Explainer: How Seats in China’s National People’s Congress Are Allocated

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Delegates voting by a show of hands at the inaugural session of the First NPC in 1954.

China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) is the largest legislature in the world. Since 1986, its size has been capped by the Election Law for the National People’s Congress and Local People’s Congresses at All Levels (Election Law) [全国人民代表大会和地方各级人民代表大会选举法] at 3,000. The delegates are indirectly elected every five years to represent thirty-five electoral units: the thirty-one provincial administrative regions in mainland China, the Chinese military, as well as Hong Kong, Macao, and Taiwan.

Under the Election Law, NPC delegates must be “broadly representative” [广泛的代表性]. To that end, the Law requires in general terms that various demographic groups, including women and ethnic minorities, have “appropriate” representation in the NPC. Since the Reform Era (1978–), each NPC has, at its last session, adopted a “decision on the quotas and elections” of delegates to the next NPC—referred to below as a “Master Allocation Plan” or “Master Plan”—that puts the Election Law’s general requirements in more concrete terms. (The Master Plan for the 14th NPC was recently adopted on March 11.) The Plans have either allocated a specific number of seats to a certain demographic group or set forth guidelines on a group’s representation in the next NPC.

Below, we first explain how seats in the NPC have been allocated among the various electoral units and demographic groups to achieve a demographically diverse membership, before briefly taking a look at the non-demographic criteria for selecting NPC delegates.

Electoral Units

1. Mainland provinces. The delegates representing the thirty-one mainland “provinces”—a term we use to include autonomous regions and directly governed municipalities—are indirectly elected by the corresponding provincial-level people’s congresses.

Two competing principles govern the allocation of seats to the provinces (Election Law art. 17, para. 1). The proportionality principle requires that each delegate represent the same population, while the broad-representation principle mandates “appropriate” representation for each region, ethnicity, and fangmian [方面] (an undefined term that has been translated as “sector” or “body of people”).

A new allocation formula introduced in 2010[1] implements those principles by dividing each province’s assigned seats into three groups: (1) seats allocated solely on the basis of population; (2) an unspecified equal base number of seats; and (3) seats allocated for “other” reasons (id. para. 2). The last group includes not only seats allocated to ethnic minorities and other fangmian to achieve broad presentation—the “Diversity Seats”—but also seats reserved for incoming national leaders and other senior officials—the “Central Leadership Seats.”[2] Those persons include “Party and State leaders,” a term of art referring to the holders of specific national-level positions; potential members of the NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC); leaders of officially recognized minor political parties and mass organizations; as well as other senior party-state officials and public figures.[3]

Once the Communist Party leadership decides on a slate of nominees for the Central Leadership Seats, the NPCSC General Office will refer the nominees to various provinces for elections. The chosen provinces may be the nominees’ birthplaces, places of ancestry, or former places of employment, but sometimes a nominee would have no obvious tie to the province he or she represents.[4] Xi Jinping, for instance, represents Inner Mongolia in the 13th NPC, but has no familial or employment ties to the region. The reason for joining the Inner Mongolia delegation, he said, was to show that the Party attaches great importance to ethnic border areas and is determined to help underdeveloped regions develop and combat poverty.

The 2010 formula was first used to allocate seats in the 12th NPC (2013–18). Its Master Allocation Plan allocated 2,000 seats on the basis of population alone, with one delegate for roughly 670,000 people. The next two Master Plans allocated the same number of population-based seats, but because of the slight growth in China’s population, one such seat is allocated for every 700,000 people in the 14th NPC (to first convene in 2023). The Master Plan for the 12th NPC, moreover, set the equal base number of seats for each province at eight, a precedent also followed by its next two iterations.

