RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
China's parliament has never enjoyed a great deal of respect, given it is more or less a rubber stamp. This year, as parliament convenes, it's being mockingly called Beijing Fashion Week. That's a reference to the luxury-brand clothes the delegates wear. Tales of parliamentary excess are gripping China's chat rooms and blog posts. NPR's Louisa Lim has the story.
LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: A leather belt from Hermes costing almost a thousand dollars - nearly a year's salary for the average Chinese farmer. A $2,000 bright-pink travel suit from Emilio Pucci, a red snakeskin Celine handbag costing $4,500. One eagle-eyed photo editor spotted delegates to China's legislative assembly wearing these costly accessories. It's the perfect illustration of China's yawning wealth gap. So she posted the pictures online, and they went viral. The editor, who asked that her name not be disclosed, told NPR why she'd taken this step.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Through translator) China doesn't really have a transparent and just system of supervision, such as publicizing officials' wealth. The most obvious and effective way of doing this is seeing what they're wearing, especially luxury items, which are not necessities.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Foreign language spoken)
LIM: The truth is that delegates to the National People's Congress, or NPC, include some of the richest people in the country. It stems from the decision 10 years ago to allow capitalists into the Communist Party.
RUPERT HOOGEWERF: We did a report the other day which showed that the top 70 NPC delegates are probably richer than the entire U.S. Congress, which is rather ironic, considering that China's a developing country and the U.S. is the most developed country in the world.
LIM: That's Rupert Hoogewerf, who draws up the Hurun List of the 1,000 richest Chinese. In fact, the wealthiest 70 delegates are worth $89 billion. According to Bloomberg News, that's 11 times the net worth of the entire U.S. Congress, plus the president, his Cabinet and the Supreme Court. So how did this happen? Rupert Hoogewerf again.
HOOGEWERF: It's very much a chicken-and-egg scenario. I mean, is it because they're rich that they've become powerful, or is it because they're powerful that they've become rich? The general consensus is that it tends to be that they've been successful individuals in their business world, and that therefore they've been co-opted into the top political advisory boards.
(SOUNDBITE OF CROWD CHATTER)
LIM: The corridors of the Great Hall of the People throb with a heavy mix of power and wealth. Hoogewerf's research found 152 of the richest 1,000 Chinese hold political office. Their wealth amounts to 44 percent of the richness wealth. All this adds to the criticism that the NPC has become a rich man's club. Denying that is National People's Congress delegate Cao Zhaoyang from Aeolus, a company that makes car tires.
CAO ZHAOYANG: (Through translator) My company has 3,000 workers, and I have dealings with them every day, so I need to know what they're thinking. I also need to know what the bosses think and what the state thinks. So we as a class have our advantages, but it's an exaggeration to call it a rich man's club.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #1: (Singing in foreign language)
LIM: One wonders what Chairman Mao would have made of all this. He also founded the advisory body, the CPPCC. This is their song, recorded two years ago by famous delegates. And the CPPCC is even more wealthy than the legislative body. Huang Shaoliang is a real estate tycoon and the 797th richest person in China. He defends his right to be a delegate.
HUANG SHAOLIANG: (Through translator) I don't think it's true that the body doesn't represent disadvantaged groups. It's the opposite. It's more representative. We dare to speak more and speak the truth.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN #2: (Singing in foreign language)
LIM: But netizens don't agree. This satirical song mocks the powerful and wealthy delegates for singing happy songs and suggesting proposals that don't go anywhere. For all the power and wealth co-opted into China's congresses, it's a common belief they're simply rubber stamps for government policy. Or, as the song's lyrics have it, the wealthy delegates sing songs of praise and lie about the future. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.
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