The NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) released its 2017 oversight plan (Plan) in early May, and this post presents an overdue analysis of it. Here, we will not list each and every project in the Plan (unlike our previous analysis of the NPCSC’s 2017 legislative plan), but will instead offer a few observations about the Plan. A partial translation of the Plan, including more detailed descriptions of the projects, can be found at the end of this post.
Introduction & Plan Overview
The Plan mainly concerns the following five categories of oversight tools at the NPCSC’s disposal. Below, for each category we will provide a quick introduction and several examples from the Plan. For more information, please refer to the statute governing the NPCSC’s exercise of oversight powers: the Law on Oversight by the Standing Committees of the People’s Congresses at All Levels (Oversight Law).
- Hearing the State Council’s reports relating to the Central Government’s budgets and the National Economic and Social Development Plans
This category is unique among the five in that both the content and the timing of these reports are largely fixed by the Oversight Law and the Budget Law. Specifically—
- In June, the NPCSC hears reports on last year’s Central Government’s final accounts and on auditing of the execution of last year’s Central Budget and other fiscal revenues and expenses;
- Between June and September (conventionally in August), the NPCSC hears reports on the execution of the present year’s Central Budget and National Economic and Social Development Plan;
- In December, the NPCSC hears report on the rectification of the problems identified by the June auditing report. (The Chief Auditor has only been asked to orally deliver this report to the full NPCSC since 2015.)
Despite the statutory constraint on these reports, the NPCSC often asks the State Council to focus on specific issues. In 2016, for example, the State Council was asked to emphasize in its June reports situations of the management and use of dormant budget funds and of local government debt.
- Hearing special work reports (专项工作报告) by the State Council, the Supreme People’s Court (SPC), and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP)
Such work reports, unlike those delivered at the NPC’s annual sessions, each concentrates on a single issue. The SPC’s and the SPP’s reports always focus on aspects of the judicial system, and this year each will submit a report on judicial reform. In comparison, the topics of the State Council’s reports are more varied, ranging from the use of government funds for education to cultural heritage this year.
- Inspecting the enforcement of laws
Since we have recently posted a fairly comprehensive introduction to law enforcement inspections, we will not repeat the information here. According to the Plan, by the end of February 2018, the NPCSC will have additionally inspected the enforcement of the following laws:
- Drug Administration Law (last major revision in 2001);
- Product Quality Law (last amended in 2000);
- Copyright Law (last amended in 2010);
- Law on the Prevention and Control of Environmental Pollution Caused by Solid Wastes (Solid Wastes Pollution Law, last major revision in 2004);
- Cybersecurity Law (effective June 1, 2017), in tandem with the NPCSC Decision on Strengthening the Protection of Network Information (effective December 28, 2012);
- Seed Law.
- Conducting special inquiries (专题询问)
Though a separate form of oversight, special inquiries are always used to supplement other oversight measures. Recently, the NPCSC has each year selected three reports it hears—usually on matters of wide public concern—and holds special inquiries on those matters. Responsible State Council officials are asked to attend special inquiries to answer NPCSC members’ questions.
In 2017, the NPCSC will hold special inquiries in conjunction with hearing the following three reports:
- Law enforcement report on the Product Quality Law;
- Law enforcement report on the Solid Wastes Pollution Law;
- State Council’s report on poverty alleviation.
- Carrying out special research projects (专题调研)
Special research projects are an outlier because, unlike all other oversight tools, they are not provided for in the Oversight Law, and the resulting reports are rarely put on the NPCSC’s agenda for formal deliberation. As now used by the NPCSC, special research projects examine a wide variety of subjects, which, in 2017 alone, range from the implementation of the Minors Protection Law to standardizing the management of non-tax revenue.
For the sake of completeness, we ought to mention that there are a few other oversight measures at the NPCSC’s disposal. But we will not introduce them here because they are either used routinely, like filing and reviewing (备案审查) lower-level legislations, or not at all, such as conducting investigations of specific issues (特定问题调查) and questioning (质询) other state organs.
Observations & Analysis
- The Communist Party’s current policy priorities feature prominently in the Plan.
Recent policy buzzwords have almost invariably made their way to the Plan: poverty alleviation, supply-side reform, cybersecurity, and judicial reform—to name a few. The inclusion of these projects in the Plan was in fact a deliberate choice on the NPCSC’s part, said an NPC official interviewed by the Legal Daily.
