The rot at the top exposing deep flaws in China’s legislative system

Every March, thousands of national lawmakers gather in the Great Hall of the People in downtown Beijing to hear the premier report on the state of the nation, to review state plans, and to vote for state leaders if it happens to be an “election year”.

The National People’s Congress is China’s biggest political show, lasting two weeks and drawing legislators from all corners of the country.

The NPC is supposed to be a display of “democracy” but late on Tuesday state-run Xinhua ­announced that 45 members of the body, or about half of the deputies from Liaoning province, had bribed their way into the top legislature.

It is the biggest scandal to hit the Chinese legislative system since 1949 in terms of both the number and political level of the people involved. It also exposes the flaws of the people’s deputy system, which Beijing repeatedly claims is central to its model of “socialist democracy”.

China’s legal foundation shaken as 45 lawmakers expelled in unprecedented vote-rigging scandal

Beijing clings to the people’s congress system under the Communist Party’s rule as its argument against Western, multi-party democracy and direct election of government leaders. It insists that the system suits the needs of its people and operates well.

But Renmin University political scientist Zhang Ming said the election fraud in Liaoning was ­unlikely to be a lone case because the practice of vote buying was widespread across the country.

“I think [the fraud in Liaoning] has been exposed as a warning to other provinces, but it won’t be ­effective, because fraud is inevitable – the election system itself is at fault,” Zhang said.

Beijing-based political analyst Zhang Lifan agreed. “It is the lack of transparency and openness in the NPC’s election system that created the preconditions for vote buying and trading in power for money,” he said.

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NPC Standing Committee chairman Zhang Dejiang, who is also No 3 in the ruling Politburo, said the scandal was “a challenge to China’s socialist democratic politics” and “touched the bottom line of the Chinese socialism system and the rule of the party”.

The dismissal of national lawmakers comes as the party gears up for its major leadership reshuffle in autumn next year.

Chen Daoyin, an associate professor at Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said the exposure of the fraud was part of President Xi Jinping’s plans to shake up power and bring cadres into line ahead of the 19th party congress.

“After the 19th party congress, the NPC will approve the appointment of senior government officials at its plenum the following March … [Xi] cannot allow anything to go wrong even during the ceremonial process. There has to be absolute control,” he said.

Liaoning, a northeastern rust-belt province home to 46 million people, is in deep economic and political trouble. It was the only mainland province that reported economic contraction for the first half of this year, and companies owned by its local governments are publicly defaulting on debts. Liaoning’s former party boss, Wang Min, has also been detained as part of a graft investigation.

According to Xinhua, 523 provincial lawmakers in Liaoning helped rig elections that sent 45 of their colleagues to the national legislature. Since then, half of the provincial people’s congress’ standing committee have been disqualified as a result of the scandal, rendering it inoperable.

Former Communist Party chief of Liaoning province expelled over alleged election graft

However, the political impact of the fraud could go far beyond the party congress.

It raises a fundamental question over whether the mainland’s political institutions, which were adopted in the mid-1950s, can properly function in a rapidly changing economy.

The NPC is repeatedly criticised as a club of money and power instead of a house representing interests of the general public. Businesspeople and officials alike are eager to become deputies because the position confers influence, connections and even protection against police detention. The ranks of the NPC’s roughly 3,000 deputies are stuffed with local government ­officials, state enterprise managers and the wealthy elite.

“The NPC has become a club for senior officials and top executives,” Zhang Ming said. “If you don’t get in, you can’t mingle with the others. It is a symbol of status and position.”

Other scandals have afflicted the people’s congress system. In 2013, 518 of 529 members of the Hengyang people’s congress in Hunan province were found to taken bribes to vote to sent deputies to the provincial legislature.

In the Liaoning case, most of the 45 members are bosses of government-linked businesses. They include former Lingyuan Iron and Steel chairman Zhang Zhenyong; former Liaoning Tongda Huajin Chemicals chairman Liu Yunwen; and Zhang Yukun, chairwoman of Shengjing Bank.

Despite its importance under the national constitution, the NPC is still largely a rubber-stamp legislature endorsing party. Its Standing Committee, however, which oversees day-to-day operations, is moving towards a professional lawmaking body.

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