What makes a rubber stamp?
Mar 5th 2012, 6:52 by T.P. | BEIJING
EACH year in early March, Beijing welcomes not only the sense of spring’s imminent arrival, but also the thousands of out-of-town delegates who descend on the capital for the once-yearly full session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s
version of a national legislature. It is a time of year when the weather in Beijing
might yet go any which way. But not the NPC session, which is a closely scripted and tightly controlled event featuring much pageantry and precious little drama. The orderly proceedings and the pre-arranged outcomes are predictable. So too are the frequent invocations of the term “rubber-stamp” to describe the NPC, as well as
heated complaints about that term from Chinese officials and other supporters of the system.
Like many western media outlets, The Economist has been a frequent
“rubber-stamper” in its coverage of the NPC over the years. So too have many Chinese-language media, for that matter, including some of China’s own outlets.
Yet many in China take the term as an insult, feeling that it belittles the institutions and procedures by which the nation makes its laws.
Not long after the close of the 2010 NPC, your correspondent moderated a panel at Beijing’s Renmin University, where one of the panellists veered off topic to criticise western media for their biased coverage of China. The panellist, Yang Rui, a popular and often truculent host of a political talk show on state-run China Central Television (CCTV), said he found the “rubber-stamp” comparison particularly galling. When,
he asked, would the foreign media finally stop using the term “rubber-stamp” to
describe China’s parliament?
The answer to that question should be obvious: when it finally rejects something put before it.
Among the matters the nearly 3,000 legislative delegates get to vote on are the approval of new laws, “work reports” delivered by senior officials, and new appointees to top government posts. Unanimous votes were once common. Multiple Chinese reports have noted with interest the first occasion on which a delegate cast a “no” vote, in 1988. They also reported that in 1982, when three delegates offered the first abstentions in NPC history, a reporter’s request to report this unusual development truthfully was greeted with approval by Deng Xiaoping.
Since then things have gotten slightly more interesting. In 1992, the NPC caused something of a stir when only 1,767 delegates, two-thirds of the total, voted to approve the massive and massively controversial Three Gorges Dam project. There
were 177 votes against, 644 votes to abstain, and 25 delegates who failed to vote at all.
In other cases where reports or candidates are approved by less than 75%, it is seen as a clear rebuke to the leadership.
None of this is to say that the NPC is entirely irrelevant. In important ways, the NPC—as an institution—has become more interesting than its ritual-laden yearly sessions would indicate. Its full-time professional staff has grown in size and professionalism. In the course of drafting legislation, it has taken great strides in reaching out to social stakeholders and soliciting their input. Often it even pushes back against the Communist party leadership by insisting on substantial revisions to draft laws before moving them along.
In these ways, the NPC plays a meaningful and increasingly important role in China’s governance. And there are some political scientists, Chinese and foreign alike, who reckon that China’s system may evolve in ways that give the legislature genuine independence and substantial power in decades to come.
Nor should the frequent reference to the rubber-stamp tendencies of today’s NPC be
taken to suggest that empty political theatre is unique to China’s institutions. After all, in less than half a year America’s two major political parties will each hold
elaborate, multi-day nominating conventions, full of over-wrought pomp, ceremony and ritual. Barring any departure from what has been standing practice for decades, all this will culminate with a grand theatrical set piece of a vote with a preordained outcome.
Indeed, many people will use terms like “rubber-stamp” and “coronation” to
describe these conventions, in Charlotte, North Carolina and Tampa, Florida. Nobody will get angry about it. And why should they? After all, there is another, even more powerful force in Washington that provides actual checks and balances to the political power of the executive branch. That one bears the mark of another well-worn stamp: Gridlock.