China's Premier Li Keqiang is seen on a screen delivering the government work report during the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 5, 2014.
China's Premier Li Keqiang is seen on a screen delivering the government work report during the opening ceremony of the National People's Congress (NPC) at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, March 5, 2014.
HONG KONG - China's National People's Congress has long been viewed as a rubber stamp body. Critics say that when the congress is in session, delegates do little but hold meetings, walk around, listen to reports and file a few complaints.
But members of the legislative body, which are holding their 60th session in the capital of Beijing this week, are looking to change that image.
Society misunderstands
Asked about public perception of lawmakers at a news conference earlier this week, the NPC's spokeswoman, Fu Ying, said it is possible society misunderstands the workings of China's parliament.
"I have been a delegate to the NPC for one year, and have attended many meetings," she said. "These meetings are very important and meaningful."
As an example, she talked about inspections carried out by delegates in schools throughout the country. The survey, she said, was to verify how a 2006 amendment to the compulsory education law was carried out and how money had been spent.
In recent years, pressed by a more outspoken public opinion, the Chinese government has tried to portray the image of a functioning parliament, where delegates look like the people they represent and are responsive to the will of their constituency.
Less officials, more grassroots
The number of party officials that make up the majority of lawmakers has gradually decreased in the past few years and the government has included more seats for migrant workers, farmers and other representatives of the "grassroots."
"If you look at different ethnic minority groups, or different sectors in the government or in the society, they all have their representatives," said Lin Feng, acting dean of the law school at City University in Hong Kong. "But once a motion is put forward, whether they can actually move forward to achieve something, I am not sure."
By constitution, the NPC is given a large range of powers, from amending laws and the constitution, to approving the state budget and electing top officials. However, many of these powers are exercised in name only.
Analysts believe that the real debate over policy details happens ahead of the NPC and within China's bureaucracies and ministries. That is why, they say, some motions have lingered in draft stage for years only to pass with overwhelming majorities once they are finally presented at the NPC.
During the current session, lawmakers will be discussing 68 bills, but the body does not expect to pass all of the legislation immediately. Instead, it has given itself a five year time frame.
"The agenda is set more or less for five years, and it is rather difficult to insert something in addition in there," said Lin.
More active representatives
That doesn't mean that lawmakers are not trying.
Rory Truex, a doctoral candidate at Yale's political science department, has looked into the work of delegates in his dissertation. He found that deputies are growing more active, and receiving better training.
"Currently this year there are about nine thousand different opinions and motions that have been put forth and that is up from perhaps just a few thousand ten years ago," Truex said. "The governments is really focused on getting deputies to really do their job."
By looking at deputies' training material, Truex found that in the hierarchy of their duties representing the will of the people comes first, while protecting the interests of the party is only second in ranking.
"Tacitly, deputies know that they are supposed to represent the interests of the party first," Truex said. "But occasionally we will see deputies really take their representative responsibility very seriously and really challenge the authority of the party."
Between a rock and a hard place
That has been the case with motions requiring officials to disclose their assets.
"It is an interesting example because it shows how occasionally the interests of the party and the interests of the people might conflict, and it puts NPC deputies right in the middle," said Truex.
With rampant corruption in every sector of Chinese society, people's anger often turns against graft among officials who are expected by Communist mandate to serve the people.
A number of representatives have called for measures to make the government more transparent, including a lawyer from Chongqing who has repeatedly proposed a sunshine bill for seven years.
Analysts believe that while the debate has gained some momentum behind closed doors, leaders are wary of pushing the issue too far into the public eye and Xi Jinping's administration has punished with jail terms those who do.
Xu Zhiyong, a legal scholar and founder of the New Citizen Movement, was recently given a four-year jail sentence for having advocated, among other things, that senior leaders take the lead in disclosing their assets.
Han Deyun, the representative from Chongqing who has for years lobbied for a sunshine bill, told Chinese media he is not pushing the motion anymore. In 2012 he received a response saying the relevant departments were looking carefully into the legislation.
Delegates election
The way delegates are selected also acts as a guarantee of loyalty to the party.
Despite democratic elections at the village and township level, it is difficult for those that are not party members to effectively win seats locally, let alone be appointed to the NPC, said Lin Feng.
"Every now and then you see some reports about certain independent candidates get elected," said Lin. "But if you put it in the big picture you will see the percentage is very small, anywhere in China. If they are in the minority," he said, "they won't be able to change the whole picture."