It is worth noting that the planned law enforcement inspection of the Cybersecurity Law, which just took effect on June 1, will only be the third inspection in a decade that takes place within the very year the inspected law comes into force—underscoring the importance of cybersecurity to the Party at this moment.
- Issues of wide public concern appear throughout the Plan as well.
Three laws concerning public health and safety—the Drug Administration Law, the Product Quality Law, and the Solid Wastes Pollution Law—will be subject to law enforcement inspections this year, for instance. To give another example, the NPCSC will study the implementation of the Minors Protection Law, focusing on the situations of rural left-behind children (whose parents have gone to bigger cities to work) and ways to deter school violence (which of late has emerged as an issue receiving high public attention).
- The NPCSC continues to employ different measures in the oversight of the same issue.
As mentioned above, the NPCSC this year will hold special inquiries in conjunction with hearing one special work report and two law enforcement inspection reports. And the 12th NPCSC this year will use a new combination of tools in the oversight of a single issue: In the ongoing June Session, it is hearing both a report on the enforcement inspection of the Drug Administration Law and a State Council report on drug administration. The rationale behind such a practice, as stated in the Plan, is that more intensive oversight would lead to more effective oversight.
The record number (by our observation) of oversight measures used on the same subject is three. In 2015 and 2016, the NPCSC employed law enforcement inspection, special inquiry, and special research project to examine the issue of preventing and controlling water pollution.
- The NPCSC appears to be making a conscious effort to coordinate its legislative and oversight powers.
At least six oversight projects in the Plan have a legislative component, according to their descriptions. Those projects include one special work report, three law enforcement inspections, and two special research projects.
First, the Plan asks the State Council to focus on (among other matters) the progress of revising the Grasslands Law in its report on protecting grassland ecological environment. (Revising the Law is a second-tier project in the 12th NPCSC’s five-year legislative plan.) Asking the State Council to report on the revision would presumably afford the NPCSC a formal and relatively public opportunity to urge the State Council to speed up the process and to provide it with feedback on any proposed changes to the Law.
With respect to the two special research projects, the Plan requires one to research amending the Minors Protection Law and the other to offer proposals for enacting national legislation on protecting the rights and interests of overseas Chinese.
Finally, and most notably, the Plan marks the first time in recent years that proposing modifications to the laws inspected is explicitly identified as a purpose of law enforcement inspections. Even though the inspections already serve such a purpose under the Oversight Law, by directing considerable resources to directly gathering suggestions for revision, the NPCSC establishes its own information channel (instead of relying on the drafters of a bill, who in most cases are not legislative bodies) and could become more actively involved early in the legislative process—that is, before a bill comes before it.
- The NPCSC seems poised to try additional forms of oversight, starting with questioning.
For the second year in a row, the NPCSC states in its oversight plan that it will start using questioning “depending on the circumstances and at the right time.” Questioning, though seemingly akin to inquiries, would in our opinion differ from the latter in two important ways.
First, questioning signals the NPCSC’s disapproval of the state organs subject to questioning, whereas inquiries are in general most amicable. It would be significant for an institution that strives to avoid (even the appearance of) any confrontation with other state organs to employ a measure that inherently speaks dissatisfaction. And second, even while inquiries (and special inquiries) are organized in the NPCSC’s name, individual NPCSC members raise questions that do not necessarily reflect other members’ views. Questioning bills, on the other hand, must be approved by the Council of Chairmen—a powerful decision-making body in the NPCSC—before they are sent to the entities being questioned, thereby carrying more authority than inquiries.
Of course, our views above are based solely on our reading of relevant constitutional and statutory texts. It would be interesting to see how questioning operates in reality when the NPCSC eventually decides to use it as an oversight tool.
 We have previously translated the term “监督” in this Law’s title as “supervision.” But to avoid confusion with the draft “监察法” (whereof “监察” is most commonly translated as “supervision” as well) now before the NPCSC, we decided to from now on translate “监督” as “oversight” instead—at least as used in the context of oversight by the NPCSC.
 It appears that certain special research projects that study the implementation of laws are similar to law enforcement inspections. But since no such special research project report is publicly available, the extent of the apparent similarity is unclear.
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