My first two years as a member of NPC-Standing Committee
Mrs Rita FAN HSU Lai-tai, member of the Standing Committee of the 11th National People's Congress of the PRC, was the Foundation's guest speaker on 19 January 2011. Below is her speech.
Thank you, George (Cautherley) for the introduction. It seems that I come to join your luncheon every three to four years. In the year 2004, I came to speak to the HKDF when I was preparing for the Hong Kong Island direct election and I talked about my election platform.
Today, I will be talking about the National People's Congress Standing Committee Work. I must apologize for the PowerPoint file, which is in Chinese. To understand the National People's Congress (NPC) and the role of its Standing Committee (NPCSC), we shall refer to Chapter III of the Chinese Constitution. Article 57 stated that the NPC is the highest authority of the People's Republic of China (see slide 2 & 3 enclosed). Its Standing Committee, hereafter referred to as NPCSC convenes when NPC is in recess. The NPC, together with the NPCSC, is the legislature of China.
Article 62 outlined the power of the NPC. Any amendment of the Constitution has to be done by the NPC itself (point 1. of slide 4). The Standing Committee does not have the power to act on NPC's behalf in such matters. All the important laws and decision have to be passed and made by the NPC - which includes monitoring the implementation of the Constitution (point 2), enacting and amending basic statues (point 3), and electing the President and Vice-President of the People's Republic of China (point 4). One of the "Basic Statues" is the "Basic Law of Hong Kong SAR". Based on the nominations of the President, the NPC voted on the candidate for the Premier, Vice-Premiers, State Councillors and Ministers in charge of Ministries or Commissions, etc. (slide 5). The leaders of China are thus voted into office at the First Meeting of every NPC Session. We are now in the 11th Session of NPC.
Some people may say that these are only procedural, because at the end of the day the candidates are all duly elected. While the latter is true, there is a reason for this. The majority in the NPC is held by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), so under normal circumstances the Party's nominees should get elected. However, not all NPC deputies are CCP members. Amongst the 2,974 deputies of NPC, there are members from the other eight political parties of China. These parties were allies of CCP during their fight against the Nationalists, and their cooperative relationship with the CCP has continued. There are also deputies who have no political affiliations. So during the voting on the various candidates, you may see that some are returned with say, 98% of the votes, while others achieved only, say 83% or even less. If a candidate gets only the lower 80% or even around 70%, it can be embarrassing and it also serves as a warning that he or she really have to work hard to improve. Our President, Hu Jin-tao and Premier Wen Jia-bao were elected by over 98%; a resounding proof of their universal support.
Slides 6 & 7 simply show that the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, as well as the President of the Supreme Court and the Prosecutor-General is also elected by NPC.
It should also be noted that NPC "… decides on the establishment of special administrative regions and the systems to be instituted there" (slide 8). NPC also decides on the question of war and peace and to exercise "… such functions and powers as the highest organ of state power should exercise" (slide 9). As the NPC elected officials into office, it also has the right to remove the officials it appointed, including the President, Vice-President, Premier, etc. (slide 10).
The 3rd Plenary Meeting of the 11th Session of NPC was held in March 2010. Anyone interested in the agenda, papers, and decisions of that meeting can visit the NPC website: www.npc.gov.cn. You can also find the Rules and Procedures of NPC, the Chinese Constitution, as well as other information on NPC at that website.
Article 67 of the Constitution outlined the powers and responsibilities of the Standing Committee (NPCSC), which included interpreting the Constitution and monitoring the implementation of the Constitution, and enact laws, except those that must be made by the NPC (slide 13). When the NPC is in recess, the NPCSC can make laws and amend laws, provided that the amendments do not contravene the basic principles of the original laws. NPCSC is also entrusted with the responsibility of interpreting the laws (slide 14).
In connection with Hong Kong, the first time NPCSC interpreted the law was before 1997. Very little mention was made of this, so most people do not know about this, but it was that interpretation that allowed Chinese holding foreign passports to retain their Chinese Nationality, and remain as permanent residents of Hong Kong, and thereby enjoy the full rights of a Chinese Nationals and permanent resident. This was the first and a very important interpretation which we do not hear about nowadays.
After the reunification, the first interpretation was, of course, on the Right of Abode in Hong Kong for mainlanders. That caused some of our legal profession to demonstrate in their black robes in complete silence. That was a dignified demonstration. That was also the beginning of the Civic Party.
When the NPC is in recess, the NPC Standing Committee has to scrutinize and approve the national social and economic development plans, and any amendments to the national budget. So in this sense, the NPC Standing Committee is very much involved in the development of the whole country. It also monitors the State Council, the Military Commission, the Supreme People's Court and the Supreme People's Prosecution (slide 15).
The State Council has the right to make regulations, decisions and orders, but if any of them are in conflict with current laws made by the NPC, then the Standing Committee has the right to annul them - to make them ineffective (slide 16). In our Basic Law, there is a similar clause which says that the laws enacted by HKSAR Legislative Council have to be submitted to the NPC Standing Committee for approval. If the NPC Standing Committee decides that any such laws is in conflict with the HKSAR Basic Law, then the NPC Standing Committee will return those laws intact to the HKSAR. On the day such law is returned, that piece of legislation is annulled. It is then up to the HKSAR Government and the Legislative Council to make a new law if deemed necessary. In practice, laws made by the Legislative Council of Hong Kong SAR had never been returned in the past 13 years.
The same principle also applies to all provinces, autonomous regions and autonomous municipalities directly under the Central Government, for example Shanghai (slide 16).