How the third group of seats—the Diversity Seats and Central Leadership Seats—is allocated is quite opaque.[5] The NPCSC has the delegated authority to make specific allocations. After a new Master Plan is approved, the NPCSC would adopt a detailed allocation plan that simply lists the total number of seats allocated to each province, without indicating how many Diversity Seats are included and why (except for seats reserved for ethnic minorities, as explained below). Each detailed allocation plan has also set aside a certain number of seats—255 since the 11th NPC—to be “separately allocated” by the NPCSC. These are the Central Leadership Seats, and their allocation among the provinces is also unexplained.

2. Other electoral units. The delegations representing the remaining electoral units—Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and the military—are chosen pursuant to rules separate from the Election Law.

Since the transfers of sovereignty, Hong Kong and Macao have been given, respectively, 36 and 12 seats in each NPC. Every five years, the NPC has adopted a pair of electoral measures (alongside a Master Allocation Plan) that would create an ad hoc electoral college in each city responsible for nominating and electing the city’s delegates to the next NPC. (We recently wrote about the measures for electing the two cities’ delegates to the 14th NPC here.)

Similarly, the number of seats reserved for delegates purportedly representing Taiwan has remained constant at 13 since the 6th NPC (1983–88). They are chosen by ad hoc “consultative election meetings” formed by around 120 representatives of “compatriots of Taiwanese ancestry” who hail from all mainland provinces, central Party and state organs, and the military. These meetings proceed in accordance with special rules prescribed by the NPCSC every five years. (The NPCSC is expected to adopt the rules for forming the Taiwanese delegation to the 14th NPC in April 2022.)

As with the three delegations just mentioned, the size of the military delegation is also directly set by the NPC. Since the 6th NPC, the military has been given 265 seats, except for a temporary rise to 267 during the 8th NPC (1993–98), the most among all electoral units. At the start of the current NPC, for instance, the military delegation (representing ~2 million military personnel) was more than 50% larger than Shandong’s, the largest provincial delegation, which represented over 100 million Chinese citizens. Scholars have criticized the military’s overrepresentation in the NPC for violating the civilian population’s equal voting rights and have called for shrinking the military delegation.[6]

Yet the military delegation is poised to grow. After the People’s Armed Police (PAP) was placed under sole military command in 2018, it and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) have formed a joint delegation. The NPC has allocated 13 additional seats to the military (for a total of 278) in the next NPC to account for the PAP’s participation.

The military delegation is elected by the servicemember congresses of top-level military subdivisions, including the PLA’s various theater commands and service branches, under a special law enacted by the NPCSC.

Demographic Groups

Besides allocating seats to the electoral units (or providing a formula for doing so), the NPC’s Master Allocation Plans have also historically regulated the representation of five demographic groups either through specific quotas or general guidelines: ethnic minorities, returned overseas Chinese, women, grassroots delegates, and Party and government leading cadres.

1. Ethnic minorities. A 150-seat quota for ethnic minority delegates was included in China’s very first election law adopted in 1953, the year before the 1st NPC convened. In 1982, the requirement that every ethnic minority have “an appropriate number of delegates” was written into China’s Constitution. The same year, the 5th NPC abandoned the explicit quota that had been in use for three decades, and instead allocated “approximately 12%” (or ~360) of all seats in the next NPC to ethnic minority delegates, a practice followed by all subsequent NPCs.

The Election Law further authorizes the NPCSC to allocate the quota seats to the 32 mainland electoral units based on the “population and distribution” of each ethnic minority (art. 18). It also requires that each minority have at least one delegate (id.). Since 1982, following the adoption of each Master Allocation Plan, the NPCSC has approved a more detailed plan that apportions ~320 quota seats first among the 55 ethnic minorities—and then among specific provinces. The remaining 40 or so seats are reserved for the military and the incoming Central Leadership (as defined earlier).

The ethnic minorities’ allocated seats are not always proportional to their populations. For instance, the Hui people and the Uyghurs have comparable populations according to China’s 2010 census. But in the current NPC, they were respectively allocated 37 and 22 seats. That was because the Hui people were more widely distributed throughout China, thus 14 provinces in addition to Ningxia must each be given a few seats. The Uyghur population, by contrast, was concentrated in Xinjiang, which was allocated all 22 seats for the Uyghurs.

