Transfer of power to China’s new set of leaders, elected at the 18th Party Congress last November, was completed by the Twelfth National People’s Congress (NPC) convened in Beijing from March 5 to 17, 2013. Controls were predictably tight as 2,987 Deputies converged in Beijing for the event. Especially stringent were the restrictions imposed by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s Central Propaganda Department, which issued firm 10-point guidelines to China’s media listing the prohibited subjects.
Despite these measures, China’s ‘netizens’ posted thousands of critical remarks and 100 Chinese ‘intellectuals’ urged the government to immediately ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). In keeping with tradition, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a largely advisory body which includes non-Chinese Communist Party (CCP) entities and with a membership of about 2,200 met a day earlier. Its new Chairman, Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) member Yu Zhengsheng, presided.
The NPC session approved the appointment in single-candidate elections of Xi Jinping as China’s President, Li Keqiang as Premier and Li Yuanchao as Vice President. China’s new Vice President, Li Yuanchao, who missed being elevated to the PBSC in November, is a ‘princeling’ and member of the Politburo who attended a year’s course in 2002 at Harvard. He ranks after all 7 PBSC members. Li Yuanchao is 62 years old and unlikely to continue after the next Party Congress.
The NPC on March 16, also approved 4 Vice Premiers, 5 State Councillors and 25 Ministers. At least three of the Vice Premiers are cautious and unlikely to push reforms. This suits Premier Li Keqiang, who in his first speech as Premier on March 17, outlined a gradualist economic agenda. Among the five State Councillors the appointment of Politburo (PB) member Yang Jing is notable. An ethnic Mongol and long-time associate of Li Keqiang, he has been appointed Secretary General of the State Council.
This is the first time that a member of China’s ethnic minorities has been appointed to this powerful position. The other appointment is that of former Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, who replaces Dai Bingguo as China’s foreign affairs trouble-shooter.
Of the 25 Ministers appointed, 14 are holdovers. Their average age is 60 years, or three more than the previous one. All have a college education and 21 are post-graduates with many having a background in the humanities. Li Keqiang is China’s first Premier with a Doctorate, which he earned in Economics from Peking University. He is also the only member of the Cabinet fluent in English. Nine of the Ministers are from the Communist Youth League (CYL).
Geng Huichang, an America expert continues as Minister of State Security (MoSS), China’s foreign intelligence outfit. Chinese businessmen and economic analysts have generally welcomed the retention of Zhou Xiaochuan as head of the People’s Bank of China (PoBC).
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, his image dented by disclosures about the vast sums amassed by his family’s corruption, presented his final ‘Report on the Work of the Government’ on the opening day of the NPC on March 5. The 29-page ‘report’, spelt out China’s achievements and targets for the coming year. Popular concerns were reflected in the report. Interestingly, Wen Jiabao made no mention of Mao Zedong!
He also did not once refer to ‘political reform’ and omitted the routine comment that ‘without commensurate political reform, economic reform cannot succeed’. The report referred to expanding medical, old age pension and education coverage in rural areas. Farmers’ property rights were mentioned for the first time in a Government Work Report, suggesting enhanced protection of their rights amid the country’s frequent land transfers. It referred to a land reform system. Equitable distribution of income, a theme repeatedly emphasised by Hu Jintao, received special mention in the report. A separate paragraph was devoted to the Law on Regional Ethnic Autonomy and infusing “new vitality into the cause of promoting unity and progress of ethnic groups in China”. Specific mention was made of expanding print, TV and radio coverage in Tibet and Xinjiang. Noteworthy is the appointment of cadres with experience of working in minority regions, or minority issues, to senior positions in the CPPCC and NPC.
The armed forces and, particularly China’s maritime interests, received particular attention. The Premier declared that “new progress was made in strengthening national defense and the armed forces”. His remarks differed slightly from last year and the emphasis on the PLA being ‘absolutely loyal’ to the Party as well as ‘winning local wars under information age conditions’ were absent, though these figured in Xi Jinping’s first speech after the NPC on March 17. There was, however, pronounced focus on China’s maritime interests, which was more evident in the emergence of a stronger State Oceanic Administration after the restructuring of government departments.
The Finance Ministry’s Budget continued the trend of double digit increases for National Defence. It announced a 10.7 per cent rise bringing the allocation for defence to Yuan 720 billion, or US$ 116 billion. In contrast to expectations that there would be an easing in security controls, the budget for domestic security increased by 8.7 per cent to Yuan 769.1 billion, or US$ 123.5 billion — higher than national defence.
Initial plans to reduce government departments from 27 to 18 failed to materialise and only 4 departments were affected. These included those dealing with family planning, food and drugs and the State Oceanic Administration.
Indications from the NPC are that the CCP will be unchallenged, economic reforms will be gradual and the People’s Liberation Army and security apparatus will continue to be strengthened. Finally, the NPC session made amply clear that there would be no easing of the Party’s political control. Wang Shengjun, outgoing President of the Supreme People’s Court, declared in the NPC that the Party has unquestioned leadership over the judiciary and urged judges and other ‘judicial workers’ to profess ‘total loyalty to the Party, country, Constitution and law’.
The author is a Member of the National Security Advisory Board (NSAB) and former Additional Secretary, Cabinet Secretariat, Government of India.