Rebellion stirs within China's Great Hall

FThe annual meeting of the National People's Congress rarely deviates from its pre-scripted performance. But yesterday China's rubber-stamp parliament bounced back with an unusual demonstration of independent thought. In what should have been the routine confirmation of two new vice-prime ministers, well over one-third of the delegates voted against one of the nominations, while support for the other candidate was less than overwhelming.

The protest votes were not, of course, enough to block the planned appointments, which had been widely expected for weeks. But a wave of murmurs swept through the Great Hall of the People when the scoreboard lit up with the voting tally for Jiang Chunyun, who, as a vice- prime minister will take on the key task of overseeing agriculture in China.

Of the 2,752 delegates who had turned up for the session (which meant 59 had either overslept, gone shopping or were out doing business), a surprising 605 voted against Mr Jiang, 391 abstained, and 10 could not be bothered to operate one of their voting buttons. That left only 63 per cent voting in favour, rather a low level in a one-party state. Such defiance from the normally acquiescent NPC is embarrassing for the Prime Minister, Li Peng, who proposed the candidates, and President Jiang Zemin, whose position they were supposed to bolster.

The other nomination, of Wu Bangguo, received 2,366 votes in favour, or 86 per cent, 210 against and 161 abstentions. Fifteen delegates failed to vote. Mr Wu's portfolio will be industry and reform of state-owned enterprises. With the two new additions, there are now six vice-prime ministers.

Last September Mr Jiang and Mr Wu, both Politburo members, were promoted within the Communist Party to join the Central Committee's secretariat. Mr Jiang, 64, a former party boss of Shandong, is described in his official biography as "open-minded, honest, pragmatic, strict with himself, and lives a simple and frugal life". NPC delegates yesterday saw it differently, citing various reasons for the large vote against him: "he's too old"; "he has not held enough senior jobs"; and, "he has not solved certain problems in Shandong". These "problems" have included widespread corruption as foreign investment poured into the province's booming economy. Delegates also said he has little agricultural expertise.

Mr Wu, 53, like President Jiang a former Shanghai party boss, is part of the "Shanghai clique", a group of allies put in place by the President to shore up his position in the post-Deng Xiaoping era. Opposition to his appointment as vice-prime minister may have resulted from the disquiet at the disproportionate number of Shanghai officials now in power.

Diplomats said that the unprecedented level of opposition votes was an indication that the NPC could possibly develop into a more meaningful body under its chairman, Qiao Shi. Mr Qiao is expected to be a key figure in any struggle following the death of the ailing patriarch, Mr Deng.

The NPC first flexed its muscles in 1992, when about 200 deputies voted against the controversial Three Gorges dam project, and many more abstained or stayed away. Then in 1993, about 10 per cent of the deputies did not support Mr Li's re-election as Prime Minister. Another test for him will come today, when the NPC closes its annual session with a vote on his "work report" on the government. Many delegates have voiced dissatisfaction at his failure to offer specific measures to tackle the country's economic problems and corruption.

While the NPC's delegates may be learning to think for themselves, some other aspects of the congress, however, show no sign of changing. Yesterday a guard was placed by the large window on the main staircase up to the public gallery of the Great Hall of the People. His job was to leap up and sharply move on any passers-by, particularly foreign journalists, who showed signs of lingering by the window, perchance to glance down at the private courtyard where dozens of Mercedes-Benzes and Audis used by the senior leadership were parked.

The "foreign spies", it was explained, might take note of the number plates. Or perhaps wonder about the supposed crackdown on imported luxury cars.