President Bill Clinton, Reform of People’s Congresses, and Equality in China

09 October 2009
Recently, I watched a video of former President Bill Clinton speaking at the National Constitution Center, in which he delivered a lecture on the topic “How Constitutional Ideas Travel”. Clinton talked about how many of the ideas enshrined in the American Constitution are indeed universal, but that the exact structure of each country’s democracy may be different depending on its traditions and circumstances. As far as China, Clinton was hopeful that China was making progress towards democracy and the rule of law. The path to democracy may take detours, but quoting Martin Luther King, Clinton expressed his faith that “the arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

Also, Clinton underscored the importance of understanding the minute details of an electoral system. Clinton gave the example of how Hamas was able to beat Fatah mainly because Fatah (and by extension the Bush administration) didn’t understand the Palestinian voting system. Thus, Fatah ran too many candidates, which ended up splitting the pro-Fatah vote and gave Hamas a weak victory in terms of percentages – in fact, 56% did not vote for Hamas − but the election gave Hamas a landslide in terms of seats won. Thus, Clinton emphasized that in promoting democracy and constructing legal structures, the devil is often in the details.

A look at how China’s parliamentary system is set up shows that the devil is indeed in the details, and the solution to fixing the system may come through constitutional appeals for equality. According to the Election Law, representatives from rural areas currently represent four times as many people as their urban counterparts . For example, say an urban representative represents 10,000 constituents. His or her colleague from a rural area would represent 40,000 constituents. Obviously, this means people from rural areas are underrepresented in the congresses, while the urban representatives have the advantage of using systematic steroids.

This 4:1 ratio was adopted because when the law was amended in 1995, China had four times as many rural people as it did urban people, and the intention was to even out the number of representatives from urban and rural areas. Since the mid-1990’s, China has experienced high rates of urbanization. By 2006, there were 723 million from rural areas and 577 million people from urban areas. However, the 4:1 ratio is still on the books, meaning that rural people are even more disadvantaged as China urbanizes.

The original motivation behind giving urban people four times as much consideration was to have an equal representation of delegates from urban and rural areas. China didn’t want to see congresses that would be overwhelmed with rural representatives who might be merely concerned with rural issues or populist causes. Instead, the leadership saw the country’s development prospects better served in promoting advanced technological industries located in urban areas and rather than in agriculture based in rural areas. It was thus hoped, perhaps, that by rigging the system in favour of urban people the people’s congresses could formulate laws and regulations that would better regulate complex urban issues and modern commerce so that China’s industries and cities could compete on an international level. However, this institutional bias against rural people has arguably been one of the main factors why certain discriminatory policies in the hukou system have not been adequately resolved, and widespread institutional prejudice continues to this day against China’s nongmin (农民, who some might translate as “peasant” or “farmer”, but one could perhaps refer to more accurately as “socially and legally-constructed second class citizen”).

In a recent article, prominent scholar Yu Jianrong, discusses his position on the “4:1 ratio” issue after he attended a conference about how to rectify this problem. Most scholars and experts who want to fix the problem fall into either the “gradualist” (部分走) camp or the “change it in one go” camp (一步到位实现城乡比例).

It is claimed that immediately switching to an equal representation (同票同权) system would cause the ratio of nongmin to be too high. This, it is argued, would inhibit the people’s congresses from being able to properly represent a vast array of professions and diverse social strata. However, Yu points out that as it currently stands, a quota of representatives is drawn up based on urban and rural populations of a district, and yet urban residents can still be elected as delegates from rural areas. Furthermore, there’s nothing to guarantee that the representatives, through their professional expertise, properly represent and reflect the economic structure of the area. Many representatives from rural areas are government officials, or come from quasi-governmental institutions (事业单位), or State Owned Enterprises – and are not in fact nongmin. At the national and provincial people’s congresses, the hukou status of an individual isn’t necessarily linked to the district that he or she represents, and in the recent 11th National People’s Congress, there were only 90 or so deputies who were nongmin (out of 3,000).

Critics claim that going to a equal representation system would massively swell the ranks of nongmin representatives. To that, Yu says − so what? These days, nongmin work in a variety of professions, not just agriculture, as the character nong (农) implies. But more importantly, the under representation of nongmin in the country’s legislatures guarantees that nongmin won’t have a powerful enough voice to change the unjust two-tiered governance structure that puts urban and rural people into two separate categories.

Yu also can’t really see any logic in taking a gradualist approach. First, demographically speaking, not only has increased urbanization since the 1990’s given the equal representation (同票同权) system a better practical foundation (since the rural to urban population is roughly at 1.2 :1 now, it will soon be at 1:1), but changing to such as system would ensure that the constitutional principle of equality for all citizens could finally be realized. Reducing the ratio would simply be tweaking with the degree of discrimination.
Yu points out that the Party and government has already recognized the problem, and has promised change in the government’s work report of the 17th Party Congress. And yet, so far, no changes have been made. This is because the designers of the system make the mistake of being “practical” at the expense of operating on principle. They sacrifice long-term solutions for short-run economic benefits and stability. Out of habit, they tend to opt for a gradualist approach because it’s seen as safe and minimizes their personal risk, while at the same time, the underestimate society’s ability to absorb change and they miss out on the most opportune moments for reform.

Of course, cynical critics could argue that the composition of China’s people’s congresses isn’t all that important since the deputies are not democratically elected anyway, and that the congresses are only in session for a few weeks per year. While that view has obvious merit, it neglects that fact that people’s congresses issue, examine, and approve local plans for economic and cultural development, and thus their decisions directly impact ordinary people’s lives. In fact, the regulations and plans that local people’s congresses approve are often the key mechanism through which the “separate but unequal” nature of China’s dual-track society is perpetuated. Perhaps certain deputies have an outright bias against nongmin. However, it’s more likely that as representatives of urban areas, and as people who live and work in urban areas, most of the problems and issues they deal with on a daily basis concern urban issues. Urabn deputies’ bias against nongmin is probably born out of subconscious neglect and a sense of duty to the constituents they represent, rather than any sort of conscious prejudice.

Yu’s attempts to draw attention to this issue might bring justice to hundreds of millions of nongmin across China. He’s boldly arguing for greater rights for nongmin based on common sense facts. And more importantly, he’s arguing based on appeals to constitutional principles of equality. So far, his blog post has been positively received: garnering over 250 supporters in just two days. The fact that he and many other citizens are arguing by making persuasive, constitutionally based arguments shows that even in China the moral universe can bend towards justice.
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