Building Capacity Through Procedure

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On June 24, the NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC) approved the first set of amendments to its Rules of Procedure (Rules) [全国人民代表大会常务委员会议事规则] in over a decade. The Rules are a national law that governs how the NPCSC conducts business. They regulate the convening and conduct of sessions, the submission and deliberation of bills and reports, debate and voting procedures, and other technical procedural matters.

The latest amendments came at what in retrospect could be a pivotal moment for the NPC. The Communist Party held its first-ever conference on improving the people’s congress system last October, and subsequently issued a policy document on the same subject (so far available only in summary form). Meanwhile, the national legislature has been undertaking a systematic effort to codify or update rules governing its powers and procedures, including the NPC’s organic statute and procedural rules as well as standalone instruments on the NPCSC’s oversight of the central budget, state-owned assets, and economic planning. For the most part, the amendments to the Rules reiterate key provisions in those laws and memorialize some of the NPCSC’s other existing practices.

Viewed in that larger context, the amendments make up part of a conscious effort to subtly enhance the NPCSC’s capacity as a lawmaking and oversight body—one that follows the Party’s commands itself and, acting as the Party’s agent, also ensures other state organs do the same. The amended Rules therefore leave room for both deliberation and efficiency in the legislative process, and institutionalize procedural tools that enable more rigorous NPCSC oversight.

Combining Deliberation and Efficiency

NPCSC members spend most of their time in session discussing bills. The bulk of bills are draft laws, while the rest include draft decisions on specific legal or policy issues, bills relating to the budget and development plans, as well as bills submitting treaties for ratification. For legislative bills, in particular, recent official documents have emphasized the “gatekeeping” function of legislative deliberations to ensure the quality of legislation as one way to let the national legislature play a “leading role” in lawmaking.

The Rules amendments therefore seek to facilitate more thorough review of bills. A new provision requires bill sponsors to transmit new bills intended for a non-emergency NPCSC session at least 10 days before the session convenes (art. 19, paras. 1–2), presumably to give the relevant legislative actors (e.g., NPC special committees) adequate time to conduct a preliminary review. Under another provision, the NPCSC may spend more time scrutinizing treaties submitted for ratification and need not approve them only after a single review, as it currently does (art. 25). This change could be aimed at supporting ongoing efforts to “strengthen foreign-related lawmaking,” including implementation of treaties in domestic law, by allowing for a more careful study of the relevant issues.

The amendments also extend an existing statutory provision that allows lawmakers to discuss draft laws together or in two large groups, called “joint group meetings” [联组会议], to apply to all bills (art. 22, para. 2). The alternative—and the norm—is conducting deliberations in six small groups. Although joint group meetings are rarely held, the amendments’ incorporation and extension of the procedure shows the legislature still sees value in in-depth debates and exchange of ideas among a great number of lawmakers on contentious issues, something the more intimate small groups cannot offer.

To ensure informed participation and full attendance by NPCSC members, the amendments, moreover, elevate part of the NPCSC’s internal code of conduct to statutory requirements. Members must be “diligent and responsible” and “carefully deliberate each bill and report” (id.). Their attendance at NPCSC sessions is mandatory (art. 15). When they cannot show up due to illness or other exigencies, they must request leave from the Chairman in writing through the NPCSC General Office, which is also tasked with keeping the Chairman apprised of the actual attendance rate and the reasons for any absence (id.).

Of course, not all bills require meticulous deliberations; some need to sail through the legislative process. The amendments thus also write into law several pro-efficiency measures. To start, the amended Rules now provide explicit authority for the NPCSC to convene additional, non-emergency sessions as needed. (The NPCSC ordinarily meets every two months.) This provision originates from a January 2021 Central Committee legal reform document that calls for increasing the frequency with which the NPCSC meets. While additional sessions could permit further review of bills, the NPCSC’s limited use of them so far—in January and March 2021—suggests that they would primarily serve to pass more bills and to do so faster.

More importantly, the amendments codify the hidden-agenda practice that we have discussed at length in this article in The Diplomat (the underlying data is available here). Article 16 of the amended Rules authorizes the legislature to “temporarily withhold from the public” some (but not all) agenda items “when necessary.” Since mid-2020, the NPCSC has hidden several bills from the public until shortly before or even after their adoption. Those bills include the controversial November 2020 decision to impose new political-allegiance requirements on Hong Kong legislators and the June 2021 Anti–Foreign Sanctions Law [反外国制裁法]. The delayed disclosure automatically foreclosed any opportunity for public input and preempted expected calls to revise or withdraw those bills. The practice has certainly made the NPCSC more effective at passing controversial legislation, but has also inflicted great harm on its transparency and predictability. Codification of the practice would in effect guarantee its continued use and, as a result, future “surprise laws.”

