Different congress, different picture

March 20, 2013

Beijing, China

By Kim Kyung-hoon

In China, where the Constitution says “All power in the People’s Republic of China belongs to the People”, the National People’s Congress (NPC) is one of the most important political events in the country.

Over 2,000 various delegates including political leaders, military generals, CEOs, celebrities and even Tibetan monks gathered in the Great Hall of the People to represent their districts and discuss how to shape the future of 1.35 billion Chinese people. In theory, the NPC is the great lawmaking power in China and plays a similar role to the parliaments of its neighboring countries, Japan and South Korea, where I have worked as a Reuters photographer for the last 11 years.

Instead what I saw at this year’s two-week-long NPC in China was very different from what I witnessed in the neighboring countries, even though these three North Asian countries have been closely connected geographically, historically, economically and culturally for thousands of years.

In South Korea and Japan, demonstrators speak out with flashy banners and loudspeakers around the Parliament building. What you will encounter around the NPC is not people speaking out but instead the watchful eyes of hundreds of security officers and surveillance cameras gazing upon you on full alert.

Even though this congress is held for the people, access by ordinary people to the fortress-like venue is strictly controlled. Under heightened security carried out by paramilitary police, SWAT teams, plain-clothed police and surveillance cameras, it is clearly out of the question to hold even a small-sized rally. Inside the venue is no different from the outside. Countless security officers in the same black suits and short hairstyle stand guard like motionless robots and are seen throughout the hall.

But even though this Chinese political event is under tight control, it is not visually low-key at all. Compared to Parliament in either South Korea or Japan, where it is full of grim old men in dark-colored suits, China’s NPC buzzes with activity and color. Upon the arrival of thousands of delegates every morning, the hall sizzles with media chasing celebrity delegates such as Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan, former NBA star Yao Ming and ethnic minority delegates dressed in their colorful traditional costumes.

Even though there are no actresses in revealing low-cut dresses, the atmosphere of the event is like a red-carpet for a movie premiere. The media are not the only ones busy shooting pictures. Delegates and staff of the event are also busy recording their rare visit to the forbidden place with their own cameras. Luxurious marble walls, red carpets with beautiful flower patterns and magnificent artwork on the walls provide a good background for rare souvenir pictures which will be used as evidence of glorious attendance at the NPC.

Another scene you will encounter in the hall is people who have fallen asleep while their political leaders deliver long-winded speeches. After all, this congress is often described as a powerless rubber-stamp legislature existing only to ratify decisions that have already been made by the Communist Party of China.

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