Here's one NPC mechanism that shouldn't be overlooked

As the Two Sessions crept nearer, your host thought it would be useful to cover something slightly related in this newsletter, namely, a selection of responses various gov’t organs released recently to suggestions submitted by National People’s Congress deputies last year.

The reason your host believes these responses deserves a closer look is that

  1. The suggestions are reflective of the collective concerns of Chinese society. Many of the suggestions share similar themes and addresses similar issues, and can be useful to gauge public attention and public sentiment on a particular issue.

    The fact that NPC deputies come from all over the country and all walks of life mean that the suggestions are valid representations of public concern and opinion, perhaps more so than many foreign observers realize.

  2. The NPC is by law China’s highest organ of state power, ensuring that ministries do take these suggestions seriously. The responses were often formulated after careful consultation with other relevant ministries, or subject matter experts. Some of the responses indicate that as many as a dozen organs were involved in compiling the response.

  3. Due to the political weight of the suggestions, and the seriousness with which relevant ministries take them, the responses can serve as good policy weather wanes for the near future, as well as where the government stands on certain issues.

  4. Records show that the suggestions have made actual impacts, according to this Xinhua story on last year’s stats, State Council offices and departments coordinated the handling of 8,108 suggestions from NPC deputies and 4,115 proposals from CPPCC members. Relevant departments adopted some 3,700 pieces of advice and recommendations in the proposals and, on this basis, introduced about 1,500 policy measures.

Making suggestions to relevant official organs on matters of policy is a power of NPC deputies, strictly speaking, it is a parallel function of the deputies apart from their legislative duties.

Let’s kick off with a ministry that is the most closely related to this newsletter, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

The MFA doesn't release many responses, for last year, it released one. Your host won’t speculate why this certain suggestion was selected, but here it is:

The response is directed to NPC deputy Lü Jianzhong, who proposed that the MFA should support NGOs including China-led trade groups to play a bigger role in improving China’s power of discourse in the world.

The responses don’t include the original text of the suggestions, but judging from the response, Lü’s suggestion mainly had 3 points. 1.Helping the NGOs to tell the Chinese story and convey the Chinese voice, 2. Helping the NGOs to "go global" and 3. Inviting more business associations to actively participate in relevant meetings.

On the first point, the MFA’s response:

我部将继续与中外智库学者开展交流研讨、合作研究等活动,以专业、理性声音向世界展现一个真实、立体、全面的中国,提高国家文化软实力和中华文化影响力。

The Ministry will continue to conduct exchanges, seminars and cooperative research activities with Chinese and foreign think tanks and scholars to show the world a real, three-dimensional and comprehensive China with professional and rational voices, and improve the national cultural soft power and Chinese cultural influence.

On the second point,

下一步,外交部将继续会同有关部门,鼓励并指导更多我非政府组织参与多边外交,加强对外交流合作,官民并举,提升我国际话语权和影响力。

In the next step, the MFA will continue to work with relevant departments to encourage and guide more NGOs to participate in multilateral diplomacy, strengthen foreign exchanges and cooperation, and enhance China’s international discourse and influence with the combined effort of both government and private sector.

On the third point:

下一步,我部将根据党中央有关部署安排,继续做好支持有关国际商协会组织参与“一带一路”国际合作高峰论坛相关工作。

Next, the Ministry will continue supporting the relevant international business associations to participate in the "Belt and Road" International Cooperation Summit.

Your host would make several notes regarding this response:

  1. is a business person from the Western province of Shaanxi and is not affiliated with any political party, a google of his name revealed that he has been active in submitting various suggestions as an NPC deputy, covering a wide range of issues.

  2. The response was dated Sept. 8 of 2020 and was publically released much later, on Dec.1. It is possible for the deputy to receive a response at an earlier time.

  3. The general gist of the response is that the MFA has already been making efforts proposed by Lü and pledged to continue with the effort. This will be a common pattern for responses made by different ministries.

  4. The suggestion reflects a willingness on the part of Chinese businesses to play a bigger role on the global stage. Due to historical reasons and language/culture barriers, many Chinese businesses may not feel entirely confident when communicating to an international audience. Your host reads from the suggestion that Lü is asking the MFA to help out.

Next up, is the National Health Commission, the organ that ranks 22nd among all ministries within the State Council but has perhaps drawn the most attention in 2020.

Contrary to MFA’s one response, the NHC released 415 responses to suggestions this year.

Your host scanned all 415 to discover they cover a wide range of issues concerning China’s health system, with some of the most mentioned subjects including 1. Commit more healthcare resources to the local level and lesser developed regions, 2. Improve the medical education system so as to make sure the country has enough doctors and nurses, 3. Raise awareness among the public for better health habits and healthy living styles, and 4, a topic this newsletter will dive into, what to do with China’s population.

Anxiety has been building up regarding China’s population in recent years, as the latest number showing that newborn numbers are continuing a downward trend at an alarming rate.

