Just in case you’ve been doing something else this week besides poring over China news, Monday marked the start of China’s annual Two Meetings (两会lianghui). Over 10 days, “representatives” (it is unclear who they actually represent) submit thousands of suggestions for new laws, listen to speeches from heads of various ministries, and approve virtually everything the Party sets in front of them.
For many Chinese netizens, it serves as a buffet of memes (internet jokes) at the expense of sleeping delegates and Mao’s grandson, as well as a source of outrage when it comes to expensive clothing and accessories.
At the end of the meetings, new laws will be presented and then promptly forgotten. As the WSJ put it:
…activists including artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained for 81 days last year without being charged, say Chinese police rarely observe legal procedure, and the new revisions include many loopholes that would still allow police to make people “disappear” in politically sensitive cases.
So if the laws aren’t actually enforced, aren’t these meetings pointless?
The reason China journalists, human rights advocates, financial analysts, and others have been glued to their screens this week isn’t because they think these new laws will actually be strictly enforced. Instead, this week is dedicated to reading tea leaves and trying to discern China’s future direction. This is especially important given that there will be a new group of leaders appointed this fall.
For example, Bo Xilai (the guy who loves red songs) and Wang Yang (called a reformer) have been the focus of at least a dozen articles, even though the next leader has already been decided (unofficially). Instead, these two men represent two factions within the Party, and the ascension of either one to a higher post could mean a general shift in that direction.
Unfortunately, Bo Xilai has been entangled in a political scandal, and is now unlikely to be promoted. I say “unfortunately” not because Bo deserves a promotion (my nationalist friend in Chengdu called him a “psycho” and the more reform minded friend called him “dangerous”), but his scandal means that we can no longer tell if he just lost favor or if his whole ideology has lost standing.
On the other hand, laws, like the one protecting human rights during detention, are China’s way of signaling to the rest of the world how it would like to be portrayed or less cynically, what it hopes to be. Law makers know this bill will result in headlines like, “China acts to give defendants greater rights,” and “China targets detention practices,” without actually limiting what state security agents can do, but many papers and activists will call it progress.
While I might seem skeptical, bare in mind the many cases of detention Yaxue has detailed on this blog were already in defiance of the current laws (“China is a country under rule of law” ironically was last year’s theme). Until people like Chen Guangcheng are free, there is little reason to expect that this law will be any better enforced.
Speeches, like Wen Jiabao’s promise that “Farmers’ land rights not to be violated by anyone,” serve two purposes. One, to give the appearance that the Party cares about Chinese farmers (which they need in order to maintain stability), and two, serves as a clear message to local gov’t's that this issue is a priority. However, there is still little reason to think that this marks the end of land grabs. Police last year were ordered not to meddle in home demolitions, yet this is still a common source of tension.
Next week we’ll look closer at the tea leaves, and try to discern what kind of country China would like to be seen as.