When delegates to China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) arrive for their annual meeting in Beijing in March, they are taken in police-escorted buses from the airport to hotels surrounded by armed soldiers who deny access to anyone without the necessary permits.
Ask people in Beijing who “their” representative is and they will answer with a smile and a shrug.
“NPC members are the ‘three hands’,” they answer. “Shaking hands, clapping hands and raising hands (握手，拍手，擧手). They come here for the free hotel, banquets, allowances and networking. They have no relation to us.”
Yesterday Hong Kong’s High Court disqualified two pro-independence lawmakers from entering Legco because they took their oath of allegiance improperly.
The court is considering appeals to disqualify 13 other legislators from the chamber.
The majority of Hong Kong people support the decision against the two – Yau Wai-ching and Baggio Leung – because they consider their behavior insulting and inappropriate for legislators.
But the possibility that more opponents of the government will be excluded means that Legco will lose its role as a representative of the public as a whole and become increasingly like the NPC in the mainland, a rubber stamp for the Communist Party.
Every five years, Chinese voters choose as many as two million “people’s representatives” who will elect the rulers, including the members of the NPC who in turn will select the president.
Grassroots elections are taking place this month in Beijing. Candidate lists are strictly vetted by local Communist Party committees; it is they who must approve meetings with voters.
Independent candidates who do not have their approval are excluded.
The result is a complete disconnect between the public and the political process.
No-one outside the party system knows who is “representing” them nor do they care. The process has nothing to do with them.
The NPC session in March this year had 2,943 members, of whom 72 percent were Communist Party members; the Party has 89 million members, out of a population of 1.3 billion.
Ordinary workers and farmers are woefully underrepresented at the NPC.
The full session of the NPC has never voted down a bill put to it for final vote by a department of the government.
It must “unswervingly adhere to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party”; debates and decisions on policy are taken within the party before going to the NPC.
Journalists who interview the visiting NPC members and hope to hear a different opinion on any particular policy are disappointed.
A member of the public who wants to take a grievance or opinion to his or her “representative” in Beijing has the greatest difficulty.
He must first find out who the person is and where he is staying; this is not made public. If he discovers the location, he will not get past the armed soldiers guarding the hotel.
Party members say that this is the system best suited to the particular situation of China, a country with a vast population, over 50 ethnic groups and a great disparity of geography, education and wealth.
A more democratic system would lead to social chaos and disorder, with fierce infighting within the corridors of power and on the streets, they say.
They say that the rapid economic development of the last 35 years is evidence of an efficient and fast-moving administrative system.
This argument does not apply to Hong Kong and Taiwan, societies that are homogenous and have small populations and a high level of education and interaction with the outside world.
But Beijing regards the democratic systems of the two places as inefficient and chaotic, in which conflicts between people and policies have blocked effective governance.
It was also angry that massive public protests torpedoed two pieces of legislation it wanted – the National Security Law (Article 23) in Hong Kong in 2003 and the Cross-Straits Service Trade Agreement in Taiwan in 2014.
So what will be the composition of Legco in the future? Will Beijing allow the diversity of opinion and behavior it has enjoyed so far?
Or does it want a body similar to the NPC that will pass the policy agenda of the government?
These important questions will be decided in the months ahead by Hong Kong’s High Court and the behavior of the legislators themselves.
If they can work out a system of compromise and pass the bills needed by the public, then the worst can be avoided.
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