Kicking Off a New Era of Change
Lau Nai-keung (CPPCC delegate)
This article originally appeared in the March 5, 2003 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong and is reproduced here with permission from the publisher.
Following on last year's 16th Communist Party Congress, the current meetings of the National People's Congress (NPC) and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) in Beijing will give birth to a new national leadership. With an unprecedented number of new and younger faces, it is natural for people to expect another round of reforms.
Change is in the air. It will soon be announced that the number of ministries and committees under the State Council is to be reduced from 28 to 21. This is not a simple numbers game - it is supposed to reflect the government's new thinking.
The country's accession to the World Trade Organisation has triggered a comprehensive review of government functions and structure. From the perspective of this new paradigm, the old system allowed too much government interference in too many areas. Often, the government agencies involved did not have the capability to tackle the problems. As a result, their performance left much to be desired. Under the new set-up, a number of old functions will be discarded and the rest will be handled differently.
Western governments are structured on the basis of the separation of power, and checks and balances. Power corrupts, and with unchecked power comes rampant corruption in China.
An experiment has been started in Shenzhen to separate government into three sectors: one for decision-making, another for execution, and the third for supervision. If this proves successful, the system will be introduced throughout the country.
Up to this point, supervision and discipline still lie within the party and within the executive branch of the government. A more radical move, which will be announced soon, is to have full-time members of the Standing Committee of the NPC. Offices have been allocated to accommodate 20 members.
These candidates, who are in their early 40s, currently have the rank of bureau chief. Once they join the NPC, they will be separated from the State Council. These full-time deputies are young and energetic, and they are familiar with the operation of the government. It is expected that they will be much more effective in supervising the government and drafting legislation.
How these full-time young deputies got elected is still not transparent, but it is a move in the right direction and is the first step towards a Western-style parliamentary system.
If the new arrangement works well, we will see more full-timers at the NPC. After all, in China, democracy is not generally accepted a priori, as having value, but as a means to better governance.
To kick off this new era, all new NPC deputies and CPPCC members were required to attend an orientation course on the new set-up. The session lasted three days for mainland delegates and two days for Hong Kong attendees. The new measure shows that the NPC and CPPCC are getting more serious and disciplined. It is a clear signal that more will be achieved in the next five years.
As a Hong Kong representative to the CPPCC for the past 15 years, I have seen quite a bit of change in the group. But these shifts will be nothing compared to what I expect for this term. Younger professionals and academics now account for a third of the Hong Kong delegation to the CPPCC. Most of them have been chosen not because of their wealth and the amount of their investments on the mainland, but because they are supposed to have ideas to contribute to the national leadership.
It seems that the same changes in constituency have taken place throughout the CPPCC.
For instance, the chairmanship of this year's conference is expected to go to Jia Qinglin, the former mayor of Beijing, who played a crucial role in winning the right to host the 2008 Olympics. More importantly, he seems to have successfully cleaned the air of the capital. From my Beijing hotel room window, I can see a cloudless blue sky and the distant mountains - a rare sight only a few years back.
Li Ruihuan, the chairman of the 9th CPPCC, has greatly enhanced the power and image of the conference. Given Mr Li's achievements, Mr Jia has to notch up new breakthroughs to satisfy the high expectations of the conference members.
Minor - but no less crucial - reforms have been noticeable everywhere. For instance, delegates' IDs have been upgraded to a type similar to the chip-implanted Octopus card in Hong Kong, and we have to log in everywhere we go, including the designated restaurant where we have our meals. A hi-tech identification and security system has also been installed in the lobby of the Great Hall of the People.
A new practice in the conference proceedings that has been greatly appreciated by Beijing residents is that the police no longer stop traffic to make way for motorcades to and from the meetings. I have always been embarrassed by the sight of queues of cars jammed bumper to bumper to let us pass. With the new practice, the annual CPPCC meetings will no longer be such a big nuisance in the daily lives of Beijingers.
At the hotel where I usually stay for more than 10 days for the annual conference, hospitality is as abundant as ever. This year, as in the past three years, I was given the same room with a commanding view over the Forbidden City. But the toiletries are now known brands and come in generous portions. And when I open the writing desk drawer, I am surprised to find stationery items such as staplers and clips. Needless to say, the room is equipped with broadbrand Internet access. It is like being home in Hong Kong. Through such little touches, Beijing's hospitality industry is becoming world-class as well.
Values are changing, too. Crucially, the idea of due process is gradually being accepted in official circles, while procedural justice is firmly established.
The end result is important, but so is the process leading to it. We can see this in the proceedings of the NPC and CPPCC meetings.
In a buyers' market for goods and services, competition has led to improved product quality and innovation. A vibrant middle class is yearning for freedom of individual expression and protection of their rights and properties under the rule of law.
Indeed, China is changing fast - much faster than the fading of our old prejudices.