Page last updated at 10:56 GMT, Wednesday, 4 March 2009

Chinese delegate has 'no power'

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Beijing

Migrant worker and NPC representative Hu Xiaoyan
Hu Xiaoyan's cramped dormitory rooms are also her office

Hu Xiaoyan is an unassuming migrant worker and a mother of twin girls - she is also a celebrity.

Last year the 35-year-old was the first ever migrant worker to become a member of the country's national parliament.

Her appointment was an attempt by China's top leaders to show its citizens that ordinary people have a part to play in national politics.

But Ms Hu's first year has not gone well. Fellow workers complain she is of little use, and she herself admits that she has no power.

The migrant worker is among nearly 3,000 delegates in Beijing for this year's annual session of the National People's Congress (NPC).

Delegates from across the country will hear about developments over the past year and future policies at the nine-day session, which begins on Thursday.

The NPC is supposed to be China's highest decision-making body but, as Ms Hu revealed to the BBC, its delegates have little say in national policy.

Plucked from obscurity

Ms Hu left her home in Sichuan Province more than 10 years ago in search of a job, and a better life, in booming Guangdong.

She initially failed to get a job, but then found a position in a factory making ceramic tiles. It was back-breaking work.

"I had to move tiles eight hours a day non-stop. My body ached at the end of the day," she said in a promotional video for this year's NPC session.

But she worked hard, moved to another factory and rose quickly through the ranks.

She is now a manager at the New Pearl Ceramics Group in the city of Foshan, overseeing other migrant workers.

As a parliamentary representative, I don't have any real power
NPC delegate Hu Xiaoyan

Her political career has also advanced. Her hard work meant she was quickly picked out to sit on the local government.

This is where she was noticed by China's national leaders, who plucked her from obscurity to become a member of the national parliament last year.

But it has been a tough first year in the public spotlight for Ms Hu, who has not seen her 12-year-old daughters in two years. They are back in Sichuan.

She was initially bombarded with emails and phone calls - much of them critical - when her contact details were published on the internet.

"I cried almost every day. I went through every emotion," she told one Chinese newspaper interviewer.

Workers feel bitter

She now seems to have learned to cope with the pressure. "Now I have more experience," she told the BBC in an interview in her cramped dormitory room, which she shares with her husband.

Ms Hu has now been well-trained to deal with the media, and gives model answers about her role as an NPC delegate.

The Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on the eve of the National People's Congress
Members of the National People's Congress gather in Beijing
"I act as a bridge, which means I help the government promote its policies to the people and relay people's opinions back to the government," she said.

But that is not always as easy as it sounds. Over the past year she has often found herself caught in the middle of factory disputes.

The plant, which makes floor and wall tiles, is currently experiencing financial difficulties and work stopped for a brief period last year.

Workers at the factory are still bitter. They say managers cut their pay, and stopped them from looking for jobs elsewhere.

They are also angry at Ms Hu, who they say failed to help them sort out their grievances with the management.

One worker said there ought to be a different system to elect parliamentary representatives.

"The whole factory should be able to vote. Whoever wins the most votes should be elected," said the worker, who did not want to be identified.

There were similar comments from nearby residents. People had heard of Ms Hu, but were not impressed with what she has achieved.

'People's democracy'

"She only represents herself. She's no use," said one angry man.

This is a lot of criticism for a woman who does not get paid for her political work. She does not even get expenses.

When asked why she is so unpopular, Ms Hu admitted that it was partly because she has no power to solve problems.

The best she can do is relay the feelings of her fellow workers to factory managers and her political masters.

"I'm just a worker at this company, my boss's employee. It's not my job to solve problems," she said.

"As a parliamentary representative, I don't have any real power."

This is not something China's leaders will want to hear. They maintain that China has introduced far-reaching political reforms over the last 30 years.

It was a theme repeated by NPC chairman Li Zhaoxing at a press conference on Wednesday to talk about this parliamentary session.

"We will adapt to people's increasing enthusiasm for participation in political affairs [and] continue to expand people's democracy," he said.

But Ms Hu's frank admission about the limits of her own power suggests NPC delegates have little real opportunity to dictate government policy.

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