Xi shows utility of a rubber stamp
China's legislature does little real business but has a critical function
China's National People's Congress, the country's legislature and nominally supreme political institution, opened its 11-day session on Sunday. Expectations are unsurprisingly muted for the outcome of this year's gathering. As usual, the NPC session will give pro forma approval to a report summarizing the performance of the State Council, the Chinese cabinet, and to the 2017 economic development plan, as well as to various other government "work reports." Among the laws tabled for passage at the annual session, the only consequential one is the "General Provisions" of a new civil code, which lays out the definitions of key terms in Chinese civil law.
However, no one should expect any debate over the draft law because the NPC is a typical rubber-stamp parliament. It is headed by a member of the Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Chinese Communist Party. All the delegates to the annual congress are handpicked by the CCP (although technically they are chosen in uncompetitive elections). The party sets the legislative agenda, and writes and approves laws before they are submitted to the congress for a formal vote.
But if you think that nobody should bother when the NPC convenes its annual session, you are sadly mistaken. Despite the institution's lack of political clout, the ritual of its annual session is treated with the utmost seriousness in China. Chinese authorities impose tight security in Beijing and take extra precautions to police the media and the cyberspace during the annual NPC session.
If anything, Beijing will exercise even greater vigilance to ensure the success of this year's session because of a unique combination of internal and external developments.
On the external front, the most profound development is regime change in Washington. The advent of the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, a political earthquake that could dismantle America's liberal democratic order, heralds the end of the post-Cold War era. As far as China is concerned, the risks of a strategic conflict with the U.S. have greatly increased.
Under previous Republican and Democratic administrations, Washington and Beijing maintained a fragile equilibrium with a mixture of diplomatic engagement, dense economic ties, and muted military competition. Under the Trump administration, in which China hawks such as Stephen Bannon (chief political strategist) and Robert Lighthizer (U.S. trade representative) occupy influential positions, this equilibrium has become much harder to sustain.
Even though a much-feared U.S.-China rupture over Taiwan has been mercifully averted after Trump reaffirmed America's "One China" policy, there are many battles to come -- over trade disputes, the South China Sea, and North Korea, to mention a few.
On the domestic front, the most important event for 2017 is doubtlessly the 19th Chinese Communist Party congress, scheduled for the fall. Xi Jinping, general secretary of the CCP and China's president, will have a chance to reshape the top leadership of the party and further strengthen his power.
Although he has effectively destroyed rival factions with his unrelenting anti-corruption campaign over the last four years, Xi cannot afford to leave anything to chance. Until the congress is successfully concluded, he must do everything to foster a favorable political atmosphere and build a strong case for gaining even greater authority.
Substantively, the annual sessions of the NPC and its sister institution, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, are unimportant. However, in terms of messaging and signaling, this year's sessions are far more meaningful than usual because of the extraordinary challenges Xi faces at home and abroad.
The most critical objective Xi hopes to accomplish this time is to project self-confidence in the face of mounting adversity. Although Xi has two different audiences, domestic and external, the message will be essentially the same. For his domestic audience, Xi aims to show that he is on top of everything and that they can trust him to lead China in an uncertain and more dangerous era.
For his external audience, particularly for the new U.S. administration, Xi wants to demonstrate that, as China's undisputed strongman, he will be firm on some issues but flexible on others. Outsiders should read all the statements from China's top leaders, all of whom will be in attendance, to ascertain the new parameters of China's foreign policy.
However, projecting rhetorical confidence is one thing, but persuading the Chinese public and the international community that everything is under control in Beijing is an entirely different challenge. If done with nothing but propagandistic bluster, the messaging and signaling in the coming days could fall flat.
Among other things, Xi and his colleagues will need to show that things are likely to be different in Xi's second five-year term. In particular, they will need to convince jittery Chinese entrepreneurs and increasingly pessimistic foreign investors and trading partners that Xi's bold economic reform plan, which was unveiled in late 2013 but remains largely unimplemented, will be carried out with real vigor once he has finished the more urgent task of consolidating power.
Another politically delicate message Xi needs to telegraph concerns the unity and security of the ruling elites. Xi's four-year-old anti-corruption drive has vanquished rival factions and temporarily suppressed endemic official corruption. But it has also wreaked havoc inside the CCP. Chinese officials, including the most senior ones, now live in dread of being arrested on corruption charges.
The party's rank and file is thoroughly alienated because Xi's strict rules of conduct for the bureaucracy have made it nearly impossible for lower-level functionaries to supplement their meager cash income with bribes and other perks. At some point, Xi needs to make peace with the bureaucracy and reincentivize millions of frontline officials to again, toil harder for the party-state.
The final message that the international community will be looking for concerns China's leadership role in the Trumpian age. With Brexit underway in Europe and Trump's policies unfurling from the White House, globalization has begun to unravel; the world urgently needs a new leader to champion globalization. Xi's speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January was well received, precisely because it reaffirmed China's support for globalization, at least rhetorically.
Unfortunately, Chinese rhetorical support for globalization has yet to be translated into policy. In particular, Beijing needs to reverse its mercantilist economic policies to assume the mantle of the leading advocate of globalization. If Xi and his colleagues could put some real substance into their pro-globalization rhetoric during the current two sessions, China could gain substantial credibility around the world.
While we do not know whether such reassuring messages and signals will be sent from the gathering in Beijing, we can be sure of one thing: The NPC this time will be an occasion for officials eager to climb onto Xi's bandwagon to showcase their loyalty. Since the party plans to reshuffle its senior leadership in the fall, those in line for top-level appointments must improve their chances by demonstrating their commitment to Xi and competing with each other in their effusive praise of his leadership.
Outsiders who are skeptical about the usefulness of this rubber-stamp parliament, but watch events carefully, may gain a better appreciation of its real utility. Among other things, the overriding objective of China's NPC and CPPCC sessions is not to conduct serious policy debates or pass substantive legislation, but to stage a highly choreographed political ritual for the benefit of the ruling elite.
Minxin Pei is a professor of government at Claremont McKenna College; his latest book is China's Crony Capitalism (2016)