Strengthening Oversight via Procedure

If the changes discussed thus far mainly concern the NPCSC’s legislative work, the ones discussed below mostly implicate its oversight. The NPCSC conducts a mix of policy oversight (to monitor the general direction of administrative and judicial policymaking) and compliance oversight (to ensure implementation of binding legal authorities). At the full NPCSC level, oversight primarily takes the form of hearing and examining reports. Most reports are submitted by the state organs subject to oversight, including work reports on issues chosen by the NPCSC each year and periodic reports on budgetary and other issues as required by law. Other reports are the results of various legislative bodies’ own investigations and research. In its oversight role, the NPCSC acts as the Party’s “proxy” to promote efficiency and “work synergy” [工作合力] among the state organs, so that leadership priorities are faithfully implemented.

To strengthen NPCSC oversight, the Rules amendments start by reaffirming various reporting obligations, particularly those that fall on the State Council. Besides long-standing requirements like mid-term reports on the implementation of five-year plans, the amendments also codify several reports that have been required only within the past decade, such as the State Council’s annual reports on the environment and its environmental regulation (since 2014), its management of state-owned assets (since 2018), and its financial regulation (since 2021) (art. 33, para. 2, items 1–5). The State Council must not only describe its achievements in a particular issue area, but also identify the inadequacies and propose ways to improve. In addition, the amendments write into law the obligation of the NPCSC’s Legislative Affairs Commission to file annual reports on its “recording and review” work, something it has done since 2017 (id. item 9). While this is ostensibly a requirement for a legislative body, “recording and review” is an oversight mechanism for reviewing other state organs’ legislation, so the amendments ensure it will remain active and visible to the public.

On top of that, the amendments provide for follow-up oversight after reports are heard so that they do not end up being empty submissions with no practical impact. The state organs concerned must, at a minimum, report back in writing on how they have addressed lawmakers’ comments and concerns (art. 35, para. 1). When necessary, the NPCSC may request that such follow-up reports be delivered orally, thereby allowing the lawmakers to conduct further deliberations. The NPCSC also has the option of adopting binding resolutions to lay down more specific directives to other state organs and require them to file implementation reports (id. para. 2).

The amendments, moreover, provide an explicit statutory basis for the NPCSC’s “special inquiries” [专题询问]—the closest China has to parliamentary oversight hearings. Building on the system of informal and spontaneous “inquiries” [询问]—a weak form of oversight through which lawmakers privately question officials from other state organs as they review bills or reports—special inquiries are organized, formal, and more transparent events that allow the NPCSC to conduct more rigorous oversight as an institution. Special inquiries began in 2010, and the NPCSC has been holding two or three of them per year since then. So far, the NPCSC has always used the inquiries to supplement its review of oversight reports by focusing on selected issues of political importance or public concern (art. 37, para. 1). High-ranking officials from the relevant state organs are required to attend and respond to lawmakers’ questions and concerns, and live transcripts of the sessions are available on the NPC’s website. As with oversight reports, follow-up oversight measures are also available for special inquiries (art. 37, para. 2).

To some lawmakers and scholars, special inquiries are not flexible or independent enough, because they are always scheduled months in advance and only held to support the NPCSC’s other oversight activities. Among the changes they proposed was authorizing NPC special committees to hold their own special inquiries. Short of making such an explicit power grant, the finalized amendments allow the committees to conduct “investigations and inquiries” on the relevant issues in accordance with the NPCSC’s work plans or the legislative leadership’s directives (art. 38). Many lawmakers welcomed this modest change, for in their view the language is broad enough to accommodate more frequent and more responsive oversight hearings by the special committees in the future.

In sum, the latest amendments to the NPCSC Rules of Procedure—and the NPC reforms they embody—seek to address long-recognized weaknesses in the NPCSC’s capacity to legislate and conduct oversight. They empower the NPCSC to scrutinize bills more carefully and pass more laws, thereby diminishing the State Council’s influence over lawmaking. They also aim to give more teeth to NPCSC oversight by offering additional oversight tools backed by follow-up measures. Of course, the amended Rules are only part of the story. Additional important changes have been or are being written into law or made in practice, as NPC reform carries on.

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