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Is China opening up?

China's highest state body has started to consult the public, opening the door on its secretive legislative process, even if only a crack.

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China’s National Peoples’ Congress, the parliament that opened its annual meeting here Monday, is often dismissed as a rubber stamp body that offers only rote approval of the ruling Communist Party’s wishes.

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But when delegates come to vote later in the session on one of the more controversial laws in recent memory, they will find that another, less predictable force has helped shape the legislation before them: public opinion.

“Public opinion played a very important role” in watering down provisions in the new Criminal Procedure Law that would have allowed the police to “disappear” political opponents for six months, says Chen Weidong, a law professor at Beijing’s Renmin University. “The congress took the opinions that people expressed into account.”

The law defines fundamental human rights, such as how suspects and defendants should be treated by the police, the prosecutor and the courts. When a first draft was published last August for public comment, human rights activists were horrified to find that the law would entitle the police to hold some suspects for six months in secret detention centers without telling anyone what they were doing.

The Chinese police have done this anyway, notably to dissident artist Ai Weiwei, but they were breaking the law. Now, it seemed they would be legally permitted, under certain circumstances, to put political opponents in “black jails.”

Chinese lawyers and others flooded the NPC website with criticism during the 30 days it was open to comments. Today, according to Professor Chen and others who have seen the still-secret final version of the law, it obliges the police to tell a suspect’s family immediately if they take him to a “designated residence.”

The change illustrates the potential impact of the public consultations that the NPC has begun to offer Chinese citizens, opening the door on its secretive legislative process, even if only a crack.

Invitation for public comment

The NPC has invited public comment, by post or e-mail, on 41 selected draft laws since 2008, with varying results. About 83,000 people came up with nearly a quarter of a million suggestions last year on how to improve the income tax law; only 22 citizens felt strongly enough to comment on a draft law concerning reserve duty military officers’ status, according to the NPC website.

“This represents an initial foray by the government into citizen participation,” says Steven Balla, a politics professor at George Washington University in Washington who has studied the public consultation process. Although it is “really hard to say” how much the comments affect the drafting process, he adds, “there is potential for these comments to have a significant impact.”

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