Term Review: How Long Did It Take the 13th NPC to Pass a Law?

The five-year term of the 13th National People’s Congress (NPC) recently ended. At the risk of overpromising, we plan to write a few end-of-term reviews on different aspects of the 13th NPC’s lawmaking over the next several months. In this first installment, we will try to answer the question “how long does it take the (last) NPC to pass a bill?”—as well as subsidiary questions like “when is [insert bill of your choice] up for its next reading?” and “how many reviews will the bill go through?”

To do so, we collected the following data on each of the 110 “bills” (defined below) passed by the 13th NPC and its Standing Committee (NPCSC):

  • whether it is a new law, revision, or amendment (the latter two terms are defined below);
  • the number of times it was reviewed by the legislature;
  • the overall duration of legislative review; and
  • the time elapsed between two consecutive reviews.

Below, we will first introduce a few technical terms and briefly discuss the relevant statutory provisions on the length of legislative review. Next, we will dissect the data collected in two ways: first by grouping the bills based on the times they were reviewed (1, 2, 3, or 4+), and then by placing them into three formal categories: new laws, revisions, and amendments. Our research will mostly take the form of simple calculations aimed at answering the questions we posed earlier, but will also involve some qualitative analysis of the factors that may affect legislative timetables.

We find that the 13th NPC’s use of different procedures and the average speed at which a bill passed under each procedure were broadly consistent with the practice of its predecessor, the 12th NPC (2013–18), led by a different Chairman. (The 12th NPC passed 72 bills, on which we collected the same kinds of data.) Thus, our observations below about the 13th NPC’s legislative process should have high predictive value. We certainly will rely on them in our own work.

Terminology and Statutory Background

Bills vs. laws. For our purposes, a “law” is any instrument included in the official list of national laws, except for the PRC Constitution and its amendments. (The typical “law” is titled “PRC ××× Law.”) So “laws” do not include quasi-legislative decisions or legislative interpretations, even though they are part of Chinese legislation. “Bills,” in comparison, refers to legal instruments approved by the NPC. A bill could be a new law, a revised existing law, or amendment(s) to one or more laws. (To our wonkier readers: please note that we are not using the term “bill” in the same way the Legislation Law and related laws do. For further explanation, check out this footnote. 👉 [1])

Revisions vs. amendments. The main difference between statutory amendments and revisions is the scope of change. A revision substitutes a whole new statutory text for the old one, whereas an amendment—a bill, not an individual change—spells out the changes made one by one. Sometimes, a revision, by changing a law’s title, is enacted as a new law (and the prior version is repealed), but for our purposes, we count such “new” laws as revisions.

Default three-review procedure and its exceptions. Under the Legislation Law, the national legislature by default must review a bill three times—that is, at three different sessions—before voting on (and approving) it. (The NPCSC meets every two months, while the NPC meets once a year, typically in March.) The Legislation Law also allows for fewer reviews in certain circumstances:

  • Two reviews would suffice if the relevant parties have largely formed a consensus on a bill.
  • A single review would suffice if a bill has a very narrow focus or partially amends an existing law, in addition to having garnered a basic consensus. (New laws and revisions very rarely meet those criteria.) Under the latest Legislation Law amendment, however, the legislature may now also invoke the single-review exception in an “emergency situation” [紧急情形], regardless of a bill’s scope or the state of consensus-building.

Number of Reviews

➡️ Bills rarely went through more than three reviews. During the 13th NPC, only four bills (of 110) exceeded the default three-review requirement, as did four (of 72) during the 12th NPC (see table below). For all but one of those eight bills, legislative review took over a year—and, in most cases, came close to or even exceeded two years. The lengthier review could be explained by one or more of the following reasons:

