Every March, about 5,000 members of China’s political elite head to Beijing’s Great Hall of the People for a series of key annual meetings.
Everything you always wanted to know about China's legislative meetings (but were too afraid to ask)
The meeting of the top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), kicked off over the weekend, while China's parliament, the National People’s Congress (NPC), began their meeting on Monday.
These carefully scripted events are often characterized as rubber-stamp exercises, but they also offer insight on government priorities – and even allow for a certain amount of policy debate.
This year, lawmakers are expected to approve a crucial, surprising constitutional change: abolishing term limits for the offices of president and vice president.
Here’s what you need to know.
Are they really rubber-stamping?
From a purely legislative point of view, yes.
The CPPCC takes an advisory role and has no decision-making power while, on paper, the NPC (sorry about the unwieldy acronyms) is the top legislative body in China.
In reality, the legislature is overwhelmingly studded with government and Communist Party officials who simply approve whatever bill is placed before it by the party leadership.
That said, there are differing opinions within the decision-making apparatus, especially on less sensitive issues. The NPC isn’t a monolith with a single opinion. It’s just that most of the horse-trading and deliberation takes place behind closed doors, well before the formal meetings.
Still, even the most loyal sometimes make a show of dissent.
In 1992, nearly a third of NPC members abstained from or voted against plans to build the controversial Three Gorges Dam, a hydropower project that would cost more than $50 billion and displace over a million residents.
With the smallest margin in the legislature’s history, the dam was still approved.
Any famous faces?
Quite a few. Most can be found in the cultural and arts sector, as well as the sports sector of the advisory body.
The first group includes martial arts star Jackie Chan and film director Feng Xiaogang. Former members include Gong Li, director Zhang Yimou and Zhao Benshan, the Benny Hill of China.
In the sports sector, you’ll find table tennis world champion Wang Liqin and China’s first ever Winter Olympics gold medalist, speed skater Yang Yang.
This means that when all that policy-making starts to drag, Chinese reporters always have a couple of juicy celebrity stories to chase down.
What are the delegates known for?
The vast majority of CPPCC may be middle class – but if you’re looking to network with some of the richest Chinese in the world, then hang around the Great Hall of the People.
The most wealthy delegate this year is legislature member Pony Ma Huateng, the chief executive of tech giant Tencent. According to the latest Hurun Report, China's equivalent of the Forbes rich list, he’s sitting on a net worth of $47 billion.
He is followed by CPPCC deputy Xu Jiayin, the chairman of property developer Evergrande Group, with a personal net worth of $41 billion.
The total net worth of the 153 delegates Hurun deems “super-rich” adds up to $650 billion, up from $507 billion from the 209 wealthy delegates in 2017.
The rise is thanks to a strong global economy, and the election of new blood, especially from the tech world, to the CPPCC.
Does any important work get done?
Despite the lack of real policy debate, the meetings provide a stage for party leadership to announce its plans for the coming year, including economic growth targets, military budgets and major social and economic initiatives.
Meanwhile, journalists have the opportunity to approach the usually unapproachable: ministers, mayors and army generals.
The annual meetings also grant publicity to the kind of issues that don’t normally make it to state-controlled media. For example, Li Yinhe, a prominent sexologist, has consistently lobbied CPPCC members to legalize same-sex marriage.
Such proposals are unlikely to be turned into policy any time soon, but they offer a chance for leaders to gauge public reaction.
The main job for delegates this year is to approve changes to the constitution that would allow the president to stay on for life.