Limp arm of the body politic
By Wu Zhong, China Editor

HONG KONG - In the annual round of rubber-stamping the agenda of China's central government that is now taking place in Beijing, it is no accident that the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) kicks off proceedings and concludes its session before the National People's Congress (NPC). The CPPCC pre-dates the NPC and was the midwife at the birth of the nation.

The role of CPPCC members every year is to offer suggestions and advice. According to Chinese law, it is the NPC's job to approve the government's budget, economic development plan and cabinet composition. These are pre-determined in any case by the power center of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). With

  

such a limited role, debate over whether the CPPCC should even exist has been simmering for years and public disappointment with its members runs high.

The first CPPCC served as a constitutional convention for the founding of the People's Republic of China (PRC). Organized in September 1949 in Beijing (then called Beiping as it was yet to become the national capital - "jing" being "capital"), its members included senior nationalist officials who had switched to follow Mao Zedong's CCP, leaders of a handful of tiny non-communist parties formed mainly by intellectuals sympathetic with the party, elites in various sectors, and celebrities.

Communist troops led by Mao had gained control of most of mainland China by mid-1949, winning a civil war over the ruling nationalist Kuomintang (KMT) after the Japan's surrender in 1945.

By forming the CPPCC, Mao wanted to honor his promise of forming a "coalition government" after the CCP won the civil war. The CPPCC's role was to found a new republic to replace the KMT's Republic of China.

The first CPPCC session not only approved the new state name, national anthem, flag and capital city, it adopted the so-called Common Program for building a new nation - the de facto constitution - and elected the PRC's first central government. That government was a coalition, in that members of non-communist parties and individuals with no affiliation were appointed to senior posts. And in the following years the conference acted as the legislature.

But as the CCP consolidated its rule, it started to strengthen its grip and in 1954 formed the NPC as the country's top legislature, controlled by the party. The NPC passed the first constitution of the PRC to replace the Common Program. It was then that the CPPCC became what it is today - a showcase of the CCP's work or, as some call it, a "political vase". Its main function is simply to offer proposals and advice to CCP policymakers, who decide whether or not to take it.

Nevertheless, CPPCC membership remains a privileged position for elites from various social sectors. In China's official hierarchy, the CPPCC chairman and vice chairpersons are ranked as "state leaders" and members of its national committee as ministerial-level officials, albeit with no power. Because of this, a lot of people (including many Hong Kong business tycoons) consider it a great honor to be appointed to the conference.

Over the years, China's public has come to expect members of the CPPCC national committee to be open-minded and outspoken supervisors of government and servants of the national interest. Disappointment has therefore grown in a number of cases where individuals on the CPPCC have been more concerned with personal gain. To protect their positions, some CPPCC members seem to be more willing to serve the interests of the provincial party committees that nominate them than to follow their own volition.

One recently reported case has fueled public discontent with the poor performance of some CPPCC members and is worth presenting in detail. At the CPPCC annual session in 2008, Sun Shuyi, chairman of the CPPCC's Shandong provincial committee, proposed that the central government allocate funds to finance construction of a 10-square-kilometer Chinese Cultural Symbolic City near the hometown of Confucius in Shandong, at a cost of at least 30 billion yuan (US$4.2 billion), according to a 2004 estimate for the project. The proposal was jointly signed by a number of members of the CPPCC national committee from Shandong.

Seeing that the huge project was a ploy to simply boost local property development and tourism, more than 100 CPPCC members from other provinces, including Mao's grandson Mao Xinyu, immediately signed a motion opposing the proposal. As a result the project was excluded from the national budget. (Stumbling towards Confucius-ville, Asia Times Online, March 20, 2008.)

At the end of last year, Sun Shuyi was sacked as Shandong vice governor and put under investigation for suspected corruption, including taking bribes in a land requisition during his term in office. After his detention, CPPCC members from Shandong, who had supported Sun in signing the proposal for the Chinese Cultural Symbolic City, tried hard to distance themselves from their former leader.

A CPPCC member told the China Youth Daily on March 4 that they were unwilling signatories to the proposal. "We were asked to sign on. How could we refuse?" the unnamed member said.

The confession attracted little sympathy and a lot of criticism from the public. Many people have openly questioned why anyone who cannot think independently is sitting on the country's top advisory body.

Commentaries from official newspapers such as Legal Daily and Beijing News have called for reform in the process for nominating CPPCC members, saying it is inevitable they will listen to local authorities as long as the provinces nominate them.

In the years-long debate about whether or not the CPPCC should continue to exist, the view that the conference should be merged into the NPC to become the "upper house" of the legislature was rejected as being too "Westernized" an idea.

A proposal that the CPPCC should be removed from official ranks and turned into a top think-tank to the central government met the strongest opposition from the CPPCC itself as delisting from the hierarchy would deprive its members of their privileges.

With public discontent with the performance of some CPPCC members gaining momentum, there are now calls for the CPPCC to be dismantled to save public funds. This is unlikely to happen in the foreseeable future. The CCP still needs the CPPCC as a showcase of "multi-party cooperation" under the communist leadership. Annual sessions of the CPPCC are therefore likely to be a fixture for years to come.

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