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Agents and Remonstrators: Role Accumulation by Chinese People's Congress Deputies*

  • Kevin J. O'Brien


In the past, the loyalty most Chinese people's congress deputies felt toward the state completely overwhelmed their sense of responsibility to constituents. Deputies in the Maoist era faced simple and clear expectations to represent the regime to the people and often devastating sanctions if they did not. Ambiguities were few and deputies had limited opportunities to define their own role or to expand their constituency focus. More recently, however, evolving expectations, rapid societal change and institutional reforms have transformed the duties of “people's representatives” and have created deputy identities that are increasingly multi-layered and fraught with contradictions. Deputies now have unprecedented opportunities to improvise on conventional scripts and some have taken on new roles: roles that clash with their traditional responsibilities, and that appear very difficult to reconcile.



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1. In one recent year the National People's Congress alone responded to more than 80,000 letters from the public and received thousands of personal visits. They also handled 105 “unjust, false and wrong cases” and 131 instances of illegal activities. Wu Naitao, “NPC: the supreme power of the people,” Beijing Review, 3–9 September 1990, p. 21; I received similar figures from interviewee no. 4.

2. Early discussions of role conflict can be found in Parsons, Talcott, The Social System (New York: The Free Press, 1951), and Merton, Robert K., “The role-set: problems in sociological theory,” British Journal of Sociology, Vol. 8 (1957), pp. 106120. Useful reviews of the I evolution of role theory and empirical findings include Biddle, B. J., “Recent developments I in role theory,” Annual Review of Sociology, Vol. 12(1986), pp. 6792; Heiss, Jerold, “Social roles,” in Rosenberg, Morris and Turner, Ralph H. (eds.), Social Psychology (New York: Basic Books, 1981), pp. 94129; Stryker, Sheldon and Statham, Anne, “Symbolic interaction and role theory,” in Lindzey, Gardner and Aronson, Elliot (eds.), Handbook of Social Psychology, Vol. 1 (New York: Random House, 1985) (3rd ed.), pp. 311373; Biddle, Bruce J., Role Theory: Expectations, Identities, and Behaviors (New York: Academic Press, 1979).

3. For the original statement of this position, see Goode, William J., “A theory of role strain,” American Sociological Review Vol 25 (August 1960) pp 483496; See also Biddle, Role American Review, Vol. 25 (August 1960), pp. 483496; See also Biddle, Role Theory: Expectations, Identities, and Behaviors, p. 197; Stryker and Statham, “Symbolic interaction and role theory,” pp. 336–39.

4. Sieber, Sam D., “Toward a theory of role accumulation,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 39 (August 1974), pp. 567578.Thoits, Peggy A., “Multiple identities and psychological well-being: a reformulation and test of the social isolation hypothesis,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 48 (April 1983), pp. 174187.Miles, Robert H., “Role-set configuration as a predictor of role conflict and ambiguity in complex organizations,” Sociometry, Vol. 40 (1977), pp. 2134.Marks, Stephen R., “Multiple roles and role strain: some notes on human energy, time, and commitment,” American Sociological Review, Vol. 42 (December 1977), pp. 921936.

5. Baoxu, Zhao and Zhilun, Wu (eds.), Minzhu zhengzhi yu difang renda (Democratic Politics and Local People's Congresses) (Xi'an: Shaanxi chubanshe, 1990).

6. The classic example of this approach is Fenno, Richard F. Jr., Home Style (Boston: Little Brown, 1978). For an illuminating treatment of structural, motivational and interactional approaches to politicians’ roles, see Searing, Donald D., “Roles, rules, and rationality in the new institutionalism,” American Political Science Review, Vol. 85 (December 1991), pp. 1239–260.

7. Searing, “Roles, rules and rationality,“ pp. 1246–48.

8. The image of “tethering” is borrowed from ibid. p. 1253. The notion of reasoned roles is developed in Hollis, Martin and Smith, Steve, “Roles and reasons in foreign policy decision making,” British Journal of Political Science, Vol. 16 (July 1986), p. 283.

9. According to an NPC publication, the number of deputies nation-wide was reduced from about six million to four million in the late 1980s. Zimu, Wang, “Wanshan xianqu xuanju de ruogan wenti tansuo” (“Exploring certain issues in perfecting district and county elections”), in Renda Changweihui Bangongting Yanjiu Shi, Quanguo (ed.), Lun woguo renmin daibiao dahui zhidu jianshe (On Construction of our Country's People's Congress System) (Beijing: Zhongguo minzhu fazhi chubanshe, 1990), pp. 179180. To this point, township congresses are essentially yearly meetings without permanent staff or an institutional leadership core. With one exception, deputies to township congresses were not included in this study.

10. Recent case studies and my interviews suggest that electoral units generally adhere to the prescribed ratio of candidates to positions, though they also commonly cull preliminary nominees (in a tightly-controlled process) to precisely the minimum number of final candidates required by law. See Jacobs, Bruce J., “Elections in China,” The Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, No. 25 (January 1991), pp. 171200. For provincial reports on the extent of NPC electoral competition, see O'brien, Kevin J., Reform Without Liberalization: China's National People's Congress and the Politics of Institutional Change (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), p. 127, n. 21.

