When the Chinese National People's Congress opens an annual meeting, as it did this week in Beijing, any resemblance to a democratic legislature is purely accidental.
It only meets for 10 days a year, its members are not elected, do not represent any constituency or opposition party, and most have full-time jobs in government and business (though there is a scattering of Buddhist monks and ethnic minorities in colourful national dress among them, to give a veneer of inclusiveness). There's also very little actual debating, though a lot of votes will take place over the 10 days, and it's safe to expect a "yes" vote of well over 90 per cent on each measure the government introduces.
The first order of business was the Work Report, where Premier Li Keqiang rhymed off government accomplishments from the past year, including preventing Ebola from spreading into China, good news about significant reduction in industrial accidents, and measures to improve food safety. (Food safety is a major concern of Chinese consumers, for good reason). The recounting of government successes goes on and on, and the 2,964 delegates in the Great Hall of the People were under strict instructions not to check social media or play games on cellphones while the Premier was reading his report. Last year this was a bit of a problem.
When the review ended and the Premier turned to plans for the year ahead, there were alarm bells in his words, in terms of China's economy and its effect on domestic social stability.
The main concern is that the government is predicting "only" 7 per cent growth in the next year – the "new normal" as Mr. Li termed it. This sounds like a lot of economic expansion compared to growth rates in developed nations (Canada would be delighted with half that rate), but it is a considerable slowdown from the double-digit growth China has experienced over the last 30 years.
Mr. Li said overcapacity is a big problem, maintaining stable growth has become difficult, and "growth in investment is sluggish." In fact, the biggest burden on China's economy is its dominance by state-owned enterprises that are inefficient due to corruption, political demands on them and the lack of incentive for innovation.
This adds up to a potential big danger for a nation with a largely undeveloped social safety net. When Mr. Li warned that "in times of peace we must be alert to danger; in times of stability we must be mindful of the potential for chaos," it was not empty rhetoric.
How China plans to respond to this threat appears more aspirational than realistic. Mr. Li spoke of improving government administrative capacity to enhance "public credibility," and said officials should avoid "capriciousness" and "hedonism and extravagance," but he was hazy on exactly how to change this deeply entrenched culture. In the past year alone, 39 members of the National People's Congress have been expelled for corruption. China's own statistics put the combined net worth of delegates to the National People's Congress and the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference at $576.4-billion – more than the total GDP of a country like Austria. And more than 200 of the delegates meeting this week are billionaires in their own right. Evidently the Chinese Communist Party has been very good to them.
In the face of this, he did announce (again, without details) there will be new measures to address pollution, expanded public services including medical and elder care, and provision of education for rural children. And, he said, the government will "keep the economy resilient despite downward pressure on it" and "continue the struggle against corruption."
But as the chasm between China's rich and poor widens each year, Mr. Li recognizes the dangerous cleavage between those who don't have enough and are disgruntled about it, and those who have crazy wealth and flaunt it with extreme luxury consumption, wearing expensive jewelry as they drive around China's cities in Ferraris and Lamborghinis.
This alienation by corruptly obtained wealth of the political and business elite, from the workers and farmers that the Party once purported to represent, is the nub of a growing crisis. It all constitutes the potential lurking danger and chaos that Mr. Li alluded to, if things don't go as the Work Report promises.
As for the global audience, the opening day of Congress was likewise less than encouraging. Mr. Li said Chinese missions abroad will become more proactive asserting the interests of China's state-owned enterprises abroad, as part and parcel of the government's economic agenda, and Beijing will also work to "strengthen the bonds of attachment with Chinese living abroad." This does not bode well for the coming year of Canada-China relations.
Charles Burton is an associate professor of political science at Brock University in St. Catharines, and is a former Counsellor at the Canadian Embassy in Beijing