Congress protests at China's rising crime

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China's normally compliant parliament yesterday barked back, emboldened by widespread public dissatisfaction with crime and corruption. Delegates to the National People's Congress (NPC) registered their biggest ever protest vote when 40 per cent did not support the annual report of China's top prosecutor, Zhang Siqing, who just days earlier had promised "to get to the bottom" of cases involving any corrupt officials.

When the result was displayed on the electronic screen in the Great Hall of the People a wave of murmuring swept through the 2,720 delegates as they read the voting figures.

The unprecedented show of displeasure at the government's inability to tackle rising crime and corruption was also evident in the vote on the annual work report from the president of the Supreme People's Court, Ren Jianxin, with one-third of delegates withholding their support. As China embarks on the post-Deng Xiaoping era, crime and corruption often top surveys of public complaints.

The NPC delegates vote by pressing buttons which give them a choice of voting for, against or abstaining; a number prefer to show their reluctance by not pressing any button at all. It is widely assumed that the government has the power to determine how any delegate voted on any particular vote. In yesterday's vote on the Supreme People's Procuratorate report, 1,621 were in favour, 675 against, 390 abstained, and 34 did not vote at all.

Western human rights campaigners might not be comfortable with the sentiments behind yesterday's anti-crime votes. Since April last year, China has been in the grip of the "Strike Hard" anti-crime campaign, which saw a 17 per cent increase in arrests, worryingly swift convictions, and an unknown number of executions. Yet, many NPC delegates this year argued in favour of tougher penalties and a wider use of capital punishment, and were disappointed not to succeed.