China npc
The Chinese National People’s Congress gathers for the opening ceremony of its annual meeting in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Reuters

Described frequently as a rubber-stamp parliament and memorably by the Financial Times this week as an “ersatz parliament,” the Chinese National People’s Congress (NPC) has never voted down a bill, although there have been occasional protest votes numbering as high as several hundred. And while the collective role of the NPC’s almost 3,000 delegates is generally viewed as being to ratify the government’s proposals, its annual meeting does provide a rare chance for some of its more daring members to raise ideas of their own and for the bolder sections of the Chinese media to focus on the concerns of ordinary citizens.

As usual, delegates of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the national legislature’s advisory body, have made a flurry of proposals this year. The committee begins its annual session two days before the main legislative session, giving its roughly 2,200 members a head start in getting their ideas to the media. The committee’s membership comprises not only academics and other experts but also a smattering of celebrities, encompassing former NBA star Yao Ming, movie star Jackie Chan and film director Chen Kaige -- names that help in media coverage. The CPPCC’s membership also includes 21 of China’s 100 richest businesspeople. (Another 16 top entrepreneurs are members of the NPC, including the head of Baidu Inc., China’s top search-engine company, who called for more research on artificial intelligence.)

Despite the popularity of their advocates, all proposals are not guaranteed smooth receptions. Last year, Yao Ming reportedly succeeded in getting eased previously restrictive rules on approval for commercial sporting events. But another delegate, Cui Yongyuan, a famous former television host who called for action against genetically modified foods last year, told reporters this week that he’s skeptical about the agricultural ministry’s promise to tackle the issue.

This year, film director Wang Xingdong has already called for a new law to formalize China’s rules on film censorship, saying that Chinese films have struggled to compete with international rivals because censors often ban films on personal whims, and that there is a lack of clear rules on depictions of violence or corruption in Chinese movies.

Environmental issues are likely to be a major talking point. Former state TV reporter Chai Jing’s documentary about the impact of air pollution, “Under the Dome,” has gone viral on the Chinese Internet this week. Also, a new environmental-protection law passed at the beginning of this year, and the former head of Tsinghua University, one of the country’s most prestigious colleges, has been named as the new environment minister. Building upon the momentum behind the topic, many will be hoping to see signs that authorities are serious about stricter implementation of environmental rules.

The prelude to the legislative session also gives some ordinary citizens a chance to raise their concerns with delegates. And they sometimes get media coverage, too.

This week, the father of a homosexual man sent a letter to 1,000 delegates of the two sessions, calling for the legalization of gay marriage. The topic had also been raised by delegate Li Yinhe, a sociologist, although few expect a relevant measure to be passed any time soon. Another delegate proposed criminalizing group sex among gay men, suggesting his aim was to prevent the spread of the human immunodeficiency virus, the cause of AIDS, so it’s fairly obvious the prejudice against homosexuality continues to govern.

Meanwhile, one feminist activist wrote to delegates, asking them to pass a law against sexual assaults on girls and women in schools and universities. She said she took the step because China’s education ministry had not done enough to eradicate the problem.

There have been signs that such issues, once taboo in China, are now likely to be given at least some consideration. The NPC reportedly said Monday it would study calls for the abolition of the crime of “soliciting underage prostitutes,” which activists say often permits men to get away with relatively light punishment, when they are actually guilty of raping children. How quickly this will happen is unclear, however, as a draft law on domestic violence (the first of its kind in China) is apparently still being studied and is not expected to be passed for several years.

Other topics discussed, but unlikely to see rapid action, include a proposal to make it harder for couples who have children under 10 to obtain a divorce -- in an attempt to slow an epidemic of divorces among the country’s younger generations -- and calls for faster implementation of rules (announced last year) that allow couples to have a second child.

The legislature’s annual session attracts petitioners from all over China, who head to the central government’s petition office to raise grievances about local abuses and cases of corruption. One Chinese newspaper this week published an unusually detailed report on the scene at the petition office, noting it received 2,000 letters a day, while describing the crowd of people queuing outside, some of whom shouted, “Arrest corrupt officials” and “Down with corruption.”

The head of the office said the number of petitioners was higher by 20 percent during the legislative session. Local governments often seek to prevent local petitioners from ever reaching Beijing, however, by detaining them before they get there and sending them home or sometimes holding them in illegal “black jails.”

The Chinese legislature’s annual session officially opens Thursday morning with Premier Li Keqiang’s work report that lays out future plans and summarizes the past year’s achievements. The government’s new anti-terrorism law (over which China has sought to dismiss the concerns of U.S. President Barack Obama), anti-corruption campaign, ongoing economic and fiscal reform, and a 10 percent rise in the defense budget, as well as environmental issues, are likely to head the agenda this year.

Many petitioners’ grievances have little chance of being resolved, and a significant number of the 945 proposals received by the CPPCC at the beginning of the week are unlikely to become law. Beginning Thursday, the focus is likely to be more on the central leadership’s core agenda than on the concerns of individual delegates or citizens. For a brief period each year, however, the NPC and CPPCC still appear to inspire some to believe in the power of what the Chinese government likes to describe as its system of consultative democracy.