution in rural villages, which was associated with the purge of the landlords. This land distribution led to forced collectivisation under the Great Leap Forward, which resulted in a famine where tens of millions of people died. All of these were of course airbrushed out of Xi’s narration, but interestingly, he did mention land distribution from early PRC times.
Another important figure that he has airbrushed out was Deng Xiaoping. Deng coined the term “moderately prosperous society” (小康社会). While Xi’s speech mentioned “moderately prosperous society” a great deal, Deng was not mentioned at all. In fact, his narrative went straight from the establishment of the PRC to the 18th National Congress in 2012, when Xi became the General Secretary of the CCP.
Xi’s speech appeared to portray himself as a messiah that has come to fulfil the promise of CCP to solve the thousand-year problem of poverty (困扰中华民族几千年的绝对贫困问题). Under Xi, that promise has apparently been fulfilled.
Xi said “the times make the heroes” (时代造就英雄) when referring to the cadres that worked on anti-poverty projects. But the impression of the speech is that Xi is the greatest hero that delivered the “miracle”.
3. Hong Kong: electoral reform
Last week, Beijing announced plans to reform Hong Kong’s electoral system in a move that leaves no illusion of its will to snuff out political opposition in the city. This plan will be voted and passed by the NPC on Thursday.
We don’t yet have any authority details on the specifics of these reforms, but according to Politburo member Wang Chen’s speech to the NPC on March 5, the reform will focus on the HK’s 1200-member Election Committee, which currently is invested with the power to select the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. According to Chen:
The general idea of improving the electoral system of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region is: the overall system design should focus on reconstructing and empowering the Election Committee of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, adjusting and optimizing the size, composition and method of formation of the Election Committee, continuing to elect the Chief Executive by the Election Committee, and empowering the Election Committee to elect a larger proportion of the members of the Legislative Council and to directly participate in the nomination of all the members of the Legislative Council.
The new functions of the Election Committee are to expand balanced and orderly political participation and wider representation in Hong Kong society, and to make appropriate adjustments to the relevant electoral elements, while establishing a full-fledged qualification mechanism, thereby forming a new democratic electoral system with Hong Kong characteristics and fits the actual situation in Hong Kong.
What this means is Beijing will try to tighten its control further over Hong Kong by making sure the body that elects HK’s leader is more securely in its grasp. This could mean expanding the body and stacking it with loyalists. The body would also be given the new function to vet candidates for HK’s Legislative Council, including by adopting a “patriotism” test.
The basic aim of these reforms is to ensure that political power is in the hands of “patriots” loyal to Beijing. In Chen’s words, the proposed electoral reform will:
fully implement, embody and enforce the principle of “patriots ruling Hong Kong” in terms of institutions and mechanisms, so as to ensure that the power of governance is firmly in the hands of the forces that love the country and love Hong Kong, and to ensure the long-term stability, prosperity and stability of Hong Kong.
In justifying these reforms, Chen alluded to “loopholes and weaknesses” in the current electoral system that provides “anti-China” forces with the opportunity to seize executive power in Hong Kong.
This latest move is another blow to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy opposition as Beijing cracks down on political freedom in the city. Recently, 47 opposition figures were charged under the National Security Law for participating in a non-official primary election in July 2020.
At the beginning of this year, we noted that:
Beijing is not only interested in shutting down secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces, it wants to shut down dissent. Period. It is obvious that the prospect for Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy in 2021 is very gloomy indeed.
As Beijing continues to erode the freedoms of Hong Kongers and the autonomy of the city, we will likely see ongoing oppression and resistance. Oppression will sow seeds of resentment and prompt resistance on which basis Beijing would justify further coercive measures.
Hong Kong’s descent into darkness continues…
4. Delivery drivers
In January we wrote about the 996 toxic work culture in China’s e-commerce companies, concluding that:
Peasants and workers are idealised in the People’s Republic. During the Mao era, they were idealised as the purest of revolutionary classes. And yet, their interests are often low on the priority of the government. Likewise, today’s urban low-end tech workers and delivery drivers are agitating for better treatment, including by voicing their reservation about the 996 culture.
China has the world’s largest e-commerce market. Even before the pandemic, much of China’s retail occurred online. In 2020, online retail sales of physical products comprised 21 per cent of the total retail sales of consumer goods. This is comparable or higher vis-a-vis most developed countries, including Australia where only 12 per cent of consumer spending occurred online. Alongside retail, online food ordering and delivery has also become popular.
E-commerce is supported by a huge number of businesses and individuals, from big internet platforms to Taobao villages to Douyin influencers. But the most ubiquitous of them all may be delivery drivers. And food delivery drivers are probably the ones under most pressure.
Recently, some food delivery drivers have organised industrial actions to protest over low pay and poor working conditions. Before this, a food delivery labour organiser Xiong Yan (熊焰) was detained.
These drivers are the backbone of China’s booming e-commerce industry. But they face an insecure (and often unsafe) work environment. As the gig economy booms, push backs are also rising around the world against insecure gig work. As food delivery drivers around the world work to tight deadlines and ride/drive in sometimes unsafe conditions, countries are grappling with how to regulate the gig economy. One NPC delegate suggested that delivery drivers’ rights be protected by a minimum wage.
Like with many recent labour issues, the Chinese authorities’ first instinct is to detain labour organisers rather than addressing the sources of the discontent.