Why Seats of Rubber-Stamp Parliament So Hot among China’s New Rich

National People’s Congress deputies at its annual session in Beijing in March. Photo: Reuters

National People’s Congress deputies at its annual session in Beijing in March. Photo: Reuters

I am really puzzled by the discovery of the election fraud in China’s Liaoning Province, resulting in “the expulsion last month of 45 of the province’s 102 National People’s Congress (NPC) deputies and 454 of the 612 members of the provincial people’s congress,” says SCMP in its report yesterday titled “Million-yuan bribes and money-back guarantees … how Chinese lawmakers bought their seats”.

According to the report, the cash bribe each rich executive paid targeted electors for a vote ranged 500 to 5,000 yuan (US$80-800). As usually a candidate elected got above 90% of the votes. A candidate had to pay $40,000 to $400,000 bribes to be elected. That was quite a lot of money.

However, it was a small amount compared with the tens of millions of yuan (equivalent to millions of dollars) one had to pay a powerful broker who usually was a political heavyweight such as the head of the regional legislature, to be selected as a candidate and ensure to be elected.

What benefit will he get in return? SCMP says in another report on the scandal titled “Behind the NPC vote-buying scandal: how Beijing went on the warpath after its preferred candidates lost” yesterday that the status as a national parliament member will make it more difficult to launch investigations into the member’s affairs.

The status of an NPC deputy is not high as there are nearly three thousand such deputies. Even minister-level officials cannot avoid investigations, how can the status of a common NPC deputy be a significant obstacle!

The report says that the status enables the rich man to file legislative proposals and gain direct access to local officials to further his business interests. The proposal by one of the nearly 3,000 deputies can hardly attract attention, let alone be adopted. As for direct access to local officials to further one’s business interests, using the funds for election fraud to bribe relevant officials may be much more effective.

Then why pay so much for so little return?

It’s political investment. Rich people do not have lots of opportunities to invest the large amount of wealth they have accumulated. Expansion of their enterprises is limited by the size of their market. China’s stock market fluctuates wildly and is therefore risky for investment. Residential housing units are good value as their prices have kept rising over the past decades, but the land of the units is leased by the State for a limited duration, usually 50 years. What if the State imposes harsh terms for renewal of the lease or simply refuse renewal after expiration of the lease?

Buying parliamentary seats is an alternative investment without risk. If one has been elected and has performed his obligations well after being elected, there is great chance for him to be re-elected. If he keeps on performing as a satisfactory NPC deputy and taking care of local interests, his family may become popular in his constituency. Rich people have no political status now in their respective constituency, but if they have kept working satisfactorily as members of local parliaments or NPC deputies, they will gradually gain the status of local gentry.

The large number of rich businessmen buying parliamentary seats at the same time proves Chinese businessmen’s shrewdness as well as political awareness. They are in fact creating a business lobby in Chinese parliament to promote their interests, i.e. they are unconsciously forming an interested group.

SCMP says in its report “Behind the NPC vote-buying scandal: how Beijing went on the warpath after its preferred candidates lost” on October 4 that the election fraud caused the failure of party’s preferred candidates in the election so that it “alarmed the party leadership” and “threatened to undermine party general secretary Xi Jinping’s game plan for the party’s national congress late next year, at which a significant reshuffle of senior positions is expected.”

That must be exaggeration. Most of the candidates are usually nominated by local authorities while only a few of the candidates are Central authority’s choice. The bribes may not be substantial enough to cause those chosen by Central authority to lose in the election. Local officials at least have the common sense that such election failure may upset Central authority and give rise to serious trouble.

China now is not ruled by Hu Jintao, a weak leader that local official such as Bo Xilai dared to challenge. China is now ruled by a strongman Xi Jinping who closed all the illegal jails set up by local officials in Beijing a little over 2 weeks after he took over and released all the thousands prisoners from the jails. By so doing, he dealt a heavy blow at powerful local officials.

A few months later, he launched a national mass line education campaign in which he made local officials from the highest to the lowest rankings to conduct public self-criticism and be criticized by common people. At the same time, he sent investigation teams everywhere to find local officials’ irregularities. That was quite an ordeal for local officials. After one year of the campaign, no one dare to challenge his authority

The success of the campaign has enabled him to investigate and punish high-ranking corrupt officials.

Xi has established a sound power base now and need not worry that his game plan may be undermined.

Comment by Chan Kai Yee on SCMP’s reports, full text of which can be found respectively at http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2024933/million-yuan-bribes-and-money-back-guarantees-how and http://www.scmp.com/news/china/policies-politics/article/2024604/behind-npc-vote-buying-scandal-how-beijing-went-warpath