By Jacques deLisle
BEIJING: When the National People’s Congress convenes for its annual session in Beijing this week, it will address an unusually significant set of policy issues and tackle some elements on an exceptionally ambitious legislative agenda. In terms of policy issues, attention will focus on Premier Li Keqiang’s government work report and economic policies for an era of slower and, hopefully, more balanced, sustainable, and innovation-based growth. With China’s growth rate having fallen to around 7.5 percent last year, after decades during which double-digit or near double-digit growth was the often-achieved target, the 2015 NPC session will be a key occasion to define what economic policy-makers mean by the “new normal” and what to expect in the upcoming 13th Five-Year Plan. A lasting shift to a slower growth model would be one of the most significant adjustments in economic policy since the era of reform and opening began. Li’s report and other economics-focused discussions at the meeting will be closely watched for what they reveal about specific policies to implement, and manage, the new normal for the economy — including policies on investment, interest rates, government debt, future financial reforms, and policies affecting the wellbeing of the poor, internal migrants and rural residents, including, but not limited to, hukou reform.
The reports of the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuracy have received less attention. But they too may provide insight into major issues, including one of the key policies launched since Xi took power: the drive against corruption. So far, this strikingly energetic campaign has been carried out primarily through the Party’s commission for discipline inspection. But a key tool is likely to be, and should be, prosecution in the courts. Proponents of a stronger rule of law, and some of the policies endorsed at the 18ths Central Committee’s Fourth Plenum, support a turn to the state’s legal institutions as the principal, and more robustly law-governed and transparent, means for addressing corruption among officials.
The other major work report to be delivered at the NPC session is the NPC’s Standing Committee’s. That report will turn the focus from policy to legislation. Both the NPC and the NPC-SC (the latter or which adopts much of China’s national legislation), have had, and will continue to have, a crowded agenda of law-making, only a small portion of which can be accomplished at the NPC’s 2015 session. The large-scale program of legislation that the NPC and its Standing Committee have begun to undertake and will continue to undertake in the next few years reflects, primarily, the extensive policy goals set forth at the 18th Central Committee’s Third Plenum in 2013 and the Fourth Plenum in 2014.
The Third Plenum’s call for a new wave of economic reforms, reaffirmed recently as one of Xi Jinping’s “Four Comprehensives,”to give the market a “decisive” role in the economy includes many more specific policy commitments, many of which will be, and arguably must be, undertaken through substantial legal change. Last year’s NPC session came too soon after the Third Plenum for the legislative body to accomplish much of that work at its 2014 meeting. While some key tasks have been accomplished since then, we are now entering a phase in which we can expect to see more progress in revising laws covering a wide range of areas, including company law, securities law, various aspects of financial law, the law governing foreign investment, particularly shifting toward a “negative list” that broadly allows foreign investment in all sectors not specifically identified as restricted, and perhaps legal changes to support promised reforms in the agricultural sector.
The Fourth Plenum’s multifaceted “rule of law” agenda, also reaffirmed as one of Xi’s Four Comprehensives, has given the NPC and its Standing Committee much work to do at the NPC’s 2015 meeting and, mostly, thereafter. The near-term agenda includes revisions to the Law on Legislation including an amendment expected to be adopted at the March meeting to clarify and regularize local law-making authority and to give legislators more precise roles in shaping legislation, the Administrative Litigation Law (to adjust and expand citizens’ rights to sue the state), and laws that will restructure courts and court jurisdiction especially to address problems of local protectionism.
Adopting so many legislative changes will be slow, cumbersome and surely sometimes frustrating. Nonetheless, the commitment it signals to pursuing major policy reforms through law, and embedding them in law, should be welcomed by those who favor transparency and stability in policy and pursuit of greater rule of law.
(The author is Stephen A. Cozen professor of law and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.