- The Washington Times - Friday, March 9, 2001

BEIJING The unthinkable happened recently in Shenyang, China's fifth-largest city: The municipal congress voted something down.
Such an occurrence is so inconceivable that China's body of laws has no provision specifying how the matter should be dealt with.
Long derided as rubber-stamp legislatures filled with nothing but hand-raising delegates, the various levels of congresses from townships and counties up to the National People's Congress (NPC) are getting some teeth.
As Chinese society becomes more sophisticated and people's awareness of their rights increases, this change is reflected in the congresses, whose delegates gradually are becoming more assertive and increasingly dare to go against Communist Party dictates.
"As we change from a planned economy to a market economy, it's inevitable people's understanding of democracy and rule of law grows," said Hu Jinguang, a law professor at the People's University in Beijing. "Their standard of living has improved and their basic needs have been met, so now they think more about how the traffic can be better, how the environment can be better. People are demanding the delegates reflect their views."

Court's work rejected

In Shenyang, a city of 6.8 million in the heart of China's rust belt, where unemployment runs high due to massive layoffs at struggling state enterprises, anger over a huge corruption scandal boiled over into the local municipal People's Congress.
In the past several months, the mayor resigned, the vice mayor was arrested for gambling away millions in Macao's casinos and dozens of other top government and court officials are under investigation for graft and links to the mafia.
As a result, the Shenyang congress rejected the work report of the Intermediate People's Court, with only 46 percent of the 474 delegates voting for it.
The vote has stunned Chinese legal experts, who say it is the first time a work report which is a summary of the previous year's work has been voted down by a congress of any level.
"The Shenyang matter has caused a big stir," said Mr. Hu, the Beijing law professor. "The report being voted down means their work for the year was unacceptable."
In addition to passing the budget, debating legislation and approving personnel appointments, the congresses vote at their annual meeting to approve the work reports of three entities: the government, the court and the prosecutor's office, which is charged mainly with investigating corruption and other government misdeeds.

No more unanimous voting

The work report of the prosecutor's office in Shenyang also came close to being rejected, passing by just 57 percent, a far cry from the unanimous voting of a decade or so ago.
"This time the People's Congress was rather democratic. We carried out our duties," Zhao Jingzhi, a Shenyang delegate who abstained on the court vote, said in a telephone interview. "The court has too many problems. It has to be overhauled."
The official Xinhua news agency quoted Wang Ce, deputy director of the Law Institute of Shenyang Social Sciences Academy, as saying the vote would "spark more reforms in China's democratic and legal systems."
However, Mr. Hu said Chinese law says nothing about who should take responsibility if a work report is rejected.
"I personally believe the court chief should resign," Mr. Hu said. "But I don't think this hole will be fixed anytime soon."
Each level of government has its own congress, from townships to counties, cities, provinces and ultimately, the National People's Congress, which began its 11-day annual meeting Monday in Beijing.

NPC also gets assertive

Although the NPC has yet to vote anything down, it is also getting more assertive and has at times sent a loud signal by casting a large number of no votes. In 1992, one-third of the delegates cast opposing or abstaining votes on building in the $25 billion Three Gorges Dam. Two years ago, the work report of the Supreme People's Court barely passed, garnering just over 50 percent of the vote.
"There may be many more cases like Shenyang," said Mr. Hu. "It won't just be the court report that doesn't pass. Maybe one day the government report won't pass."
One delegate known for speaking her mind is Wu Qing, a retired English professor who has represented the Beijing Foreign Studies University in both the municipal and district-level People's Congress for more than 12 years. Her school has tried on numerous occasions to get her voted out, but her constituents continue to support her.
She holds weekly office hours to hear grievances, frequently writes complaints to government officials and carries a copy of the constitution with her to all meetings. Its pages are well-marked and some are even falling out.
"I'm quite famous or infamous for carrying this around," she said. At meetings, "they ask me, 'Which article are you going to quote from this time?' "

Outside influences felt

Sometimes her colleagues tell her it's useless to complain, but she said government officials she deals with are also changing they're younger, better-educated and more exposed to the outside world. The No. 1 concern of her constituents is corruption.
"This country has gone to the dogs because the system itself is rotten," Mrs. Wu said. "People have had enough of this very arbitrary rule."
Although no end to the one-party system is in sight, she feels she has influenced some of her colleagues in congress. Mrs. Wu said she often tells her friends: "The best people are in the party. The worst people are also in the party."
To be sure, delegates who vote their conscience are still the exception rather than the rule.
A recent commentary in the China Youth Daily voiced some of the frustration with the inefficacy of the congresses: "In places where they lie and cheat and waste the people's money, the work report passes. Where the officials are incompetent, the work report passes. Many reports that the people don't think should pass, still pass. After awhile, this kind of behavior not only makes people suspicious of the purpose and status of the congress, it also makes people ask whether deputies who pass everything are capable of representing the people."
But the article said it saw some hope from the Shenyang vote.

Inspections, investigations

Mr. Hu noted that delegates are asking more questions and demanding more revisions before they agree to cast their vote. A few are taking an even more proactive approach, organizing inspection tours or agreeing to investigate citizen complaints of wrongdoing.
The state-run press last week carried several stories about how the legislatures in various locations are exercising their powers by demanding more accountability, rejecting candidates and recalling officials. It has highlighted Guangdong province, one of the most prosperous regions in China, where the congress just passed a regulation requiring the government to provide more detailed accounting of its spending.
A stronger NPC, which, according to the constitution, is the "supreme organ of power," boosts China's argument that it doesn't need a multiparty system to have democracy.
"Improving the congressional system needs time," said Mo Jihong, a law professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, a government-sponsored think tank. "Only this way can the construction of democracy move forward. We can't directly import the Western system. That isn't practical."
At 63, Mrs. Wu said she still hopes to be elected to the NPC.
"They might be more of a rubber stamp up there," she said. "But I do want to get in there. I can function more."

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