Local People's Congresses and Governing China

Article excerpt

Young Nam Cho, Local People 's Congresses in China: Development and Transition. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008. 192pp. US$80.00 (hardcover).

Ming Xia, The People 's Congresses and Governance in China: Toward a Network Mode of Governance. London: Routledge, 2007. 300pp. US$130.00 (hardcover).

Taken together, these two books depict the role that local People's Congresses (FPCs) play in Chinese politics. The image that emerges is somewhat unexpected. One might have thought that the crucial question about FPCs centers on how representative they are. What stands out in these accounts, however, is how little attention is devoted to elections, deputy-constituent ties and speaking out at plenary sessions. For Young Nam Cho and Ming Xia, the big story is occurring inside the state, and concerns institutionalization, multi-step deliberation and enhanced oversight. Administrative reforms have transformed the policy process, and new arenas have been created to manage conflict. FPCs have benefited greatly from this re-division of labor and are not a "rival show" or a "rubber stamp" (Xia, p. 228) but partners in governance providing a venue for interested parties (mostly within the bureaucracy) to work out disagreements. Energetic FPCs are first and foremost a sign that where Chinese politics takes place has changed. Fegislative development, in this way of thinking, has less to do with responsiveness and changing state-society relations and more to do with statebuilding, restructuring bureaucratic ties and making Party rule predictable and effective.

If FPCs have become a "strong political force in local politics" (Cho, p. 163) but have been empowered only selectively (with much more attention to lawmaking and oversight than to representation), what does this imply about the shape of the Chinese polity?1 More simply, what do local People's Congresses do, what do they not do, and what does their mixture of activism and quiescence say about how governance is changing?

Evidence and Variation

Students of LPCs sometimes fall prey to cherry-picking instances of assertiveness, and downplay the fact that most congresses remain pliant and passive. Cho and Xia do not avoid this trap entirely. Many passages, especially in Xia's book, detail the most exciting (but perhaps least representative) episodes of contestation, muscularity in lawmaking and vigorous oversight. The significance of events such as vetoing a court work report (the "Shenyang Incident") or interpellating and then refusing to ratify several bureau directors (the "Guangdong Phenomena") (Cho, pp. 1-2) can at times be difficult to evaluate, and a feeling lingers that atypical occurrences (and unusually hardworking congresses) have been blown up beyond their import.2

That said, both authors have assembled convincing evidence that LPCs are more active than previously thought and that many are closer to the local center of power than the National People's Congress (NPC) is in Beijing (Cho, p. 163; Xia, p. 25O).3 At a time when the NPC often appears sleepy and handcuffed, the most enterprising local congresses introduce innovations that begin in the provinces and spread outwards. Formerly quiet LPCs emulate dynamic neighbors, and policy diffusion occurs on issues including nationalities' autonomy, consumer rights and the protection of children (Xia, pp. 163-64; Cho, pp. 15, 165). 4 Provincial congresses, especially, have filled a void created by too few national laws promoting economic liberalization (Xia, p. 5), such that, by the late 1990s, legislators in Shanghai and Shenzhen were heard bragging about how advanced their congresses were compared to the NPC, in terms both of top-notch staff and an ability to enact controversial laws.5

Still, legislative activism remains uneven, among and within provinces (Cho, p. 5).6 In the absence of a nationwide sample (or armies of scholars studying People's Congresses), Cho offers a number of useful hypotheses about variation and how to understand it. …