FAQs: National People’s Congress and Its Standing Committee

Last updated: October 19, 2021

On this page, we answer some of the frequently asked questions about the National People’s Congress (NPC) and its Standing Committee (NPCSC). We intend these FAQs to only offer a basic introduction to the two institutions for those unfamiliar with them, not a comprehensive and nuanced discussion of the relevant issues. We may update these Q&As or add additional ones from time to time and without notice.

Institutions

What is the NPC?

The NPC is China’s “highest organ of State power” and its national legislature. It has the authority to amend the Constitution, to fill top state offices (including the Presidency and the Premiership), to enact important legislation (the constitutional term is “basic laws” [基本法律]), to approve the central government’s budget, and to ratify Plans for National economic and Social Development. It has a few other enumerated constitutional powers, but those are rarely exercised. It may also exercise any power that “should be exercised by the highest organ of State power.” The NPC meets only once per year for around ten days, typically in March. Each NPC’s term last five years; the current (13th) NPC’s term expires in March 2023.

What is the NPC Standing Committee?

The NPCSC is the NPC’s permanent body and is elected by each NPC to the same five-year term. The word “Committee” in its name could be misleading: the NPCSC is China’s de facto national legislature during the 350 or so days per year when the NPC is not in session. With around 170 members, the NPCSC enacts the vast majority of China’s national laws and routinely conducts oversight of other governmental bodies. The NPCSC also has and does exercise, among others, the authority to appoint or remove top officials of central governmental bodies (except their heads), ratify treaties, interpret national laws, grant special amnesties, and confer state honors. It has a few other powers that are only rarely or have never been used, including the authority to interpret the Constitution. The NPCSC’s regular sessions typically take place near the end of each even-numbered month, each usually lasting 3–5 days. The NPCSC may also convene special sessions as needed.

Is the NPC / NPCSC a rubber stamp?

It is fair to characterize the full NPC as a rubber stamp, because it has never voted down any item on its agenda—whether a bill, a report, a budget, a plan, or a nomination. NPC delegates’ deliberations during a session can and do, however, result in limited changes to the documents submitted for review. Votes in the NPC tend to be non-unanimous, but in recent years there have been fewer dissenting votes, especially on politically salient bills. The NPC’s 2021 decision to overhaul Hong Kong’s electoral system was passed by a near-unanimous vote, with only one delegate abstaining.

In comparison, the NPCSC is less of a rubber stamp. There was one occasion—the only one in NPCSC history—where a bill (a proposed Highway Law amendment) failed to garner a majority vote of all incumbent NPCSC members. In four other instances, most recently in 2017, the NPCSC chose to indirectly reject a bill by indefinitely shelving it. To be sure, practically all bills eventually pass the NPCSC. But before the final vote, they may undergo significant changes. For instance, the final version of the highly contentious 2016 law regulating the activities of foreign non-governmental organizations was markedly toned down compared to earlier drafts, likely as a result of heated behind-the-scenes debates.

In 2012, The Economist observed that the NPCSC often “pushes back against the Communist Party leadership by insisting on substantial revisions to draft laws before moving them along.” Now there is reason to doubt that is still the case. Since Xi Jinping took office, the Party has repeated emphasized the requirement that the NPCSC seek the Party leadership’s instructions on major issues that arise in the lawmaking process. Whatever the Party leadership’s decisions are, the NPCSC is unlikely to deviate from them. And the NPCSC’s votes on politically salient bills recently tend to be unanimous.

What is the Council of Chairpersons?

The Council of Chairperson [委员长会议] is a powerful decision-making body within the NPCSC. It consists of the NPCSC’s Chairperson, Vice Chairpersons, and Secretary General, who are all current or former senior officials of the Communist Party or the Democratic Parties [民主党派]. The Council determines when the NPCSC meets and for how long, effectively sets the agenda of each NPCSC session, and decides when to put a bill to a vote. It also approves the NPCSC’s internal work documents, such as its annual legislative and oversight plans.

What are the NPC special committees?

Each NPC establishes its own special committees [专门委员会] and the 13th NPC has established ten. The committees are “special” in the sense that each specializes in a set of issue areas, such as environmental or economic issues. The special committees work by drafting legislation, reviewing bills submitted by NPC delegates, and providing other types of support to the legislature’s legislative and oversight work. Among the special committees, the Constitution and Law Committee [宪法和法律委员会] plays a unique role in the legislative process: it alone has the authority to review and propose amendments to all bills already placed on the legislature’s agenda (this process is called “unified deliberations” [统一审议]). Since 2018, it has also been given responsibilities relating to constitutional interpretation and review. Members of the special committees are all NPC delegates.

What is the Legislative Affairs Commission?

The Legislative Affairs Commission [法制工作委员会] is a professional support body under the NPCSC with over 200 (unelected) employees. It plays a crucial role throughout the legislative process: it is responsible for drafting the NPCSC’s legislative plans, drafting important bills, conducting public consultations on draft laws, proposing amendments to pending bills, and acting as the NPCSC’s spokesperson’s office, among other duties. It is also in charge of reviewing the validity of sub-statutory legislation filed with the NPCSC for recording. For more information, please see our profile of the Commission.