When the NPC is not in session, the Standing Committee may have to make appointments. For example, Vice President Xi Jin-ping was nominated to be the Deputy Chairman of the Central Military Commission and his appointment was discussed and voted on by the NPCSC. In that occasion, 152 members of the NPCSC were in attendance, out of the total 174. Vice President Xi received 151 votes in support, with one abstention. That indicates the Vice President has a high level of support across the board. The NPCSC also appoints Judges of the Supreme People's Court, Prosecutors, and Ambassadors and passes international treaties that the Government has signed and so on. NPCSC also decides on declaration of war in case the country is under attack.
Slide 23 shows the website for the one of the NPCSC meetings. If I may, I would like to tell you something about the 17th NPCSC meeting (slide 25), during which the Social Security law was passed. Hong Kong businesses operating in China will have to pay for social security for all their employees, including their professional staff. Although many have known for a long time that the law was in the making, it does not change the fact that their operating costs will increase considerably. Hong Kong investors are naturally concerned. As a member of the NPCSC, I consider it my duty to reflect Hong Kong's opinions. It does not mean that I will get things done my way, but it is my responsibility to tell the NPCSC what Hong Kong people think.
The second piece of legislation I would like to draw your attention to is related to the election of "Village Committees". The law prescribes that every village has a village committee and every villager has the right to vote for whom they want to serve on their Village Committee. For those who are working in other regions, it could be difficult for them to come back to vote. In the past, proxy votes were allowed but the system was abused. So this time around, one person can only represent three other villagers (who are related to him/her), and he/she must vote in accordance to the villagers' wish. The Hong Kong deputies, all four of us at the meetings, spoke against the proxy model. We were of the view that proxy votes open the door for possible corruption. But villages working in other cities cannot be expected to return to their village just to cast a vote due to various reasons, including financial considerations. The actual circumstances in the Mainland made it impractical to remove the proxy vote at this point of time, they still need time to adjust. The important point to note is that at the village level, this one-person-one-vote system is in place and efforts are made to improve the system as far as practicable.
At the 18th NPCSC Meeting, laws on water and soil conservation were passed. There was also an amendment on criminal law which proposed that anyone over 75, who might have "attracted" a death penalty, shall be exempted from the death sentence. The Standing Committee Members from Macau and from Hong Kong opposed this proposal because commercial crimes can be very serious and someone over 75 may be used by criminals to take responsibility for the crime. This piece of draft legislation is still under discussion. At the same meeting it was also decided the Fourth Plenary Meeting of NPC will be held on the 5th March 2011.
The NPC website is www.npc.gov.cn. My website is www.npcfan.hk. The reason I give you my website is because all the agendas and papers of the NPCSC meetings that I had attended are there. The text of the reports and laws are also there if you're interested.
Democracy in China is moving ahead in two areas. Apart from the village-level elections, the NPCSC regularly receive and discuss reports from the Government. Every two months, Government Officials have to come to the NPCSC. Lately, this has developed into Questions and Answers sessions - rather like the Hong Kong Legislative Council, though not as fierce.
Last December, we had a session on healthcare reform. The Government side was led by the head of the NDRC (National Development and Reform Commission, which is charge of economic development), the Finance Minister, and the Minister for Health. The whole Q & A process was broadcast on the internet - the film clips are still there on the NPC website. This could not have happened five years before. Steps are taken to make the work of the NPCSC more open and more transparent. This enables the people to know, to express their views, and to participate.
Another change that was made since five years ago was Government now aims to serve the people, not to rule the people. This is a significant conceptual adjustment. In the past, it was "father knows best", so the Government does everything that is "best" for the people. Now they say, we are here to serve the people, so we must keep abreast of what they people want, which in turn, requires the Government to listen to people's views.
NPCSC also monitors the implementation of laws that had been passed previously. Teams lead by Vice Presidents of NPC are sent out to the provinces; in provinces where no team visited, the local Standing Committee of the People's Congress there will collect the necessary information; the results of such investigations are then compiled into a report to be submitted and discussed by NPCSC. The Government is required to respond to the comments and suggestions made by the report and NPCSC members, and report on the subsequent actions taken. For some laws, there are continuous assessments. If not much was done a year ago, the subject will be looked at once again. This is another change and an indication of the current working style between the Government and the NPC Standing Committee. Last but not least, special teams are sent out by the NPCSC to look into matters close to the hearts of the people, for example, education, culture, etc.
In the two years I have been on NPCSC, I have witnessed changes. I envisage more changes in the years to come. Chinese democracy is not like Western democracy, nor will they accept Western-styled democracy. They feel, and I tend to agree, that democracy for China must be suitable for the circumstances in the Mainland. And they must move "step by step". The Western idea of democracy - the idea of separation of power - executive, legislative and judicial power - is alien to the Chinese system. In the Chinese Constitution, the NPC is the highest authority which appointed the executive and the Judiciary. Yet, it does not mean that the NPC can interfere with the judiciary. As NPC deputies, we must not interfere with the judicial process. NPC deputies have right to change the law. Deputies can follow up complains that certain Government Officials or members of the Judiciary are not complying with the law. However, NPC cannot interfere with the work of the People's Congress at the provincial-level nor their Standing Committees either, as there is no direct relationship between the two levels of people's congress. There exists a professional and cooperative relationship between the two levels. Many Hong Kong people are not aware of this, including me. I only came to know this when I became a NPC Deputy.
I often read in the HK's media about unreasonable things happening in China. China is a huge place, and such events do occur from time to time. Even in a small place such as Hong Kong, things that we do not accept do happen occasionally. But the good news is, once the matter was revealed, someone in authority does try to correct them and hopefully, the reoccurrence of such events will decrease in future.
I have been speaking too long and I appreciate your patience. I would welcome comments or questions.
The above does not necessarily represent the views of the Foundation.