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March 24, 2016

China's Two Sessions: What lessons for Africa?

If China is Africa’s foremost economic and trading partner, why then is it that Africans know very little of political processes in China? The National People’s Congress (NPC) and Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), held annually at the Great Hall of People in Beijing, provides a window for Africans interested in China’s political modus operandi. The annual NPC and CPPCC conclaves were held last week. Because they are held concurrently, they have come to be colloquially referred to as the Two Sessions.

All African countries have legislative bodies referred to as parliaments. Some countries such as Kenya and Nigeria have bicameral legislatures: parliament (lower house) and senate (upper house). Others such as Uganda and Tanzania have unicameral legislatures: just parliament, no senate. The legislative set-up in African countries is largely a legacy of European colonialism such that they are modelled on the practice in the UK, France, Portugal and Spain. Over the years, African countries have tinkered with their legislative structures but always within the strictures of the colonial legislative superstructures.

Against the background of the variegated but largely parliamentary systems in Africa, the Chinese system is markedly different. The confusion for Africans may arise out of the seeming semblance of the NPC as equivalent to a parliament and the CPPCC as equivalent to a senate. China is a one-party system operating under the philosophy of "dictatorship of the proletariat" by the Communist Party of China (CPC). China is unique globally in that the superstructure of its political system remains socialist – nowadays referred to as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” – having survived the collapse of most socialist regimes from the late 1980s through the 1990s. Cuba is one other country that survived the so-called winds of change that accompanied the collapse of communism. I have also been alerted to the broad similarity of the Chinese legislative system to that of Indonesia where there is a chamber of people’s representatives and the people’s consultative assembly. While the African parliamentary systems borrow heavily from Western democracies, observers see the Chinese system as a mix of the former soviet-style communism and the Chinese imperial system undergirded by Confucianism.

Most African countries operate multiparty systems underpinned by unicameral and/or bicameral legislative structures. For this reason, it is difficult to draw parallels between the NPC and the CPPCC with the unicameral and bicameral legislative systems in Africa. It is indeed for these reasons that Chinese leaders have always called for respect for the political systems everywhere in the world. Even where the NPC is taken as the body that debates and passes laws just as African lower houses of parliament do, while the CPPCC is an advisory body parallel to senates or upper houses of parliament, the differences remain stark. Just as the kind of democracy practiced in Africa – as borrowed from the West – has its advantages and disadvantages, so does the Chinese system have its pros and cons.

Another distinction is that most African parliaments mainly comprise politicians with a smattering of interest groups while the NPC and CPPCC have a cross-section of society: Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials, provincial administrators, top businessmen, minority groups, representatives of overseas Chines, etc. The bottom-up consultation on legislation, coupled by the fact that many interests are involved, means that bills take time before being passed. This is contrary to the African situation where laws can be evolved fairly fast as they are presented by an individual and often requires a simple majority to pass.

Apart from legislation, the NPC is an important occasion for review of government programs and presentation of government proposals for the coming year. This is similar to African presidents, prime ministers and cabinet ministers being required to appear before parliaments for an appraisal of their work. But the difference again is that African government officials appear before parliament much more frequently than Chinese government officials by dint of the NPC session being an annual event.

What can African countries draw from the Chinese model?

No governance system is infallible and the same applies for the Chinese parliamentary system; indeed Chinese leaders often speak of ongoing reforms. However, African countries can learn a lot from the Chinese legislative system while retaining some aspects of their current set-ups.

Perhaps one of the major lessons that the Chinese legislative system can offer to Africa is that the NPC and the CPPCC have over the years firmly governed the vast territory that is China. Administratively, China has 23 provinces, four municipalities, five autonomous regions and two special administrative regions, Hong Kong and Macau. The African continent legislative equivalent to the NPC and CPPCC is the Pan African Parliament, an organ of the African Union. However, unlike its Chinese counterparts, it is a largely advisory and consultative institution. Much as Africa is a 54-nation continent and China is a single nation-state, what lessons can the Pan African parliament draw from the NPC and the CPPCC for long term pan-African unity?

While it may seem like a lowdown, the approach of one legislative session annually makes some sense in more respects than one. Foremost, remember that consultations on laws and policies are always ongoing at the lower rungs of the Chinese polity. Secondly, consider the efficiency and effectiveness of having one two- or three-week session to deliberate issues. Add on to this the fact that implementation for laws and policies is almost always assured and the advantages of a single annual national session become clear. To suggest scrapping of the numerous sessions that African parliaments convene annually would be anathema. African countries are steeped in the Westphalian parliamentary tradition – for good and for worse. However, how about scaling down the sessions and creating at least one major parliamentary session to assess the performance of governments and chart a way forward? And how about borrowing from the Chinese the bottom-up consultative approach in which laws enjoy broad consensus and therefore stand a higher chance of implementation? For, what is the value of passing hundreds of laws when the political will and/or requisite resources to implement them are in short supply?

Overall, the lesson one learns from the annual NPC and CPPCC sessions is that African political thinkers need to take time to understand the Chinese system if they are to fruitfully engage with their Chinese counterparts. It is largely agreed that Africa looks to the West for its political models while it has increasingly “looked East” in recent times in matters economic. Because of the inextricable link between politics and economics, a clearer understanding of the Chinese political system would better inform economic engagement.

Dr Wekesa is a postdoctoral fellow at University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

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