The actual percentage of ethnic minority delegates has always been slightly higher than the guideline value of 12%, averaging 14.2% over the last six NPCs, as minority candidates have also been elected to non-quota seats. As ethnic minorities make up around 8–9% of the Chinese population, they are slightly overrepresented in the NPC.

2. Returned overseas Chinese. Like the ethnic minority quota, the quota for NPC delegates who are “returned overseas Chinese,” or guiqiao [归侨], has a similarly long historical pedigree. Chinese law currently defines guiqiao as overseas Chinese citizens who have given up their long-term residency in a foreign country and returned to China. The term was originally conceived by the party-state in the 1950s “to attract [overseas Chinese] to ‘return’ to the motherland to help build a new China.”[7] “Ultimately,” one historian argues, “this official category . . . helped create an identity similar to that of an ethnic group (official and local recognition, a shared history, a minority position within the society, and, to varying extent, self-identification with the group label).”[8]

The 1953 election law allocated 30 seats to overseas Chinese, and 30 delegates to the 1st NPC were in fact selected from Chinese citizens living in over a dozen foreign countries. Since the 3rd NPC, however, those delegates have been chosen from the domestic guiqiao community. In 1982, the NPC amended the Election Law to codify the newer practice, while also raising the guiqiao quota to 35, starting with the 6th NPC (1983–88).

3. Women. The 1992 Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law [妇女权益保障法] was the first national law that required “an appropriate number of female delegates” in the NPC and a “gradual increase” in their proportion. (The Election Law later also codified this requirement.) The same year, in the Master Allocation Plan for the 8th NPC (1993–98), the NPC for the first time required that the percentage of female delegates be “no lower than” that in the 7th NPC. The next two Master Plans used stronger language, each mandating a “higher” percentage of women in the next NPC.

Despite those requirements, only during the 9th NPC did female representation improve upon the previous NPC (see graph below). Women held a smaller proportion of seats in both the 8th and 10th NPCs than they did in the previous NPC. They thus made up a smaller share of the delegates in the 10th NPC (2003–08) than they did over a decade earlier during the 7th NPC (1988–93).

* As of the start of each NPC

To reverse the trend and “effectively safeguard Chinese women’s political rights,” in 2007, the NPC for the first and only time in history set an explicit quota for female delegates, requiring that women hold “no few than 22%” of the seats in the 11th NPC (2008–13). Yet that target was again missed: women were elected to only 21.3% of the seats, although that percentage slightly improved upon the 10th NPC’s level (20.24%).

The next three Master Plans reverted to using general guidelines for female representation—and in increasingly softer language. Under the Master Plan for the 12th NPC (2013–18), women “shall” hold a higher percentage of seats, but the next Master Plan dropped the mandatory language, providing instead that female representation “should be higher” in the 13th NPC (2018–). To be fair, the NPCSC in both instances did also call on electoral units to “take effective measures to do a good job in nominating, recommending, and electing” female candidates and to ensure the Plan’s goal is met. The most recent Master Plan also required higher female representation in the 14th NPC, but only “in principle.” And the NPCSC omitted the call to take effective measures from the Plan’s explanatory document.

While female representation has indeed be slowly growing since the 11th NPC, the electoral units’ poor track records and the Master Plans’ watered-down language cast substantial doubt on whether that trend would continue.

4. Grassroots delegates. The Master Allocation Plan for the 11th NPC (2008–13) first addressed the issue of grassroots representation. Acknowledging that there had been a “downward trend” in the share of seats held by “workers and farmers”—from 26.6% in the 7th NPC to 18.5% in the 10th NPC—and that, in particular, there had been “too few” such delegates “from the frontline,” the Plan required the elections of more frontline workers and farmers to the 11th NPC. (The NPC later claimed that the goal was met, without disclosing specific numbers.)

