UPDATE (Oct. 24, 2023): On October 24, the NPCSC approved a revision to the Marine Environmental Protection Law and passed the Patriotic Education Law. Both will take effect on January 1, 2024.
In addition, the NPCSC adopted a decision authorizing the State Council to allow local governments to issue bonds within 60% of their annual new bond quotas before the NPC approves their annual debt ceilings for the next five years. It also approved an adjustment to the 2023 central government budget, authorizing the issuance of RMB 1 trillion of special treasury bonds for post-disaster reconstruction and related projects.
Finally, the NPCSC decided to remove Li Shangfu as defense minister, state councilor, and member of the Central Military Commission. It also removed Qin Gang from his state councilor position, after having removed him as foreign minister in July.
Before getting to the news, a note on our new link-archiving policy: After the NPC website’s recent URL change had created an acute link-rot problem for us, we announced a plan to deal with this particular incident and to prevent link rot going forward. One big change you will likely notice is that, with some exceptions, online sources subject to mainland China’s censorship regime (including all government websites) will be archived using perma.cc. Those visiting from mainland China should be aware, however, that perma.cc is blocked by the Great Fire Wall.
China’s top legislature, the 14th NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC), will convene for its sixth session from October 20 to 24, the Council of Chairpersons decided on Friday, October 13. The session will tentatively discuss ten legislative bills, in addition to a potential motion to replace China’s current defense minister. We preview these agenda items below.
Four bills have been scheduled for further review.
First, the draft revision to the Marine Environmental Protection Law [海洋环境保护法] returns for its third reading and is expected to pass.
Second, the draft Patriotic Education Law [爱国主义教育法] returns for its second—and likely final—review. Ryan Ho Kilpatrick observes at China Media Project that the bill would “offer a new means to tighten ideological controls both online and beyond the country’s borders” and aims to “legislate love and devotion to the Chinese Communist Party and the top leadership.” We will offer more in-depth coverage of the Law once it passes.
Finally, draft Law on Ensuring Food Security [粮食安全保障法] and draft revision to the Charity Law [慈善法] return for their second review as well, and we expect that an additional round of deliberations awaits both.
Six new bills have been submitted for review.
The Council of Chairpersons submitted a draft revision to the State Council Organic Law [国务院组织法], which would be the Law’s first update since its enactment in December 1982. As the governing statute of China’s central people’s government, the Law is supposed to provide for its organization, functions, and procedure, but with only 11 articles, it barely does the job. For instance, it currently does not regulate the various types of State Council agencies, nor does it specify the functions of key State Council meetings or the procedures for issuing official documents (which are instead governed by the work rules of each State Council). We expect the NPCSC to review the draft revision again in late December, before submitting it to the full NPC for final approval next spring.
The State Council submitted the remaining five new bills.
(1) Draft revision to the Law on Guarding State Secrets [保守国家秘密法]. First enacted in 1988 and revamped in 2010, this Law lists the items that may be considered state secrets, specifies the categories of state secrets and the authority of various government institutions to classify and declassify information, prescribes the procedures for identifying and handling classified information, and lays out the enforcement powers of secret-guarding departments. As is common for national security legislation, it is so far unclear what changes are in store for the Law. We expect the revision to pass after two or three reviews.
(2) Draft revision to the Law on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases [传染病防治法]. This Law’s major revisions coincide with China’s two recent major public health emergencies: preparations for its first overhaul began after the 2003 SARS outbreak, while the ongoing second round of update was put on the NPC’s agenda just a few months into the Covid-19 pandemic. The National Health Commission previously released a draft for public comment in December 2020. By then, Chinese authorities had already begun to employ the control measures that would later define China’s zero-Covid policy—mass testing, movement controls, strict lockdowns, etc.—if not with the same degree of intensity as in the policy’s final year. It thus comes as no surprise that the December 2020 draft already included provisions to codify some of China’s Covid-response measures. And it would be interesting to see how the draft has changed in the past three years. We expect the revision to pass after three reviews.
(3) Draft Tariff Law [关税法]. This Law is part of China’s ongoing effort (which began in 2015) to levy all taxes by statutes, instead of administrative regulations issued by the State Council. Once enacted, the Tariff Law is expected to replace the State Council’s regulations on import and export duties (and should be quite similar to the latter substantively), though, surprisingly, so far there is little public information on the bill. All other recent tax bills had been released for public comment before they came before the NPCSC. We expect the bill to pass after two or three reviews.
(4) Draft revision to the Cultural Relics Protection Law [文物保护法]. This bill would revamp the Law for the first time in over two decades. In the past few years, the State Council twice sought public comment on an earlier draft of the revision: first in 2015, then in 2020. The more recent draft by the National Cultural Heritage Administration focused on broadening the scope of protected relics, strengthening protections for immovable relics and relics in museum collections, and improving regulations of the domestic relics market and cross-border flow of relics. We expect the revision to pass after three reviews.
(5) Bill authorizing the State Council to approve a certain amount of local government bonds before the NPC approves the annual local government debt ceilings each spring. In December 2018, the State Council sought, and the NPCSC granted, a similar authorization covering the years 2019–2023. As the minister of finance then explained, without the authorization, local governments would not be able to issue bonds until around May, so for almost the entire first half of each year, they could not raise any money through bond issuance. We expect the new authorization to similarly extends over the next five years, and expect the NPCSC to approve it at the upcoming session.
New Defense Minister?
According to Reuters, China’s defense minister Li Shangfu [李尚福] has been placed under investigation for corruption connected to the procurement of military equipment, and the leadership planned to replace him with Liu Zhenli [刘振立], current Chief of Staff of the Joint Staff Department of the Central Military Commission (CMC), ahead of an international security forum on October 29–31.
Replacing the defense minister requires NPCSC action, and based on the reported timeline, it must be done at the upcoming NPCSC session, which ends on October 24.
Besides heading the defense ministry, Li also serves as a state councilor and a CMC member. Can the NPCSC remove him from those positions as well, and will it? As to the latter position, the NPCSC has the constitutional (and statutory) authority to remove CMC members between NPC sessions, if requested by the CMC chair, though it is unlikely to do so this month. That is because members of the state CMC also sit on the Communist Party CMC (the two CMCs are in fact one entity with two names), and in their Party capacity they are appointed or removed by the Central Committee instead. The Central Committee won’t meet before next Tuesday, however, and the NPCSC is unlikely to act before it does.
As to Li’s role as state councilor, that brings us back to the debate following Qin Gang’s departure as foreign minister in July. The NPCSC has clear statutory authority to remove state councilors between NPCSC sessions upon the premier’s motion. And given Qin remains a state councilor even though he is reportedly also under investigation, Li probably will get to keep this title for a little longer as well.
Some have argued that the statute giving the NPCSC such removal authority over state councilors was unconstitutional. We disagree and have recently laid out our lengthy (albeit tentative) thoughts at our monthly newsletter: