Reflections on a Wandering Life.....

Thursday, April 03, 2008

The Seats of Power 

Years ago, during my tenure as a lobbyist at the North Dakota State Legislature, I came to believe that the whole business of dealing with government comes down to two important questions:

  1. Where is the seat (or where are the seats) of power?
  2. What are the sources of information?
If you do not properly identify the seat(s) of power, you will tend to spend a lot of time appealing to people who may be sympathetic, but who do not have the authority to get things done for you. If you do not properly identify the sources of information, you will be dangerously uninformed, and subject to manipulation by ideologues masquerading as disinterested observers. You will also tend to waste a lot of time on trivia that looks like information, but in fact is not.

It would be a distraction to talk about both power and information at the same time, so I will focus, for the present, on power, and deal with information later.

So where does power really lie in this country? It's not an easy question to answer. During the recent National Party Congress, the Wall Street Journal referred to the NPC as China's "rubber stamp" congress. In sharp contrast, CCTV-9 referred to the same political organ as the "highest body of state authority." Quite a difference, to say the least. So which description is accurate?

In fact, neither description is completely accurate. yet there is a sense in which they are both right. To explain that, I think perhaps it would be best to see the National People's Congress as one part of a three part constellation. At the risk of oversimplification, I will focus on these three entities as embodying the essence of government in China, at least at the national level.

CPPCC Chinese People's Political Consultative Congress

In some respects, this body is easier to define than the others, because everybody acknowledges that it is an advisory body. The Wall Street Journal and the China Daily would both refer to it that way. The official statement is as follows:

"It is an important organ of multi-party cooperation and political consultation under the leadership of the CPC."

Since no one is claiming that the CPPCC has actual legislative authority, one would think that both Chinese and Westerners would have the same view of it's importance. But while America is essentially a legalistic society, China is a very relational society. So one's status as a member of the CPPCC extends to other areas of Chinese life in ways that an American might not appreciate. Nevertheless, since we are talking about power, we will accept, for purposes of the present discussion, that members of the CPPCC do not actually make laws. Basically, the CPPCC is China's way of bringing in those who would not normally be included in the process of government. This would include members of other parties, and also minorities. In fact, my country lawyer friend told me that the best way for one to advance within the CPPCC is to be a minority woman who is not a member of the Party.

NPC The National People's Congress

This is the highest legislative body in China. Westerners tend to view it merely as a "rubber stamp" for the Party, but that is too strong a statement. If I remember correctly, when I was at the North Dakota State Legislature twenty years ago, there were something in the neighborhood of a thousand bills introduced during the four-month session. Looking at the information from the most recent session (2007) I see that the numbers were about the same. In the 2007 legislative session there were 522 House bills, and 419 Senate bills. And that doesn't include House or Senate resolutions. Of those 900+ bills, 575 made it all the way through both houses of the legislature and were signed into law by the governor. And that's in a small rural state with a population of 600 thousand people. Now, America is arguably the most legalistic society in history, so perhaps it is not fair to compare China with America. But we can at least conclude that building laws for a society the size of China is a huge task, and the idea that a small committee of party elites could write all the laws and merely require the NPC to approve them is not realistic. The National People's Congress is, in fact, a very large and complex organization, with a very big job to do. But if it is too simplistic to refer to the NPC as a "rubber stamp" congress, calling it the "highest body of state power" is also problematic, because that ignores the supervisory role of the Party, which controls every area of Chinese political life.

The Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee

This is the center of power in China. Ordinarily I would have said that it is the center of power in Chinese government. But, of course, the Communist Party is not techically a government entity. This is part of the conundrum of Chinese political life that extends to every segment of society. At every level, there is the party, and there is the official authority. Every state organization has a party chairman. But the party chairman is usually not the designated authority. So who is really in charge in any situation? In every little village, there is a village chief and a party boss. Which one really runs the town? Often it depends on who has the strongest personality. So, too, at the top level, there is the governing body (the NPC) and there is the top party entity (the Politburo Standing Committee). Currently, there are nine men on this committee. It is not realistic to suggest that these nine men write all the laws of China. But they definitely do forge the overall policy of state. So at this level, the party and the state are merged, because even though this committee is not a state entity, it is the highest decision making body. The relationship between the Politburo Standing Committee and the National People's Congress has been evolving for some time, so perhaps it will find a level in the future that is somewhat different from what it is now. But for the present, let it suffice to say that there are areas where the NPC does exercises a check on the Politburo Standing Committee relative to procedural matters. But could there ever be a situation where the National People's Congress openly repudiated a policy submitted by the Politburo Standing Committee? No. I can't imagine such a scenario.

So the Wall Street Journal is a bit behind the time when they refer to the NPC as a "rubber stamp" congress. But CCTV-9 is perhaps a bit ahead of the time when they say (quoting the constitution) that the National People's Congress is the highest body of state authority, since there is not now a facility such as exists in the American system, where the legislative body can, by a two thirds majority, override a presidential veto and thus implement law that the executive does not approve of. Should China move in this direction? In my opinion, it would not be possible without a rewrite of the constitution, and will probably not happen anytime soon. But it would not necessarily mean a weakening of party power, since party control already infuses every part of Chinese government. For example, Wu Bangguo, who is a member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau, is also the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress. But I don't want to spend too much time on that question, because China is China and America is America, and neither can be an absolute model for the other. Better it is, I think, to celebrate the increasing openness of the Chinese system, which leads, of course, to the second question I mentioned: What are the sources of information? But we will talk about that later.


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