The 2010 Election Law amendment codified a modified version of that requirement: the NPC “shall include an appropriate number of grassroots delegates, especially those who are workers, farmers, and intellectuals” (art. 7, para. 1). Subsequent Master Allocation Plans have all called for a general increase in the proportion of grassroots delegates in the next NPC, and further specified, likely to effectuate the 2010 amendment’s original intent,[9] that priority should be given to “frontline” [一线] personnel. Hence, between a farmer working in the field and a farmer-turned-entrepreneur running a business in the countryside, only the former would be considered “frontline” and prioritized. According to official statistics, frontline personnel have indeed been gaining more seats.

The Master Plan for the 11th NPC also separately required the elections of delegates who are “rural migrant workers” [农民工] from provinces where they are “relatively concentrated.” Its explanatory document cited the fact that China’s “ranks of migrant works continue to grow and they have made up an important part of industrial workers.” Only three were elected to the 11th NPC, however. The next Master Plan thus ordered “a substantial increase” in the number of migrant workers, which as a result jumped more than tenfold to 31 in the 12th NPC. The Master Plan for the 13th NPC required a further, general increase in their number, leading to 14 more seats for migrant workers (for a total of 45). The latest Master Plan repeated that general requirement.

5. Party and government leading cadres. Under intra-Party regulations, “Party and government leading cadres” [党政领导干部] refer to, in short, the leaders of core party-state organs and of those organs’ internal divisions. This is the only demographic group whose representation the NPC has for the past decade sought to reduce, rather than promote. This move and the effort to increase grassroots representation are two sides of the same coin: both aim to tackle the perceived issues of “elitism” and “dominance of officials” in the NPC’s membership.[10] One Party-affiliated researcher argued that the leading cadres’ overrepresentation in the NPC “would not be conducive to conveying the masses’ demands or to effectively overseeing governments’ work.”

The Master Plan for the 12th NPC (2013–18) first generally required a decrease in the representation of leading cadres. Their share of the seats thus dropped by almost 7% from the 11th NPC’s level, to 34.9%, according to official data. The Master Plan for the 13th NPC repeated that requirement and resulted in a meager 0.95% decrease, to 33.9%. In a sign that the authorities were satisfied with that level of cadre representation and intended to maintain it, the new Master Plan for the 14th NPC provides only that the “proportion of Party and government leading cadres should continue to be strictly handled,” without requiring any further decline.

Note, however, that many party-state employees besides leading cadres are also NPC delegates. According to one tally, those employees hold more than half of the seats in the 11th NPC, for example.[11] The 13th NPC has not disclosed the delegates’ employment information, but it is likely party-state employees remain the largest occupational group and still hold around half of all seats.

“Representation Within Bounds”

As a result of the hard and soft quotas discussed above, the NPC undeniably has a demographically diverse membership. A 2021 government white paper on China’s political system—officially labeled “whole-process people’s democracy”—touts that NPC delegates “fully reflect the voices of the people” for they “come from all regions, ethnic groups, fangmian, and social classes.” While certain groups remain “starkly overrepresented” in the NPC, there is “relatively equitable representation in terms of geography, age, and ethnicity,”[12] and recent Master Allocation Plans do evince an effort to incrementally improve the representation of women and grassroots workers.

“[B]etter descriptive representation in the [NPC] . . . would likely lead to better substantive representation,” writes Rory Truex, a political scientist at Princeton University.[13] But in the context of the NPC, substantive representation—the degree to which delegates “respond to their constituents and advocate their interests”—is only what Truex calls “representation within bounds”—that is, delegates do so “only for a subset of issues.”[14] They are taught to convey public opinion on “everyday issues” to the central government, but “remain reticent on sensitive issues core to the [party-state].”[15]

Consistent with that view of the NPC delegates’ role, the NPCSC (which oversees all NPC delegate elections) has in the past decade explicitly urged electoral units to elect delegates who are both more capable, on the one hand, and more politically loyal, on the other. In introducing the Master Allocation Plan for the 12th NPC (2013–18), the NPCSC for the first time called for the elections of candidates who “possess enough capability to perform their duties” [具有一定履职能力], in addition to the usual requirements that they be exemplary, law-abiding individuals who maintain close contact with the people. The NPCSC reiterated that requirement for the 13th NPC. Earlier this month, in its explanation of the Master Plan for the 14th NPC, the NPCSC strengthened the capability requirement, now asking that selected delegates “possess relatively strong ability to perform their duties.”