In light of this trend, the NHC has received at least a dozen suggestions, including suggestions 1086, 1119, 1666, 1716, 3551, 4135, 5116, 5238, 7378, 7476, 8046, 9839, regarding the matter, all of which called for action to promote birthrate.

A closer look revealed that the suggestions, though similar in principle, took slightly different approaches.

  1. suggestions 1666, 5116, and 7378 say the government should make full use of current policy tools and encourage more families to have two children, the most under current laws. These suggestions argued for better policy incentives for families to have two children, such as monetary subsidies, improved healthcare, and longer paid maternity leaves for parents expecting a second child.

    China officially adopted the two-children policy in 2016. The birth rate has since seen a bump, but the effect has all but worn off.

  2. suggestion 1119 went a step further, arguing the government should allow families to have up to three children. According to the response, this is the third consecutive year this particular deputy has made the same suggestion.

  3. suggestions 1086, 1716, 3551, 4135, 7476, 8046 argued for completely lifting all restrictions on the number of children a family’s allowed.

  4. suggestion 9839 advocated for lifting birth restrictions in the NE provinces of Heilongjiang, Jilin, and Liaoning first, as the region is already witnessing a decrease in population due to an outflow of population and low birthrates.

  5. suggestion 5238 called for amendments to a 2001 population and family planning law, but it is unclear what exact amendments the suggestion recommended.

So what did the NHC say?

  1. As an overarching principle, the NHC stated that

    人口问题始终是影响经济社会发展的基础性、全局性和战略性问题。生育政策调整完善关乎群众切身利益、关乎经济社会大局、关乎民族长远发展,应积极稳妥地调整完善生育政策,促进人口均衡发展。

    The population issue is always a fundamental, across-the-board and strategic issue affecting economic and social development. The adjustment and improvement of the birth policy concerns the vital interests of the people, the overall economic and social situation, and the long-term development of the nation, so the birth policy should be adjusted and improved in a positive and steady manner to promote balanced population development.

    Furthermore, the NHC noted in several responses that low birth rates have brought about “risks and challenges”.

  2. As the reason for low birth rates, the NHC said in response to suggestion 9839 that

    经济社会因素已成为影响生育的重要因素,特别是经济负担、婴幼儿照护和女性职业发展等方面,群众反映尤为突出,生育政策对生育行为的影响大为减弱。提高生育水平,关键是要顺应群众期待、聚焦群众期盼,在公共服务方面补短板、强弱项、提质量,切实解决家庭生育养育子女的后顾之忧,提高群众的生育积极性。

    Economic and social factors have become important factors influencing fertility, especially the economic burden, infant and child care and women's career development, which are particularly reflected by the public, and the influence of fertility policy on fertility behavior is greatly reduced. The key to improving fertility levels is to respond to the expectations of the public, focus on the expectations of the public, fill in the shortcomings in public services, strengthen the weaknesses, improve quality, effectively solve the concerns of families in childbirth and child rearing, and improve the enthusiasm of the public to have children.

  3. The NHC has pledged to take steps to address the above-mentioned reasons behind low birth rates and expand the policy toolkit down the road.

    The outlined plan is to relieve the financial and child-caring burden from parents, lowering the threshold for schooling and keeping housing prices in check, grant longer maternity leaves, promote gender equality in families and workplaces, tackle employment discrimination against women, etc.

    Most notable the NHC responded to suggestion 1716 that

    我国人口区域发展不平衡,各地面临的人口问题既有共性也有特殊性。您提出的“选取部分省(市)作为全面放开计划生育的试点”对我委的工作很有参考价值。各地可以结合实际,组织开展试点可行性研究,做好生育政策进一步调整完善的人口变动测算和相关因素影响评估,在详细论证的基础上提出工作方案,供决策参考。

    The regional development of China's population is uneven, and the population problems faced by different regions have both common and special characteristics. Your suggestion to "select some provinces (cities) as a pilot project to fully eliminate family planning" is very informative for the work of our committee. Each place can take into account the actual situation, organize the pilot feasibility study, do a good job to further adjust the fertility policy to improve the population change calculations and impact assessment of relevant factors, and propose a work plan based on detailed evidence for reference in decision-making.

    The NHC again expressed interest in the idea of an experiment zone in response to suggestion 9839, stating

    您在建议中提出“建议国家率先在东北地区全面放开人口生育限制”对我委工作很有参考价值。我委认为,东北地区可以立足本地实际进行探索,组织专家进行研究,深入研判全面放开生育限制对当地经济增长、社会和谐稳定、资源环境战略、基本公共服务等方面的影响;做好政策调整后人口变动测算;研究实施全面放开生育政策需要配套出台的文件;评估政策变动的社会风险等等。在此基础上,提出东北地区实施全面生育政策的试点方案。

    Your suggestion of "suggesting that the country should take the lead in fully liberalizing the birth limit of the population in the northeast region" is of great reference value to the work of our committee. The committee believes that the Northeast region can explore the local reality, organize experts to conduct research and in-depth study on the impact of full liberalization of fertility restrictions on local economic growth, social harmony and stability, resources and environmental strategies, basic public services, etc.; forecasting population change after policy adjustment; study the implementation of the full liberalization of fertility policy requires the introduction of supporting documents; assess the social risks of policy changes, etc. Based on the above effort, a pilot program for the implementation of a comprehensive fertility policy in the Northeast can be proposed.

