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Token vote unnerves China's old guard

China's National People's Congress closed its annual session at the weekend with many delegates refusing to toe the party line over new legislation. But the atmosphere of greater candour was not embraced by the country's Prime Minister, Li Peng. In contrast to previous years, Mr Li decided it would be far too risky to face the world's press at the end of the congress without first pre-scripting the questions - all four of them.

The final two days of this year's Congress witnessed unprecedented opposition by delegates to proposed government appointments and important new laws. On Saturday, the Central Bank Law (which had taken 16 years to draft) was passed with the support of only 66 per cent of deputies, the lowest level on record for a piece of government-sponsored legislation. Of the 2,678 deputies present, 1,781 voted in favour, 509 voted against, 360 abstained and 28 did not vote. China's first Education Law also encountered significant opposition, with only 74 per cent of delegates in favour.

Such major bills are normally passed with near-unanimous support. The votes were a further loss of face for the top leadership after Friday's show of independent thought when 36 per cent of delegates voted against or abstained in the election of Jiang Chunyun as one of two new vice-prime ministers.

Mr Li, speaking after the votes, tried to put a favourable gloss on the outcome. "Deputies ... offered some criticisms and suggestions," he admitted. "Therefore I believe this session is a fully democratic meeting."

The dissident student leader Wang Dan saw things differently, saying: "We cannot say the votes signify major progress in China's democracy because there was no choice, with only two vice-premiers nominated for two posts."

Western diplomats welcomed the new signs of assertiveness by delegates but cautioned against suggestions that the Congress might soon throw off its image as a rubber-stamp body. "Some delegates are willing to rock the boat; but they too are party bureaucrats, and are not going to risk letting any water in," said one analyst. A more emphatic show of opposition would have been to vote against Mr Li's annual report on the government's work, but in the event this was approved with 97 per cent support.

The past fortnight of meetings had, however, seen delegates engage in a frank debate about the economic and social problems facing China. "They are using the votes to articulate a wider dissatisfaction with the government's handling of certain issues," the diplomat added.

When asked, dissenting delegates had specific reasons for their "no" votes. The Central Bank Law was criticised for not giving enough independence to the People's Bank of China. The Education Law did not commit the government to a minimum level of spending. And Jiang Chunyun's career as the party boss of Shandong province failed to inspire confidence that he was qualified to assume the agriculture portfolio at a time of mounting concern about grain shortages and rural discontent.

For President Jiang Zemin, this year's congress is far from a resounding vote of confidence in his position as the "core" of the new leadership which is supposed to have assumed the reins of power from 90-year-old Deng Xiaoping. The President has succeeded in installing two of his allies as deputy prime ministers, but at the price of discovering that many delegates objected to his choice of candidates.

As for Li Peng, it was back to the bad old ways of centrally planned press conferences on Saturday after the congress closed. This is the Prime Minister's annual opportunity to pit his wits against a roomful of foreign journalists. This year, in marked contrast, the spirit of reform deserted Mr Li. Four reporters - a Japanese, Taiwanese, an American and a mainland Chinese - had been selected to ask agreed questions, to which Mr Li offered bland answers. Only the US correspondent ventured an inquiry about the large number of delegates who had not supported Jiang Chunyun. Mr Li sidestepped the question, saying only that the voting met legal requirements and that Mr Jiang and Wu Bangguo, the other new vice-premier, would both enjoy the full support of the Communist Party and the government. The evening television news subsequently edited out this question.