China's National People's Congress: What You Need to Know

Closing Of China's National People's Congress

The sun rises behind a paramilitary police officer standing guard outside Tiananmen Square ahead of the closing session of the third session of the 12th National People's Congress (NPC) in Beijing, China, on Sunday, March 15, 2015.

Photographer: Tomohiro Ohsumi/Bloomberg
  • Largely ceremonial body provides rare access to top leaders
  • Top legislature to reveal key details of economic blueprint

Each year, some 3,000 of China’s most powerful officials descend on Beijing for about 10 days of parliamentary pageantry known as the National People’s Congress.

While the country’s top legislature is constitutionally charged with vast powers, the mechanics of one-party rule ensure most important decisions are hashed out in closed-door Communist Party meetings long before reaching the floor. That said, the public proceedings at the Great Hall of the People represent the one time each year that many of the people who run the world’s second-largest economy face the press, providing rare insight into their thinking and policy plans.

National Peoples Congress
National Peoples Congress
Photographer: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Who are they?

This year’s NPC consists of 2,943 party chiefs, government officials, company executives and military commanders hailing from 35 constituencies, including provinces, regions, municipalities and the semi-autonomous former colonies of Hong Kong and Macau. Members include everyone from so-called model workers to President Xi Jinping.

Delegates have even been assigned to represent Taiwan, which China still considers a province even though it’s been ruled independently for almost seven decades. The party officially holds 72 percent of the seats, with the remainder occupied by eight authorized "non-Communist" parties and people with no affiliation. In reality, only one party picks the delegates.

Are they a rubber stamp?

Yes, mostly. With its membership controlled entirely by the ruling party, the legislature largely serves to ratify decisions handed down from other organs of state power. The government drafts most new legislation, and the full session of the NPC has never turned down a bill put to it for a final vote by government agencies, according to a Caixin magazine report citing research by the late China University of Political Science and Law Professor Cai Dingjian

The party pledged in 2014 to "perfect the NPC’s constitutional rights to supervise and monitor" the government. But there’s a catch: the body must also "unswervingly adhere to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party."

Why should you care?

The NPC’s impact pales next to the plenums that the party’s Central Committee usually holds in October or November, but those gatherings are largely discreet affairs, with decisions announced by communique after the fact. The NPC, along with a concurrent meeting of the country’s top political advisory body, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, fill the void, drawing thousands of journalists from around the world seeking any clue to the government’s thinking. 

This year’s meeting will focus on crafting China’s development plan for the next five years. And the proceedings may provide crucial details on how the government plans to control a slow down in growth while avoiding the dreaded "middle-income trap."

Li Keqiang
Li Keqiang
Photographer: Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

The highlight will be Premier Li Keqiang’s closing press conference. The remarks made at the event can echo through the vacuum for months such as last year, when Li compared China’s economic reform plans to "taking a knife to one’s own flesh."

Who’s missing?

The NPC has not been spared as Xi’s anti-corruption crackdown reverberates around the government, with the campaign now into its fourth year. Of the 48 delegates from last year who are not attending this year’s session, at least 25 were suspected of violating state law or party disciplinary rules, according to Caixin. 

The highest-ranking is former Hebei party secretary Zhou Benshun. Zhou, an ex-secretary to disgraced security chief Zhou Yongkang, was kicked out of the party in October and faces trial on bribery charges. Nine of the 48 died since last year’s NPC.


Full Coverage: China National People's Congress 2016


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