China’s National Legislature to Convene Emergency Session Amid Foreign Minister’s Month-Long Absence

UPDATE: On Tuesday, the NPCSC decided to remove Qin Gang as minister of foreign affairs and instead reappointed his predecessor and China’s current top-ranked diplomat, Wang Yi, to that post. Qin remains a state councilor. His removal [免职], unlike a dismissal [撤职], is not inherently considered a disciplinary action. In addition, the NPCSC has the statutory authority (under the 2021 amendments to the NPC Organic Law) to remove Qin as a state councilor, but did not exercise that power today. We won’t speculate as to why.

The Council of Chairpersons meeting on Monday to convene Tuesday’s NPCSC session. Photo by Xinhua.

Senior leaders of China’s national legislature, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC), decided on Monday, July 24 to convene the NPCSC for an emergency session just a day later, on Tuesday, July 25. According to the official readout of their meeting, the sole items on the session’s agenda are a draft Criminal Law Amendment (XII) [刑法修正案(十二)], which is not expected to pass on Tuesday, and unspecified personnel matters—or, in legal-speak, “bills of appointments and removals” [任免案]—which will pass and appear to be the source of the emergency.

First, a note on the only legislative bill. The Criminal Law, China’s substantive criminal code, is the country’s most amended statute. Since its last major revision in 1997, each NPCSC has amended the Criminal Law twice or more (except for the 13th, which did so only once). The 14th NPCSC signaled that it would continue this practice when it listed the Criminal Law Amendment (XII) in its annual legislative plan for 2023.

List of statutory changes to China’s 1979 Criminal Law.

It is next to impossible to predict with certainty the issues the bill will touch on. But it would quite likely tweak the provisions relating to the trafficking of women and children, given the heightened attention from NPC delegates and the general public alike after the Xuzhou chained woman incident in January 2022. Since the passage of the previous batch of Criminal Law amendments in December 2020, NPC delegates have proposed a variety of changes to the law (besides harsher punishments for human trafficking) in 70 bills. For instance, some called for criminalizing driving under the influence of drugs, some proposed cracking down on elder abuse in nursing institutions, while others recommended abolishing the catch-all crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” or reducing the number of capital crimes. Some of these proposals could find their way into the draft submitted by the Council of Chairpersons.

Because we see no immediate need for the NPCSC to amend the Criminal Law tomorrow, we expect the draft amendment to be fairly substantial and to pass after three reviews.

The real reason, then, that the NPCSC is meeting on Tuesday, outside its typical bimonthly schedule, appears to be the other item on the agenda: unspecified personnel bills.

To be clear, the fact that the NPCSC will consider personnel matters—or that the nature of these matters is not announced in advance—is not unusual. In fact, it would be unusual if the NPCSC holds a session without making any personnel decisions. (But it would be equally unusual if it considers only personnel matters at a session, so the Criminal Law amendment might have been added to make the session look less extraordinary.)

Nor is the special session itself unusual. Such meetings are uncommon but not rare. Since March 2013, the NPCSC has held 9 non-regularly scheduled sessions, out of 75 sessions total (as of Monday). Some served to fast-track legislation (e.g., added session in June 2020 for approving the Hong Kong National Security Law), some were added to help the legislature take on more workload (e.g., January 2021 session), and some were held because of special occasions (e.g., September 2019 session for awarding state honors ahead of the PRC’s 70th anniversary).

What makes Tuesday’s session a true emergency session and sets it apart from those nine special sessions is the haste with which it was convened. It was called just a day earlier, unlike the previous ones, which were all scheduled at least seven days in advance (as far as publicly available information shows*), as required by law in non-emergency situations.

And the most obvious source of emergency is the month-long absence of China’s state councilor and foreign minister, Qin Gang, from public view. Whatever the reason for Qin’s disappearance—and rumors are swirling—it has been causing disruptions to China’s diplomatic exchanges. Recently, the British foreign minister and EU’s top diplomat have both shelved their scheduled visits to China. To replace Qin as either state councilor or foreign minister (or possibly both) requires NPCSC action.

Given the short agenda, Tuesday’s session should wrap up by around 3 p.m., and we could know if the NPCSC will appoint Qin’s successor shortly thereafter. Stay tuned.

* It is unclear when the NPCSC’s September 2016 special session was scheduled. It was held on September 13 to deal with the unprecedented situation where the standing committee of Liaoning’s provincial people’s congress became inquorate and thus unable to continue functioning after over half of its members had been disqualified for vote-buying. If that session was also scheduled a day earlier, that would still make Tuesday’s session the first true emergency session in seven years.

With contribution from Taige Hu

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