  • The bill was unusually complex. With 1,260 articles, the 2020 Civil Code was the paradigmatic example of complexity. The Code and its various multiple component parts went through a combined eight readings, matching the record set by the 2007 Property Law (which, incidentally, has been incorporated into the Code).
  • The bill had controversial provisions that delayed consensus-building. The 2018 E-Commerce Law went through a fourth review, for instance, because lawmakers hotly debated the scope of e-commerce operators that should be exempted from obtaining a business license. One variety of controversies that used to recur involved turf wars between government agencies. During the process to amend the Budget Law in 2011–14, for instance, the Ministry of Finance and the People’s Bank of China (in)famously fought to control the national treasury, thereby delaying the bill’s passage. (The Ministry lost.)
  • Unforeseen external events prolonged legislative review. The most recent example involved the 2019 Securities Law revision. China’s stock market crash in summer 2015, shortly after the bill’s initial review, put the process on hold and ultimately led to a four-year legislative marathon. During the 12th NPC, severe air pollution in large swaths of China in 2013 prompted the NPCSC to turn a limited amendment to the Environment Protection Law (first reviewed in August 2012) into a complete overhaul in October 2013, which necessitated an additional review.
Bill# ReviewsDuration
2020 Civil Code821 months
2019 Basic Healthcare and Health Promotion Law424 months
2019 Securities Law (Revision)456 months
2018 E-Commerce Law420 months
2017 General Provisions of the Civil Law49 months
2016 Asset Appraisal Law452 months
2014 Budget Law (Amendment)432 months
2014 Environmental Protection Law (Revision)420 months

➡️ Last term, a plurality of bills (n = 51; 46.4%) went through three reviews, which spanned an average of 9.8 months. (Thus, adding the four bills discussed above, a majority of bills from last term either followed or exceeded the default requirement.) Legislative review lasted as short as 3 months (2019 Foreign Investment Law and 2021 Coast Guard Law) and as long as 26 months (2022 Wild Animals Protection Law revision), but most thrice-reviewed bills passed 6–14 months after their initial reading.

  • The interval between their first two reviews (6.6 months) was on average considerably longer than that between the last two (3.2 months). Such a gap is expected because, per the NPCSC’s unwritten norms, “all issues” involved in a bill must be “basically” resolved prior to its second review. For most thrice-reviewed bills, their second reading came 4–8 months after the first one, but rarely sooner. To predict the exact timing of a bill’s second review, however, is next to impossible, as it depends on bill-specific factors that are not always obvious to outside observers. In comparison, the third and final review almost always[
    occurred within 4 months after the second one—that is, at the next or second next legislative session.

➡️ About a third of the bills from last term (n = 36; 32.7%) passed after two reviews, taking an average of 4.6 months. With only a few exceptions, those twice-reviewed bills passed 2–8 months after their initial review. In general, the more complex a bill is or the more intense public interest it attracts, the longer it takes the bill to pass. One outlier was the 2020 Hong Kong National Security Law, which completed two reviews in merely 12 days.

➡️ All but three of the bills passed after a single review last term (n = 19; 17.3%) were amendments. Most of such amendments were so-called “packaged amendments” [打包修改], which will be further discussed below. Of the three once-reviewed bill that were not amendments, two were the 2021 revisions to Annexes I and II to the Hong Kong Basic Law, which revamped the way Hong Kong’s Chief Executive and Legislative Council are elected. The third was a short 2022 NPCSC “decision” on enlisted ranks, which was enacted as a “law” (i.e., promulgated by the PRC president) only because of the NPCSC’s decades-old tradition of prescribing official ranks in laws only.

Form of Legislation

* Excluding packaged amendments, which (with one exception) all passed after a single review. See discussion below for details.

➡️ The 13th NPC passed 45 new laws, almost two-thirds (n = 28; 62.2%) of which went through three or more reviews. With only a few exceptions, such new laws all contain at least 50 articles, with an average of 77 articles if not counting the gargantuan Civil Code. The shortest new law to have gone through at least three reviews was the 2022 Black Soil Protection Law (38 articles), while the longest was the 2022 Futures and Derivatives Law (155 articles).

  • A substantial minority of new laws (n = 16; 35.6%) passed after two reviews. Most of those laws are relatively short (under 30 articles) and were not particularly significant or controversial. Six of them—five tax laws and the 2018 People’s Assessors Law—were based on existing legal authorities. Of course, there were a few that did not meet those criteria, including the Hong Kong National Security Law and 2021 Anti–Foreign Sanctions Law that were rushed through the legislature in utter secrecy.
  • Only one new law passed after just a single review: the aforementioned 2022 decision on enlisted ranks. As discussed earlier, until March 2023, the Legislation Law generally did not permit the legislature to pass a new law after just one reading. (The 2022 decision arguably fit the exception for laws with a very narrow focus.) That is no longer the case now that the emergency exception has come into effect, though how the legislature would invoke that new exception remains to be seen.