11. Useful sources on districting include Datong, Xu and Zhao, Li, “Shilun xuanqu huafen de zuoyong” (“Discussion of the role of dividing up electoral districts”), Tianjin Shelian Xuekan, No. 10 (1986), pp. 2028; Chongde, Xu, Renmin daibiao bibei (Essentials for People's Deputies) (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1987); Jacobs, “Elections in China,” pp. 171–200; Wang Zimu, “Wanshan xianqu xuanju de ruogan wenti tansuo,” pp. 183–193.

12. On nominating procedures, see Jiang Fukun, “Gaige he wanshan minzhu xuanju zhidu” (“Reform and improve the democratic electoral system”), Lilun neican. No. 9 (1989), pp. 10–11; Jiang Fukun, “Yingdang quxiao dui renmin daibiao de zhengzhi shencha” (“We should abolish political examination of people's deputies“), Lilun neican, No. 8 (1986), p. 9; Wang Zimu, “Wanshan xianqu xuanju de ruogan wenti tansuo,“ pp. 184–190; Xu Zhifu, ballot,” Beijing Review, 25–31 March 1991, pp. 26–27; Jacobs, “Elections in China,” pp. 178–193.

13. Yu Keping and Wang Fuchun, “Beijingshi Haidian qu, Dongchengqu renda daibiao suzhi wenti de chouyang fenxi” (“Beijing’ s Haidian and Dongcheng districts sampled analysis of issues in people's deputy quality”), p. 206; Bao Yu'e, Pang Shaotang and Sun Yezhong, “Guanyu Nanjingshi renmin daibiao dahui de diaocha” (“Investigation of the Nanjing city people's congress”), p. 109; Xu Datong and Wu Chunhua, “Guanyu Tianjin quxianji renda daibiao qingkuang de diaocha yanjiu baogao” (“Research report on district and county level people's congresses in Tianjin”), p. 218; Ji Yu, “Guanyu difang renda daibiao suzhi de diaocha yu yanjiu” (“Investigation and research on local people's congress deputies’ quality”), pp. 244–45. All the above are chapters in Zhao Baoxu and Wu Zhilun, Minzhu zhengzhi yu difang renda. Similar figures were also reported in interviews 18 and 24.

14. Interview 24; Ji Yu, “Guanyu difang renda daibiao suzhi de diaocha yu yanjiu,” pp. 244–45; “Bufen jiceng Mian tichu yaoqiu he jianyi, xianxiang renda huanjie xuanju yao zhongshi funü” (“Grassroots branches of the women's federation raises demands and proposals, county and township people's congress elections must pay attention to women”), Renmin ribao, 16 February 1990, p. 3.

15. On criteria for deputy selection, see O'brien, Kevin J. and Li, Lianjiang, “Chinese political reform and the question of ‘deputy quality’,” China Information, Vol. 8 (winter 1993–94), pp. 2031; Zhen, Peng, Lun xin shiqi de shehuizhuyi minzhu yu fazhi jianshe (On Socialist Democracy and Legal Development in the New Period) (Beijing: Zhongyang wenxian chubanshe, 1989), p. 236; Qingpei, Fu and Shaohua, Lu, “Shilun renmin daibiao de suzhi,” (“On people's deputy quality”), Kexue shehuizhuyi cankao ziliao, Nos. 19–20 (1987), pp. 3740; Xu Datong and Li Zhao, “Shilun xuanqu huafen de zuoyong,” pp. 20–28; Fukun, Jiang, “Ying ba tigao renmin daibiao canzheng nengli fangzai shouwei” (“We should improve deputy ability to participate in politics before everything else”), Lilun neican, No. 9 (1987), pp. 1617.

16. For a typical list of expectations, see Xu Chongde, Renmin daibiao bibei, pp. 33–34.

17. These characterizations are recounted in Xiufeng, Gao, “Kan Tongliaoshi renda changweihui ruhe shuli ziji de quanwei” (“Viewing how the Tongliaoshi people's congress standing committee has established its authority”), Zhongguofazhibao, 9 October 1986, p. 1; Jialin, Wu, “Zhengzhi tizhi gaige chutan” (“An exploration of political structural reform”), Ningxia shehui kexue, No. 5 (1986), p. 6; Zonghou, Zhang, “Quanli zhi yuelun” (“On the system of power”), Faxue, No. 10 (1986), p. 2; Suzhou Daxue Zhengzhixi Keti Zu, “Difang renda xianzhuang guji ji gaige de jiben silu” (“An assessment of the current situation and fundamental thinking behind local people's congress reform”), in Zhao Baoxu and Wu Zhilun, Minzhu zhengzhi yu difang renda, p. 7.