Does the NPC have any other subordinate bodies?

Yes. Other key subordinate bodies including the NPCSC’s General Office, Budgetary Affairs Commission, Hong Kong Basic Law Committee, and Macao Basic Law Committee. For more information, please see our bilingual NPC organizational chart.

What can you tell me about NPC delegates?

The 13th NPC started with 2,980 delegates, who hail from each mainland province, as well as from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan, the People’s Liberation Army, and the People’s Armed Police. As of August 20, 2021, there are 2,947 NPC delegates. They come from all walks of life, although more than a third are Communist Party or government officials. Over 70% of them are Communist Party members, another roughly 13% are members of China’s eight Democratic Parties (all loyal to the Communist Party), and the remaining delegates do not have any political affiliation. Roughly a quarter of the delegates are women and around 15% are ethnic minorities. For more information on the 13th NPC’s demographics, please see this post.

What can you tell me about NPCSC members?

The 13th NPCSC started with 175 members; as of October 2021, it has 168 members, including 16 members of the Council of Chairpersons and 152 rank-and-file legislators. Communist Party members fill 116 (69%) of the non-vacant seats, and each Democratic Party has at least two seats. Nineteen (11.3%) of the current members are women, and 26 (15.5%) are ethnic minorities. All 31 mainland provinces as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan have at least one representative in the NPCSC. (The previous sole Macanese member, Ho Iat-seng, resigned in 2019 to run for the Chief Executive of Macao.)

NPC Sessions

What is the significance of the NPC’s annual sessions?

Each year, the NPC hears work reports from the NPCSC, the State Council, the Supreme People’s Court, and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. It also reviews the central government’s annual budget and Plan for National Economic and Social Development. Chinese authorities use these documents to announce their policy priorities and goals for the coming year, which are closely watched by observers. Since 2015, the NPC has also reviewed important legislation each year, which lends the sessions additional significance. In 2020, for instance, the NPC adopted China’s first Civil Code and a decision that led to the enactment of the Hong Kong National Security Law.

What are the “Two Sessions” (lianghui [两会] in Chinese)?

China’s top political advisory body, the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, also meets annually and in parallel with the NPC. “Two Sessions” is the collective term for their annual gatherings.

What is the Presidium?

The Presidium [主席团] is an ad hoc body of around 170 members selected by each NPC session. It is a powerful decision-making body. Among other functions, the Presidium determines the session’s daily schedule, decides whether to list a delegate’s bill on the agenda, hears reports on the delegates’ deliberations and decides whether to put an item to a vote, nominates candidates for top state offices, and organizes constitutional-oath ceremonies. The Presidium presides over the session’s plenary meetings and is seated at the front of the hall, facing the other delegates.

What is a bill and what would happen to it?

A bill [议案] is a document submitted to the NPC that requests it (including the NPCSC) to perform an act within the scope of its authority. Bills are most commonly legislative—that is, they ask the legislature to enact or amend certain legislation. Several central state organs (including the NPCSC) may introduce legislative bills in the NPC—and when they do, such bills are included in the agenda and deliberated according to the procedures described above. A delegation or at least thirty delegates together may also submit bills to the NPC. The Presidium will decide whether to list any such bill on the session’s agenda. If not (as is almost always the case), it will refer the bills to the relevant NPC special committees for review. By the end of the year, the committees will report to the NPCSC on their recommended actions. For instance, the reports may recommend that a governmental entity consider the views expressed in a bill (which typically does not include proposed legislative texts) in drafting relevant legislation.

What is a “suggestion” and what would happen to it?

“Suggestions” is the collective term for three types of submissions by NPC delegates: “suggestions, criticisms, and opinions” [建议、批评和意见]. Unlike bills (which are directed to the legislature itself), suggestions can be addressed to a range of governmental bodies, most commonly the State Council’s agencies. Suggestions, moreover, need only be sponsored by a single delegate, not thirty. As their names indicate, suggestions are used to recommend certain official actions or policies, express the delegates’ views on certain policy issues, or criticize a particular governmental body’s performance. The bodies to which suggestions are directed are required to reply over the next few months. (Some of these replies are posted online.) By the year’s end, the NPCSC will also hear a report on how the suggestions submitted during that year’s NPC session have been handled. For additional discussion of “suggestions,” please see this issue of the Pekingnology newsletter.

Lawmaking

How does the NPCSC make laws?

The NPCSC’s legislative process can be broken down into four relatively distinct stages: planning, drafting, deliberations, as well as voting and promulgation.

Planning: The NPCSC uses five-year legislative plans as a blueprint for its legislative agenda during each term, a practice that dates back to the 1990s. The Legislative Affairs Commission (LAC) drafts those plans by soliciting proposals for legislative projects from a variety of sources and prioritizing those projects based on their urgency and the legislature’s available resources. The NPCSC also uses annual legislative plans to implement and, when necessary, supplement its five-year legislative plans, in light of, for instance, current events or the Party’s new directives.

