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Keeping in touch with the people
Television advertising has long been associated more with commercial benefit than public interest. So on the eve of the Chinese Lunar New Year, residents of Yiwu City in East China's Zhejiang Province were surprised to see a TV ad soliciting public proposals for submission to the annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC), China's top legislature, set for next month in the nation's capital, Beijing.
As it turned out, the ad, which played for 20 days starting from January 18, was the brainchild of Zhou Xiaoguang, an NPC deputy and board chairwoman of Zhejiang Xinguang Decoration Materials Co Ltd, in Yiwu.
"As the only NPC deputy in Yiwu, I feel responsible to my constituency. However, since I'm only familiar with business circles, I hoped to hear more from workers, farmers and people from other sectors to make my proposals more representative," says 42-year-old Zhou, who tabled five proposals at the last NPC session apart from those she proposed jointly with other deputies.
She paid 8,000 yuan (US$964) for the ads, and "the results are unexpectedly good," marvels the entrepreneur who has over 3,600 employees in her company.
By February 11, she had received more than 600 telephone calls and over 100 e-mails and letters, some even from Guangdong and Fujian provinces as well as adjacent Shanghai.
Nonetheless, Zhou admits that she did not take out the ad just for the upcoming NPC meeting. "My concern has always been to resolve the problems facing local residents. I've got to be responsible to people who vote for me."
Zhou Xiaoguang's unprecedented gesture has won great acclaim from the public.
Xiao Guang, a netizen on an online forum run by Xinhua News Agency, writes: "NPC deputies resorted to meetings, group inspections and individual visits as a way to relate to their constituency, which is of very low efficiency. It is the duty of NPC deputies to listen to voices from various sectors and forge close ties with their electorate."
The Law on NPC Deputies stipulates that deputies must often listen to the opinions of the general public by various means, and answer inquiries about their work from the electorate.
However, it is not an easy requirement to implement in real life.
Xu Xianglin, professor with the College of Public Administration at Peking University, observes: "A systematic arrangement is missing in the communication between NPC deputies and their constituents. The fact that an entrepreneur has to use her own money and resources to expand communication with the voters is in itself a reflection of the problems. There should be a mechanism to ensure every deputy has the means to perform his or her duty well."
Wang Chunyun, a deputy from Nanjing, capital of East China's Jiangsu Province, finds it difficult to perform her duties fully. "Newspapers and magazines are a major source of information for me to connect with the outside world," sighs the engineer with an electronics institute.
"My contacts are very limited, which makes it difficult for me to do research on NPC proposals," she says.
Chen Xin, another NPC deputy from a hospital in Nanjing has similar concerns. "I'm interested in the rural health system. But it takes time and money to go out of my way to do research in rural areas."
On the other hand, it's worth noting that many problems from across the country have been flooding the NPC Standing Committee and crying out for attention and help.
From January to November last year, the committee's letters and complaints bureau processed 52,852 letters and heard 17,063 cases of problems connected to, and malpractice of, local administrations, a 20 per cent rise compared with 2002.
About 40 per cent of the complaints were lodged against the police and the judiciary departments at all levels, while 33 per cent were against government institutions, 13 per cent about corruption and 11 per cent about injustices, according to the NPC bureau.
More astounding was that over 80 per cent of the complaints received by State Bureau for Letters and Calls were "reasonable" and 80 per cent could have, and should have, been resolved by local governments, says Zhou Zhanshun, director of the bureau.
This leads to worrying concerns.
The communication links between the general public and the 3,000 NPC deputies and over 400,000 grassroots people's deputies need improvement. As scholars argue, although some deputies have failed to perform their duties fully as they worry about their own self-advancement, they are not solely to blame.
Li Long, a professor on constitution studies, believes the existing law is not in line with the country's fast development and it's time for a revision.
"Regulations on people's deputies are more matters of principle than operational. There are no measures to ensure close ties between deputies and the voters, nor are constituents able to supervise deputies," he says.
Mao Shoulong, dean of the Department of Administration at Renmin University of China, deems the post of deputy a time-demanding job. "But many deputies are part-time. Some may not even visit their constituents."
Mao calls for professionalizing people's deputies so that they put their heart and soul into their service.
"This is definitely an imperative trend in China's reform," agrees Qiao Xinsheng, a web surfer at the Xinhua News Agency's official website. But before it materializes, he suggests, deputies should first have a suitable working environment.
Some local people's congresses have piloted improvements in their work. In Southwest China's Chongqing Municipality, lawmakers have started to engage legal professionals as legislative assistants.
Late last year, the Standing Committee of Chongqing Municipal People's Congress hired a doctor of law from Southwest China University of Political Science and Law as a part-time assistant.
The job of the assistant is to offer advice and suggestions to Cheng Yiju, vice-chairman of the Standing Committee of the municipal people's congress, especially on Cheng's proposals to the second session of the 10th National People's Congress next month, and conduct research on the local environment for investment and foreign trade.
"Most lawmakers hold two or more posts concurrently, leaving them little time for legislative work," says Ma Huaide, president of the law school of the Chinese University of Political Science and Law.
In view of the currently-slim possibility of turning all lawmakers into full-time professionals, Ma regards employing legislative assistants as a pragmatic way to improve legislative quality.
While money and personnel are yet to be in place, people's congresses at provincial levels have laudably worked out ways to hear what constituents have to say.
With the support of the local people's congress, Zhou Xiaoguang, from Yiwu, was also fortunate to have a research team of retired officials and government advisers last October.
In East China's Jiangxi Province, people are encouraged to offer their opinions in short messages via mobile phones to their deputies.
In Henan and Beijing, hotlines and online chat rooms are organized as platforms for the public to voice their views to their deputies.
In Southwest China's Guiyang, the Standing Committee of the Municipal People's Congress designates the first Wednesday of every month for judges, prosecutors and lawyers to hear people's complaints and help provide solutions.
The municipal legislature in Shanghai now takes public complaints into account in appraising the performance of government officials and court chiefs. Some deputies to the municipal people's congress have publicized their e-mail addresses for proposals to the local legislature and the government.
Despite all these efforts, it is everyone's wish that enterprising and innovative measures do not fade away after the NPC session ends, and a mechanism needs to be created to keep these measures functioning.