China's congress follows the script, literally

Chinese government officials get upset when foreigners describe their parliament, the National People's Congress, as a "rubber stamp" institution.

But even the most enthusiastic booster of democracy with Chinese characteristics could hardly deny that the NPC meeting now under way here is – let's put this politely – scripted.

Scripts are everywhere, from the 35-page text that Prime Minister Wen Jiabao read out at the opening plenary session on March 5, reviewing government policies, to the short manuscripts that local officials read aloud, their noses buried in their papers, at provincial side meetings.

Nor is there any need for advance copies of these speeches, when they are distributed to reporters, to bear the caution customary in the West, "Check against delivery."

There is no danger that any speaker at a National People's Congress is going to throw out any extemporaneous remarks.

Improvisational skills are not highly valued.

This makes for rather stilted debate. In fact, few foreigners would recognize proceedings at the NPC as a debate at all.

Take the March 7, meeting of the delegation from Guizhou, a fairly undeveloped province in southwestern China that grows tobacco and sugar cane, at which deputies were scheduled to debate the 2007 government work program that Mr. Wen had presented two days earlier.

In one of the meeting rooms in the Great Hall of the People, boasting thick beige carpet, shiny cream marble-faced walls, and a glistering chandelier, a hundred or so deputies were arranged at long, curving desks.

Most of them were middle-aged men in suits, though a few women from minority groups enlivened the scene with their brightly embroidered tunics and exotic ceremonial silver headdresses.

One after the other, leading provincial officials – the governor, the head of transport, a local Communist Party secretary – read long speeches reporting the details of their successes in 2006 and their plans for more successes for 2007.

At the beginning, some of the keener deputies were taking notes. After three-quarters of an hour, they had stopped. Eyes were starting to glaze over. Muttered conversations sprang up between neighbors.

It was an hour-and-a-half before anyone mentioned the prime minister'snational work program that they were supposed to be debating and then voting on at the end of this week. A town mayor made a fleeting reference – "It's a good report, we express our praise" – before moving on to prepared remarks on another subject.

I found it fascinating how boring it was.

The organizers of the two-week meeting clearly prefer it like that, and they go out of their way to make sure it stays as predictable as they can make it.

That doesn't stop journalists from flocking to NPC meetings, though. This is a once-in-a-year opportunity to try to collar remote officials and interview them. This year, for the first time ever, we are allowed to approach delegates directly, without going through the NPC press office for permission.

If you know who you are looking for, you can try to hunt him, and it's probably a "him," down in the corridors of the Great Hall of the People or ambush him at the end of a meeting.

That, however, is dangerously spontaneous and not to be encouraged.

On the morning of March 7, for example, while the Guizhou delegates were droning on, a large pack of reporters had gathered in another room where the Shanghai delegation was meeting.

This appeared to be a rare and precious chance to get close to the mayor and ask him about the corruption scandal that has been rocking his city for months.

Except that it wasn't. Mayor Han Zheng slipped out before the end of the meeting (reporters are not allowed to interrupt official proceedings), and then security guards expelled all of the reporters except those from the Shanghai press, who know very well on which side their bread is buttered.

Insiders say that delegates sometimes engage in quite heated debate behind closed doors, when journalists cannot hear them. This year, though, they report, there has been little even of that so far.

Instead, everyone has been sticking to the text, literally. On the morning of March 8, as a senior NPC official laboriously read out his speech proposing changes to the way NPC deputies are chosen, his audience of 3,000 did not just sit back and listen. Instead they followed his words, character by character, in the text they had been given beforehand.

Each time the speaker turned a page, 3,000 delegates each turned his or her page, too, creating a lengthy rustle that died away as if a breath of wind had blown a drift of autumn leaves along a street.

At least it proved they were awake.

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