Despite all the negative publicity that more often than not engulfs China, every once in a while something happens that makes one think that perhaps the country is on the right path after all and that its leaders know what they are doing, despite all the country’s problems.
One such event was the recent session of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress–the country’s legislature. At this session, which closed on Sunday, it was announced that next month for the first time public hearings will be held on a proposal to amend the law on personal income tax. The same session also decided to outlaw sexual harassment.
These two steps will move China closer to the developed world in terms of legislative procedures and human rights.
Of course, legislative hearings are a novelty for China and much time will be needed for them to develop. But the fact that the government has decided to hold them indicates recognition of the need for the public to play a role in the enactment of laws. Also, while the sexual harassment law is vague, it is clearly another step forward in safeguarding the rights of women.
Only a few days previously, China issued a white paper on gender equality and women’s development to mark the 10th anniversary of the United Nations conference on women held in Beijing in 1995.
Although the term “sexual harassment” has now been introduced into Chinese law, it is not defined and so exactly what is and is not forbidden remains to be seen. However, the law is more specific where schools are concerned. It prohibits schools from rejecting students on the basis of sex and from raising admission standards for girls.
While the legislative hearing scheduled for September 27 will be the first of its kind at the national level, provincial-level legislatures have been holding such hearings for some time.
One of the first was held six years ago in Guangzhou, in September 1999, when the provincial people’s congress held a hearing at which members of the public were able to voice their views on proposed changes to the law governing tendering for building projects. Guangdong in 1993 became the first province to introduce laws on tendering.
The entire three-and-a-half-hour hearing was broadcast live on radio in Guangzhou. Moreover, foreign diplomats and media were allowed to observe the proceedings. It remains to be seen whether the hearings next month in Beijing will be open to foreign observers, and whether they would be broadcast–or perhaps even televised–live.
The hearing will be on a government proposal to raise the threshold for income tax. Currently, it is at 800 yuan (USD98) a month. The proposal is to raise it to 1,500 yuan (USD185). This means that people earning more than 800 yuan but under 1,500 will no longer have to pay tax.
According to the official Xinhua news agency, four categories of people will be invited to attend the hearing. These include officials from the Ministry of Finance and other government organisations, wage earners, trade union representatives and officials from poorer provinces. The last category is being included because poor provinces may find their revenue significantly reduced from such a change in the tax law.
Even though they are being invited to give their views, it seems unlikely that the government will backtrack now that they have announced their intention to change the law. If poorer provinces will be negatively impacted, the solution will be for the central government to provide assistance to them, redistributing resources to make for a more equitable society, rather than not provide relief for wage earners nationwide.
The standing committee also adopted a law on public order that is aimed at maintaining social stability and curbing police abuse. The bill, which comes into effect in March, provides for penalties for those who instigate and organise unauthorised public assemblies and demonstrations–something that is becoming increasingly common. Moreover, one section, which may well be directed at practitioners of Falun Gong–already outlawed as an “evil cult”–provides that those who affect social stability in the name of religion or practicing qigong breathing exercises can be detained for up to 15 days and fined a maximum of 1,000 yuan (USD123.30).
All in all, however, the batch of laws passed or proposed seem positive and should turn China into a more livable and acceptable society.
By Frank Ching
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