18. On the proportion of deputies that speak during plenary sessions, see Wuhanshi Renda Changweihui Yanjiushi, “Nuli jianshe you quanwei de difang guojia quanli jiguan” (“Work hard to establish a local power organ with authority”), in ibid. pp. 134–35. On representing, see Suzhou, “Difang renda xianzhuang guji ji gaige de jiben silu,” pp. 14–15. On submitting motions, consult Xu Zhifu, “Renda daibiao zai minzhu zhengzhi jianshe zhong de zuoyong,” pp. 188–190; Wuhanshi, p. 115. All these are in Zhao Baoxu and Wu Zhilun, Minzhu zhengzhi yu difang renda.

19. Liang Yukai, Liu Yuelun and Li Zhaoxin, “Guanyu, jinyibu gaishan xian renda changweihui de zhineng zuoyong he zuzhi jianshe de yanjiu baogao” (“Research report on further improving the functions, role and organizational construction of county people's congress standing committees”), in ibid. p. 156.

20. Xichuan, Du, “Renda daibiao ying daibiao shei de liyi?” (“Whose interests should people's deputies represent?”), Faxuezazhi, No. 1 (1989), pp. 1920; See also Youyu, Zhang, “Lun renmin daibiao dahui daibiao de renwu, zhiquan he huodong fangshi wenti” (“On the tasks, powers, functions, and activities of people's congress deputies”) Faxue yanjiu, No. 2 (1985), pp. 28. Zhang is a prominent legal scholar and vice-chairman of the NPC Standing Committee.

21. Townsend, James R., Political Participation in Communist China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967); O'Brien, Reform Without Liberalization, pp. 84–87,172–75; Pravda, Alex, “Election in Communist Party states,” in White, Stephen and Nelson, Daniel (eds.), Communist Politics – A Reader (New York: New York University Press, 1986), pp. 2754.

22. In Political Reform in Post-Mao China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1990), p. 149, Barren McCormick has noted that deputies infrequently raise universalistic demands and instead focus on what would be considered casework in liberal democratic legislatures.

23. Examples of extraordinary diligence in voicing mass complaints are reported in Wei, Huang, “The goals of a people's deputy,” Beijing Review, 25–31 March 1991, pp. 3132.

24. Ibid. p. 31.

25. Not replacing the government and judiciary is a recurring theme in the collected speeches of former NPCSC chairman, Peng Zhen, Lun xin shiqi de shehui zhuyi minzhu yu fazhi jianshe, passim. See also, Zhang Youyu, “Lun renmin daibiao dahui daibiao de renwu, zhiquan he huodong fangshi wenti,” pp. 5–6.

26. Jiao Shiying, “Shilun difang renda quanli jizhi gongneng de gaishan” (“Discussing improving local people's congress power system functions”), in Zhao Baoxu and Wu Zhilun, Minzhu zhengthi yu difang renda, p. 316.

27. This warning is drawn from Hucker, Charles O., The Censorial System of Ming China (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1966), pp. 4, 287.

28. On Qing dynasty qingyi, see Rankin, Mary Backus, “‘Public opinion’ and political power: qingyi in late nineteenth century China,” Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 41 (May 1982), p. 476. On post-Mao remonstrators and their orientation to the state, see Nathan, Andrew J., Chinese Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1985), pp. 2426.

29. In a related argument, Nathan, Andrew, China's Crisis (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 183, discusses the “moderate remonstrative tradition of Chinese democracy” and explains that the failure of the leadership to acknowledge students’ petitions following Hu Yaobang's death violated ritual and demonstrated arrogance.

30. Zhang Youyu, “Lun renmin daibiao dahui daibiao de renwu, zhiquan he huodong fangshi wenti,” pp. 5–6.

31. A journalist from a Hong Kong publication who had interviewed many deputies also told me mat deputies at higher levels value their position because it enhances their local status and confers a right to attend conferences and make speeches in their home provinces and cities.

32. Deputies are often criticized for acting as if they are “special citizens” and using their position and legal immunity for private gain. See Zhang Youyu, “Lun renmin daibiao dahui daibiao de renwu, zhiquan he huodong fangshi wenti,” p. 2.

33. See Hollis and Smith, “Roles and reason in foreign policy decision making,” pp. 275–76; Stryker and Statham, “Symbolic interaction and role theory,” pp. 337–349.

* Generous support from the Ohio State University Office of Research and Graduate Studies, the American Philosophical Society, the Committee on Scholarly Communications with the People's Republic of China, the U.S. Information Agency and the U.S. Department of Education (Fulbright-Hays Grant PO19A00003) made this research possible. For perceptive comments on an earlier draft, I would like to thank Lianjiang Li, Bill Liddle, Tony Mughan, Dorothy Solinger and Pat Patterson. Essential assistance in the field was provided by many Chinese friends and colleagues, including Ye Xingping, Tan Junjiu, Zhu Guanglei, Wang Shengming, Che Mingzhou and Meng Xin.

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Agents and Remonstrators: Role Accumulation by Chinese People's Congress Deputies*

  • Kevin J. O'Brien


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