At the same time, the NPCSC has included in its explanations (though not in the Master Plans themselves) more explicit calls for choosing only candidates who demonstrate political loyalty. Of course, the Communist Party, through its control of the electoral process, has always ensured that “only political docile candidates are ever even placed on the ballot.”[16] But starting with the 12th NPC, the NPCSC has been writing down what had been unwritten, expressly requiring that candidates “uphold the Communist Party’s leadership and the socialist system with Chinese characteristics.”

In its explanation of the Master Plan for the 14th NPC, the NPCSC additionally exhorted electoral units to pick candidates who can “strengthen the ‘Four Consciousnesses,’ maintain the ‘Four Confidences,’ achieve the ‘Two Upholds,’ take a firm political stand, and fulfill their political responsibilities.” Those political jargons in essence demand not only loyalty to the Party, but also allegiance to Xi Jinping himself—whom the incoming cohort of delegates to the 14th NPC are expected to anoint as President for a third time next spring.

[1] Before the 2010 Election Law amendment, a province’s allocated seats had three components: (1) those allocated based on its urban population; (2) those allocated based on its rural population; and (3) those allocated to achieve broad representation. Before 1995, only one-eighth of a province’s rural population was counted toward its total population in allocating NPC seats. The ratio was raised to one-fourth in 1995 to give rural populations additional representation. The 2010 amendment fundamentally changed that scheme by granting equal representation to rural residents and by introducing the concept of an equal base number of seats for each province. The old rules for allocating seats to the provinces are thus not particularly relevant to our discussion of the allocation rules in use today.

[2] Hu Jian [胡健], Paths to Realizing Equal Suffrage in China and Suggestions for Improving Them: With a Focus on the Election Law and the Plans for Allocating NPC Delegate Quotas [我国选举权平等的实现路径及其完善建议——以选举法和全国人大代表名额分配方案为主线], J. E. China U. Pol. Sci. & L [华东政法大学学报], no. 6, 2012, at 11, 19.

[3] Zhao Xiaoli [赵晓力], On the Composition of NPC Delegates [论全国人大代表的构成], 24 Peking U. L.J. [中外法学] 973, 981 (2012).

[4] Hu, supra note 2, at 23.

[5] It is not possible to calculate the size of this group of seats by subtracting from a province’s total allocation the number of population-based seats and the eight base seats given to each province, because the NPCSC does not necessarily use official census data to calculate population-based seats. For the 12th NPC, for instance, the NPCSC used a weighted average of the 2010 census data (published by the National Bureau of Statistics) and late 2010 household registration data (maintained by the Ministry of Public Security), without disclosing the weights applied.

[6] See Hu, supra note 2, at 21.

[7] Caleb Ford, Guiqiao (Returned Overseas Chinese) Identity in the PRC, 10 J. Chinese Overseas 239, 247 (2014).

[8] Id. at 247–48.

[9] See Zhao, supra note 3, at 988.

[10] Id. at 985.

[11] Liu Leming [刘乐明] & He Junzhi [何俊志], Who Represents and Who Is Represented? An Analysis of the Composition of the 11th NPC Delegates [谁代表与代表谁?十一届全国人大代表的构成分析], China Governance Rev. [中国治理评论], no. 2, 2013, at 106, 132.

[12] Rory Truex, Making Autocracy Work: Representation and Responsiveness in Modern China 110 (2016).

[13] Id. at 189.

[14] Id. at 28.

[15] Id. at 6–7.

[16] Id. at 109.

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