➡️ The 30 laws revised by the 13th NPC have a similar breakdown by the number of reviews. Most revisions (n = 18; 60.0%) went through at least three reviews, while a third (n = 10; 33.3%) passed after just two. The latter group consisted of revisions that were generally noncontroversial or of little salience to the general public, such as the Archives Law (revised in 2020) and Animal Husbandry Law (revised in 2022), as well as five laws relating to national defense or security.

  • Only two revisions passed after just a single review: those to Annexes I and II to the Hong Kong Basic Law. Prior to the latest Legislation Law amendment, statutory revisions generally did not qualify for the single-review exception, so those bills were likely treated as “partial changes” to the entire Basic Law to justify use of the expedited process, despite their sweeping scope and devastating impact on Hong Kong’s democracy.

➡️ The 13th NPC, in addition, passed 35 bills to amend 83 (non-unique) laws. Amendments are a much more versatile way to update laws, and the ones from last term varied greatly in scope.

  • Most (57) of the laws were amended in “packages,” which (with one exception) all passed after a single review. Most simply, “packaged amendments” refers to a bill that amends more than one law. The 13th NPC approved a total of nine packages: six in 2018, two in 2019, and one in 2021. Functionally, most packages were conforming amendments, such as the several enacted in the immediate wake of the 2018 State Council reorganization to update agency names and functions. Because packaged amendments primarily make minor or technical changes, they qualified for the single-review exception.[3] The only package that underwent more than one review (in this case, three) consisted of a major update to the Land Management Law and a conforming change to the Urban Real Estate Administration Law. (This bill, understandably, was not counted as a packaged amendment in semi-official statistics.[4])
  • The other 26 laws were amended individually. The scope of an amendment generally determines the number of times it was reviewed. Eight were read three times and had around 30–50 articles; ten others, generally with fewer than 20 articles, were reviewed twice; and the remaining eight amendments, most of which were less than 10-article long, went through a single review. Of course, additional factors like the level of urgency and public attention also affected legislative timetables. The August 2021 amendment to the Population and Family Planning Law, for instance, passed after one reading to promptly implement the Communist Party’s earlier decision in May to adopt a three-child policy—even though the amendment substantially changed the Law by not only amending more than half of its articles, but also adding several new ones.

Key Takeaways

As the data show that the NPC’s legislative timeline has overall remained consistent over the past two terms, our empirical findings above can be used for predicting the new 14th NPC’s legislative practice. So here are some rules of thumb for doing so:

  • Assume a bill will not undergo more than three reviews unless it has thousands of articles.
  • Assume a new law or revision will undergo three reviews.
    • But if a new law has fewer than 30 articles, it will likely pass after just two.
    • Absent “emergency situations,” a new law or revision not styled as a “decision” will be reviewed at least twice.
  • Assume packaged amendments will be reviewed only once.
  • For any other amendment, assume it will be reviewed three times by default, but twice if it has fewer than 20 articles, and only once if it appears to have fewer than 10 articles.
  • For a thrice-reviewed bill, expect legislative review to take 6–14 months.
    • Expect the second review to occur 4–8 months after the first one, but not sooner.
    • Expect the third and final review to occur no later than 4 months after the second one.
  • For a twice-reviewed bill, expect legislative review to take 2–8 months.

Finally, it is important to remember that, even if the NPC follows the statutory requirements and its own practice on legislative review as discussed above, it does not have to solicit public comment on every bill it reviews more than once—and does not even have to disclose the existence of a bill before passing it. In other words, always be prepared for “surprise” new laws!

[1] In those laws, a “bill” refers to a legal instrument submitted to the legislature, as opposed to one passed by it (which is how we use the term). Because, in the case of a proposal to amend multiple laws, one instrument submitted may be broken up into several pieces, which are then passed separately—and even at different times, looking at legislative input rather than output would make data collection too complicated, if not infeasible.

[2] There were also some outliers: the time between the second and third review was 6 months for the 2020 Biosecurity Law, 2022 Futures and Derivatives Law, and 2022 Women’s Rights and Interests Protection Law revision; and 8 months for the 2018 Soil Pollution Prevention and Control Law.

[3] According to semi-official statistics, the vast majority of packaged amendments change no more than five articles of each law amended. See Huang Haihua [黄海华], The Features, Practice, and Legislative Techniques of Law Revisions in the New Era [新时代法律修改的特征、实践和立法技术], China L. Rev. [中国法律评论], no. 5, 2022, at 172, 177.

[4] See id. at 177 fig.7.

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