After the reply to suggestion 9839 was widely reported, NHC released a statement clarifying that

关于互联网上“东北地区将试点放开生育限制”“生育政策将全面放开”等推测,不是答复的本意。

Online speculations that "the northeast region will pilot the liberalization of fertility restrictions" "fertility policy will be fully liberalized" are not the original intention of the reply.

To your host, the responses demonstrate that the central government is now fully aware of the risks China faces should the birthrate continue to drop, and has begun seriously consider easing the current family planning policy in some form. Based on the above reply, it is safe to assume that if China decides to roll back its family planning policies, it is more likely to proceed in a gradual manner, testing it out in certain regions or among certain groups before rolling it out nationwide. But the clarification of the NHC seems to communicate that the public shouldn’t expect any imminent change, as the measure still needs to be studied.

Another observation by your host is that to respond to the above 12 suggestions, the NHC consulted with The ministries of Education, Finance, Human Resources and Social Security, Civil Affairs, Housing and Urban-Rural Development, National Development and Reform Commission, State Commission Office of Public Sectors Reform, National Defense Mobilization Department under the Central Military Commission, National Radio and Television Administration, National Healthcare Security Administration, National Working Committee on Children and Women under State Council, All-China Federation of Trade Unions, All-China Women’s Federation, Xinhua News Agency and People’s Daily (Not properly ordered). The breadth of the agencies (and potentially more) involved shows that it would need a whole-of-government consensus and effort to enact changes to the family planning policies.

Your host is fully aware that the concerns and debate over China’s family planning policy deserve its own newsletter, and will consider do one in the near future, perhaps after official figures for last year comes out of the National Bureau of Statistics.

Your host would like to end this newsletter with a very substantial response from the NHC, its response to suggestion 2474, which calls for China to construct an emergency public health foreign aid system that is compatible with China’s international responsibilities (《关于构建与我国大国责任相匹配的援外公共卫生应急体系的建议》)

The NHC showed strong interest in the suggestion, saying:

如您所建议,在新冠肺炎疫情应对中,暴露出我国在参与全球公共卫生治理方面的一些不足,我委已部署开展完善公共卫生应急管理体系研究工作,推进公共卫生国际合作交流,我们将把您的建议作为完善研究的重要内容。

As you suggested, the response to the Covid epidemic has revealed some shortcomings in China's participation in global public health governance. The Commission has deployed to carry out research to improve the public health emergency management system and promote international cooperation and exchange in public health, and we will take your suggestions as an important part of improving the research.

The suggestion outlined four suggestions, 1.revising and improving China's public health laws and related regulations; 2. Integrating public health security into the overall national security system; 3. Strengthening public health high-end talent think tanks and 4. Promoting international cooperation in public health.

To each of the suggestions, the NHC responded with concrete plans that worth paying attention to.

For no.1:

我们也将进一步加强卫生法治人才建设,培养既精通国内公共卫生法也精通《国际卫生条例》等国际法的专业人才,提升我国在世界卫生组织等国际组织中的作用,强化我国在国际卫生法治领域的话语权。

We will also further strengthen the construction of health rule of law personnel, train professionals who are proficient in both domestic public health law and international law such as the International Health Regulations, enhance our role in international organizations such as the World Health Organization, and strengthen our voice in the international health rule of law.

For No. 2

我们将进一步吸收采纳您的建议,不断优化公共卫生驻外机构、疾病监测点、实验室等整体布局,实现疾病防控关口前移。

We will further incorporate your suggestions and continuously optimize the overall layout of public health field offices, disease surveillance sites, laboratories, etc. to achieve forward movement of disease prevention and control.

This seems to suggest that NHC is deliberating dispatching experts to station in foreign countries to assist with their public health situation.

For No. 3

可探索在国内建立全球卫生人才库,通过安排赴国际组织和海外基地锻炼的机会,培养既具备公共卫生的专业素养,又有外语能力、外交能力、沟通协调能力、创新适应能力的人才。

The establishment of a global health talent pool in China can be explored, and by arranging opportunities to exercise in international organizations and overseas bases, talents with professionalism in public health, as well as foreign language skills, diplomatic skills, communication and coordination skills, and innovative and adaptive skills can be cultivated.

Finally, The NHC commented

您提出的建议很有针对性、操作性、可行性,我委将进一步认真研究,在制定相关政策文件时充分借鉴吸收。

“Your suggestions are very relevant, operational and feasible, and the Commission will further study them carefully and make full reference to them when formulating relevant policy documents.”

Comments like these are not common among the responses. To your host, this signals that the relevant ministry showed strong interest in the suggestion and is highly likely to induce policy change based on the suggestion.

This newsletter is penned by Yang Liu, founder of Beijing Channel