Drafting: Each legislative project has a designated lead drafting organ, which is most often a State Council agency, an NPC special committee, or the LAC. While there is no single way to draft a bill, the drafting process, which could take years, invariably involves repeated solicitations of opinions from interested parties, including governmental bodies and private entities, and repeated revisions of the draft. After a bill is finalized and submitted to the NPCSC, the Council of Chairpersons will decide when to put it on the NPCSC’s agenda.

Deliberations: The default rule is that the NPCSC must review a bill three times—that is, at three different sessions—before voting on it. Each review (or session) has a similar structure. First, someone will explain the draft under review to the legislators. During the initial review, that person is usually a senior official of the drafting organ; during any subsequent review, that person is a member of the NPC Constitution and Law Committee (CLC). Then, NPCSC members will break into small groups to discuss the draft under review. Between NPCSC sessions, the LAC and the CLC will work together to solicit opinions on each draft from a variety of sources, including the public (if a public consultation is conducted, as now is the norm). They then, under a process known as “unified deliberations” [统一审议], revise each draft based on the opinions received, while considering the Party leadership’s views on relevant issues. After each round of unified deliberations, the CLC produces a new draft of the bill and an accompanying document explaining the main changes made. The final draft that will be voted on is called a “recommended voting version” [建议表决稿].

Visualization of one round of public consultation and unified deliberation. Click on image to enlarge.

Voting and promulgation: A legislative bill requires a simple majority of all incumbent NPCSC members to pass. After the NPCSC votes to approve a bill, the President will sign a presidential order to formally announce its passage—a mere formality, as the President has no veto power. The full text of the bill is made public shortly thereafter, no later than the next morning.

Visualization of the NPCSC’s default three-review process. Click on image to enlarge.
How does the NPC make laws?

Under current practice, the NPC’s deliberation and approval of a bill is always the final step of a longer process that originates in the NPCSC. And NPC-approved bills generally undergo at least three reviews. The legislative process for an NPC-approved bill is therefore a variation of the NPCSC’s three-review process described in the previous entry, as visualized in the graph below.

During an NPC session, first, an NPCSC official will, on behalf of the bill’s original drafter, explain the bill to the delegates at a plenary meeting. Then the delegates will break into their delegations and smaller groups to discuss the bill. Based on the delegates’ opinions, the NPC Constitution and Law Committee will meet during the session to twice revise the draft—that is, perform two rounds of unified deliberations. It will also produce two reports explaining any main changes made. The final vote typically occurs at the NPC session’s closing meeting, followed by presidential promulgation of the approved bill and release of its full text by the end of the day.

Visualization of a three-review process that ends with NPC approval of the bill. Click on image to enlarge.
How long does it take to pass a bill?

NPCSC-approved bills: Under the default three-review process, a bill typically passes 6–14 months after its initial review by the NPCSC. The average duration, based on 61 bills passed using this process since 2013, is 9 ½ months. The interval between the first and second reviews is longer, typically 4–8 months, as the NPCSC’s internal rules require that the major issues involved in a bill generally be resolved before the second review. Various factors could influence the legislative timetable for a particular bill, including relevant current events, disagreements among government agencies, and criticisms from interested parties and the public.

There are several exceptions to the three-review process. A bill may pass after only two reviews if a consensus has largely been formed. A single review would suffice if a bill, in addition to having garnered a basic consensus, has a very narrow focus or partially amends an existing law. When a bill is particularly controversial, important, or complex, it may require four or more reviews, but such bills are rarer.

NPC-approved bills: Under recent practice, NPC-approved bills undergo at least three reviews, including the final NPC review, which typically span 6–9 months. When a bill is destined for the NPC session of a certain year (almost always occurring in March), it is first submitted to the NPCSC no earlier than June of the previous year. The whole legislative process is thus generally shorter than that for a typical NPCSC-approved bill.

How can I access draft laws?

You can access all public drafts of a bill pending before the legislature on its bill page, which you can find here or by using the site’s search function. When a draft is open for public comments, you can download it from the NPC’s official website by following this guide. We have also created a portal for the NPCSC’s public consultations since 2018.

From time to time, State Council agencies also release draft laws for public comments before submitting them to the NPCSC. Recent public consultations by State Council agencies are archived on this page.

What is the difference between an “amendment” and a “revision”?

“Amendments” [修正] and “revisions” [修订] are two ways to modify laws in China. A revision replaces the law being updated in its entirety, whereas an amendment describes the changes it makes article by article. Revisions generally make more extensive changes, so an amendment could be converted to a revision if additional changes are proposed during the legislative process and it becomes unwieldy to list all the changes. Finally, an amendment keeps the original law’s effective date intact, whereas a revision alters that date because it substitutes a whole new text.