2020 in Review: A Norm-Breaking Year at the NPC

How best to describe 2020? Challenging. Surreal. Exhausting. And for China’s national legislature, norm-breaking. On this last day of the year, we look back, as usual, at the National People’s Congress’s and our work in 2020. To start, we recount those NPC institutional norms that were burned by the dumpster fire that was 2020.

The Norms Broken

COVID-19 derailed the legislature’s plan for 2020 early on, before the outbreak had reached pandemic level. The NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) had to allow a few dozen legislators to attend its February and April sessions via videoconference for the first time in history. The pandemic also forced the NPCSC to postpone the NPC’s annual session, originally scheduled for early March, till late May. The session was also shortened to only seven days, from typically ten days or so. As a result, the NPC’s 2020 annual session was both the latest and the shortest in at least three decades.

What was truly unprecedented about that session was, of course, its decision authorizing the NPCSC to enact national security legislation for Hong Kong. The decision upended the prevailing view that the central government had no legal authority to legislate on national security matters for Hong Kong—much less directly apply such a national law to the city without involving its own legislature. The NPCSC then acted swiftly and adopted the Hong Kong National Security Law on June 30. It did so by meeting twice in a single month and without conducting any public consultation: two exceedingly rare steps that, again, deviated from established practice. In November, the NPCSC relied again on the NPC’s May decision to prescribe additional qualifications for members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo), resulting in the immediate disqualification of four pro-democracy legislators. In the interim, the NPCSC also extended the incumbent LegCo’s term for a year, but without any apparent authority to do so.

Finally, the NPCSC’s transparency in 2020 suffered a serious blow. It held nine sessions this year—a record high in recent memory. But for none of the multiday sessions did it release a complete agenda and daily schedule at the start of the session, contrary to its usual practice. The public thus could only rely on news reports citing anonymous resources—which are oftentimes vague and not always accurate—to get a sense of what was going on inside the Great Hall of the People. In 2020, the NPCSC also stopped holding post-session press conferences, at which it used to invite senior legislators and government officials to discuss important new bills. Even the pandemic is not a good excuse for canceling the press conferences after the virus had been largely under control in China. And there was certainly no shortage of important bills to discuss, whether Hong Kong-related or not. We can only hope that transparency norms will be restored in the new year, especially as the NPCSC plans to consider revisions to its own rules of procedure.

The NPC in 2020

2020 was the legislature’s most productive year since 2013. This past year, the NPCSC was in session for a total of 25 ½ days. It held six regularly scheduled sessions and three special sessions. At the first special session in May, it prepared for the postponed NPC session and secretly reviewed a draft of the upcoming NPC decision on Hong Kong. At the second one in late June, it adopted the Hong Kong National Security Law. And at its third special session in November, it passed the decision that disqualified four Hong Kong legislators. Meanwhile, the 13th NPC met for its third annual session in late May. Altogether, the NPC and its Standing Committee enacted 10 new laws, approved major changes to 10, and reviewed another 17 legislative bills (see lists at the end of this section for details).

* Excluding decisions on legal issues, such as the NPC’s May decision on national security in Hong Kong
** Excluding amendments adopted after a single review

Although Hong Kong-related bills overshadowed all other legislation in 2020, there are still a few worth highlighting:

New laws passed in 2020
Revisions & major amendments passed in 2020
Legislative bills still pending by the end of 2020

The NPC Observer in 2020

In 2020, this Blog published 48 blogposts and received close to 112,000 pageviews (a roughly 60% increase over 2019) by almost 47,000 visitors from 166 jurisdictions worldwide. Readers in the United States contributed about 30% of the total traffic, followed by those from Hong Kong, mainland China, Germany, and the United Kingdom. And over 5,000 of you have followed us on Twitter or Facebook.

Our explainer of the NPC’s May decision on Hong Kong was the most viewed post in 2020, followed by our guide to China’s new Civil Code and summary of the Hong Kong National Security Law. The Civil Code page was the most viewed bill page™ in 2020, followed by those for the Export Control Law [出口管制法] and—again, the Hong Kong National Security Law.

Finally, we will note several improvements we made to our website in 2020. We redesigned the Sessions page and the pages archiving the State Council’s and the NPCSC’s public consultations. They now include more information and are easier to navigate. We also expanded our archives of the NPCSC’s work plans and its annual reports to the NPC. The work plans page now archives all its publicly available work plans, whereas the work reports page now links to all reports since 1980.

That concludes our programming in 2020. Here’s to a better 2021.

Happy New Year!

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