Overseas Chinese pay little attention to National People's Congress meetings

AP , BEIJING

Mon, Mar 08, 2004 - Page 5

Every spring, Chinese people are bombarded with the spectacle of the annual meeting of the National People's Congress (NPC), the country's legislature. But for the millions of Chinese outside China, the session elicits nothing more than a yawn.

"I don't think Chinese around the world know or care about the NPC meetings,'' said Perry Link, professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University in the US.

China exercises an ever-stronger pull for millions of ethnic Chinese across the globe as it changes. Expatriate Chinese-born people are venturing back to do business.

Foreign-born Chinese are reconnecting with their heritage, while the people in Taiwan and Singapore have sunk billions of US dollars into China, taking advantage of China's rapidly growing economy.

Still, for many of them, the NPC is nothing more than a charade of a real democracy that fails to give its people a voice.

"Without debate, what does the vote mean?" said Henry Zhao, a professor at London's School of Oriental and African Studies. Abroad for more than a decade, he monitors current events in his homeland closely but sees no reason to follow the NPC.

Inside China, the legislature, which convened Friday, dominates newspapers and television. But Zhao doesn't expect that he will see much coverage of the event in his local Chinese language newspapers.

"Chinese newspapers abroad (are) only for the local communities, mostly restaurateurs," Zhao said.

"They do not care about those things far away," Zhao said.

Singapore is the home to more than 3 million ethnic Chinese, many of whom think of China as "laojia," or "old home." But even there, the NPC fails to drum up much interest.

"Singaporeans do watch China closely,'' said Simon Tay, head of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs and a former appointed member of Singapore's Parliament.

"The workings and significance of the NPC are, however, not well known or appreciated by many," Tay said.

The ambivalence is understandable.

The NPC has been a showcase for the Communist Party's highly controlled and carefully staged version of participatory democracy. Handpicked delegates meet to hear and approve leaders' reports, with virtually no possibility of robust debate.

Some 2,904 delegates are meeting for 10 days of ceremonies, speeches and voting on laws and amendments already crafted by members of the Communist Party's ruling elite. Dissenting votes are rare.

Although important constitutional amendments covering foreign trade, human rights and private property will be endorsed next week, many predict business as usual.

"It looks to be a very routine, normal event this year, which I would find reassuring if I were an overseas Chinese with significant investment in China or participating in a business relationship," says Donald DeGlopper, head of research for the US Law Library of Congress.

However, legal experts and activists outside China are watching.

The scheduled insertion into the constitution of language on human rights could draw attention from overseas activists.

That makes it "of particular interest this year," said Jose Luis Diaz, a spokesman for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.

Henry Gao, a law professor at the University of Hong Kong, said scheduled amendments to China's 10-year-old Foreign Trade Law will be "closely watched" by select people in Hong Kong, which is still treated as a foreign territory in customs and trade despite its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997.

"It is still too early to predict whether the amendments will make the Chinese foreign trade regime more liberalized or restricted," Gao said.

"But it certainly shows that China has become more sophisticated in the international arena," Gao said.

But many abroad agree that anyone with a passion for the NPC is firmly in the minority, even when it comes to those actively participating in China's pursuit of profits.

"There may be a few [overseas Chinese] who follow the NPC," said Wang Gungwu, head of the East Asia Institute at the National University of Singapore.

"But I have not met any who believe that the meetings help them much in their business in China," Wang said.