China’s Own Leadership Conclave: Time to Raise the Rubber Stamps

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Ju Peng / Xinhua /

Yu Zhengsheng (center front) chairman of the 12th National Committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) presides over the closing meeting of the first conference of the Standing Committee of the 12th CPPCC National Committee in Beijing on March 13, 2013.

Those people worried about China’s fondness for intellectual property piracy need not be concerned—in the political sphere, at least. On March 12, one of the country’s senior leaders, Yu Zhengsheng, gave a speech in Beijing, where various leadership confabs are currently taking place, in which he vowed that China would not be copying the wayward fashions of the West:

“We need to more strictly follow the socialist path of political development with Chinese characteristics, not imitate Western political systems under any circumstances, always adhere to the correct political orientation, and strengthen the CPPCC’s ideological and political foundations of collective struggle.”

Yu is the chairman of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, which is abbreviated rather cumbersomely as the CPPCC. Technically speaking, the 67-year-old was elected to this top job on Monday, and his remarks were targeted at some 2,000 so-called political advisers who make up the CPPCC National Committee. Also converging on Beijing now are deputies to the annual legislative National People’s Congress (NPC), who on Thursday began voting for China’s next set of civilian leaders.

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In reality, these leadership polls aren’t exercises in true electoral democracy nor, as Yu noted, does the leadership want to follow the West. (Of course, as one snarky commenter on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like service, noted, “Is Russia not a Western country? If so, why did the Chinese Communist Party of China copy the whole Soviet Union’s political system?”)

Despite the Chinese leadership’s allergy to some Western political mores, the coverage of the CPPCC and NPC in China’s state-controlled press over the past few days has borrowed heavily from democratic verbiage. “Three Days, Nine Ballots: Details of State Leadership Elections” went a March 13 headline from Xinhua, China’s state-run newswire and government mouthpiece. From Thursday through Saturday, wrote Xinhua, almost 3,000 NPC delegates would be casting nine ballots to usher in a slew of new leaders, ranging from China’s president and vice president to the country’s chief justice.

Six of these ballots are for what Xinhua deems an “election.” Three are for “appointments.” Neither type will be a real contest. As Xinhua itself notes, “Except the NPC Standing Committee members, each vacancy in the elections will have only one candidate.” The variation between “elections” and “appointments” is slight. In an “election,” the NPC deputy is theoretically allowed to write in the name of another person should he or she not support the sole proffered candidate. In an “appointment,” a write in is not allowed. The difference is immaterial since write-in campaigns aren’t exactly a factor in Chinese politics. To win, a nominee only needs 50% of the vote, an easy task in this compliant legislature. Historically, most nominees have received well over 90% of the delegates’ support. Nevertheless, Xinhua described the rubber-stamp exercise as “three busy days.”

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The most significant outcome of the five-yearly process came on Thursday with the naming of Xi Jinping as China’s new president, succeeding Hu Jintao, who held the post for a decade. Although president of the world’s most populous country and second-largest economy sounds like a mighty august job, Xi already inherited two far more important titles from Hu last November during the Communist Party’s Congress: General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and Chairman of the Party’s Central Military Commission.

The Party is crucial in determining the unopposed candidates currently appearing on the NPC ballots. Technically speaking, these men—most are men—were nominated by the NPC’s presidium earlier in the leadership confab, giving the illusion of legislative muscle. But the choices are based on recommendations from the Party’s Central Committee—and these are not recommendations to be ignored. The script was choreographed even before the presidium gathered.

Witness the state’s propaganda effort in burnishing Yu’s credentials as he was supposedly elected to his new post earlier this week. “A frank, devoted friend,” opined Xinhua in a lavish profile of the new CPPCC head, praising his “sincerity and credibility [that] has turned [him] into a bosom friend of CPPCC members.” We learn that Yu, during a trip to troubled Tibetan regions, showed “genuine concern and great care, is devoted to cementing the unity and cohesion of the family of the Chinese nation, and to the patriotic united front.” He is also a man apparently unafraid of the wok: “After work, Yu sometimes goes to the market to buy food. He cooks dishes when he has time.” Who in China wouldn’t want to vote for such a fine fellow—even in a country whose leadership has no wish to “imitate Western political systems under any circumstances?”

with reporting by Gu Yongqiang / Beijing

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