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
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.
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.
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.
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:
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,
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:
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:
Lü 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
suggestions 1086, 1716, 3551, 4135, 7476, 8046 argued for completely lifting all restrictions on the number of children a family’s allowed.
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.
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?
As an overarching principle, the NHC stated that
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”.
As the reason for low birth rates, the NHC said in response to suggestion 9839 that
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.
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
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
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
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:
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.
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
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
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
“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.