I’d seen pictures of the Great Hall of the People, of course. But no picture can measure up to entering the massive building for the first time, walking into that cavernous space and taking in the atmosphere. It’s a powerful thing, to stand where so many vital decisions and votes have taken place. All due respect to my home state of Texas and its pink granite capitol building, but I’m afraid China has it beat.
And this was no ordinary tour. My inaugural trip to the hall came on the opening day of this year’s National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature and the highest organ of state power. I was there to hear Premier Li Keqiang deliver the Report on the Work of the Government over the past year on behalf of the State Council. As I watched NPC deputies take their seats, I was struck by the tenor of the occasion — this was the first national legislative meeting since the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China — an important juncture that will determine the future of the country.
The work report reflected this period’s pivotal nature. At the cusp of what President Xi Jinping has called the “new era“ for Chinese socialism, Premier Li made firm pronouncements on what the government has done and will do in the coming year. Along with the announced GDP growth target of 6.5 percent, the report included continued commitments to high-quality growth, economic modernization and “three critical battles“: forestalling and curbing risk, ending extreme poverty and reducing pollution.
Li backed these statements of intent with more than words; he pointed to real-world results. With 68 million people lifted out of poverty since 2013, income growth constantly outpacing economic growth, an eye-poppingly low unemployment rate and higher levels of infrastructure spending than anywhere else on the planet, there has already been a great deal of success on these fronts. I personally experienced what were by all accounts the clearest winter skies Beijing has seen in years. The information in the report was, in essence, the supremely confident answer to a paramount question facing all governments: “Do you walk the walk, or merely talk the talk?“
While listening to the work report, I occasionally ventured from my seat in the gallery and looked over the first floor, where the 2,980 NPC deputies sat. I saw representatives from all walks of life — according to demographic data, they come from diverse backgrounds. Farmers, workers and technical personnel have the same status as government officials at the two sessions; all are deputies, each with one vote. I saw members of ethnic minority groups in traditional costumes and people who’d traveled hundreds of miles to attend. In that one enormous room, I saw all of China.
And before the report was read, I stood with the rest of the chamber as the national anthem played. I am, of course, not Chinese. But as the music swelled and thousands of voices rose in unison, I couldn’t help but be moved by the gravity of the moment. This spirit of consensus continued through the opening plenary, as deputies made clear their approval for the report through applause and engaged in friendly conversation before and after the meeting. Disagreements no doubt exist within such a large and sundry group, but at its core this is an assembly unified on a mission of sustained national development, able to resolve differences amicably and ready to take on the vital responsibility it has been given by its electoral units.
Such a culture of common purpose is altogether alien compared with my time on the sidelines of United States politicking. Where was the factionalism? Where was the partisan rancor? Legislation in my home country is characterized by bickering and obstruction, most recently observed with multiple instances of government funding gaps. Such gaps can lead to total shutdowns, as was the case for a few days in January. With such incidents growing all too common, is there a better word for the state of affairs there than “dysfunction“? I have my doubts.
Expectations will continue to run high among the Chinese people for an improved standard of living, and the difficulties the CPC and government face in meeting those expectations are the greatest any country has ever known. Ensuring prosperity for nearly a billion and a half people is a governance challenge I could never hope to understand. Yet the mood everywhere I’ve gone is optimistic. It would be foolish to deny there are problems in China — no place is perfect, after all. But people here acknowledge those problems while understanding they take time to fix. And, perhaps most importantly, they believe their government will do so. With the accomplishments over the last five years, and in the nearly 70 since the PRC was founded, that belief is well-placed.
It’s hard not to contrast that with life in the US — where everyone knows what the problems are, has been dealing with them for decades and has no faith their government can or will do anything to help. Back home, my heart broke every time I spoke to people unable to afford basic necessities like housing or health care, and it only got worse when I asked officials what their solutions were. Across the board, the answers were the same: variations on “nothing we can do“.
With the Party and government’s unwavering determination to uplift the people and provide Chinese citizens with a better life, I’d be surprised to learn anyone here has “nothing we can do“ in their vocabulary.