'Tell it like it is': China delegate rips meek Congress

Becky Davis
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The Chinese government has released the first draft of a new intelligence law aimed at formalising its sweeping security powers, with broad authority to engage in surveillance at home and abroad

Empty talk, self-censorship, brain-dead conformity -- that's outspoken delegate Cui Yongyuan's assessment of China's national parliament, celebrated by the Communist Party as empowering the people but which he calls a big waste of time.

Around 5,000 delegates from across the country are in Beijing for the annual Communist-choreographed session, the world's largest parliamentary gathering.

The spectacle monopolises Chinese television screens and other media every year for 10 days and is touted by the Party as proof that it at least listens to the people despite its hammer-lock on power.

But as the session prepares to close Wednesday, Cui, among China's most-recognised television personalities and former host of a talk show called "Tell It Like It Is", is doing just that.

In an interview, Cui, 54, bemoaned what he described as delegates' timidity, blind party obedience and self-censorship, in a rare unvarnished critique of the tightly scripted show.

"Some of our (delegates) don’t take action because they feel there is some sort of danger, thinking 'If I dare to speak the truth, then next year I won't have a chance any more, or perhaps even this year my leaders will take me to task," said Cui.

- 'Blind men on blind horses' -

"This isn't a stage, to put on a show. It's not a place for everyone to put on their pretty clothes and take pictures. This is a place for political participation," Cui said.

He spoke while petting his cat "Little Fatty" and sipping tea in his calligraphy-lined office at the Communications University of China, where he teaches at an oral-history research centre established in his name.

The typical delegate was uninformed on major issues and "like a blind man on a blind horse, rushing headlong into disaster," Cui said.

"But there are tonnes of these kinds of people."

The session gathers two bodies, the rubber-stamp National People's Congress -- China's closest thing to a parliament -- and a separate 2,000-strong assembly of delegates whose role is supposedly to "advise" the government by putting forth policy suggestions.

Cui has been a member of the latter, the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), for ten years.

But the chances of an invite back are "near zero", Cui says, after speaking his mind among fellow delegates too "afraid to comment".

Much of his disgust is fuelled by his belief that he has been blacklisted for aggressively pushing proposals to crackdown on foods derived from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

It is a hot-button issue, with the central government interested in pursuing GMO development, while there is strong resistance among consumers over safety fears.

Cui has submitted the proposal annually only to see it go nowhere.

Once able to command high appearances fees, Cui says he is now shunned.

He has millions of social-media followers but his accounts have been mysteriously disabled, and censors deleted online posts of his proposal.

Cui left CCTV after it pressured him to drop his anti-GMO advocacy.

"I've done absolutely nothing against the law and handled my proposal via all the official channels. It's not like I was protesting in the streets," Cui said.

Affable and passionate, he feels he is being punished for merely taking his delegate role seriously.

- 'Brain sickness' -

The CPPCC taps leaders in fields from engineering to education -- many of whom, like Cui, are not Communist Party members. To add some flair, it includes celebrities like basketball star Yao Ming and movie icon Jackie Chan.

CPPCC colleagues have this year told Cui to cut his speeches short, or advised him simply to clam up, he said.

"In a month or two, I think I'll have no outlet anywhere to say what I'd like to say," said Cui.

In past years, officials would seek delegates out to amicably discuss proposals seen as sensitive or problematic.

But the Communist government has dramatically tightened restrictions on politics and free speech since Xi Jinping became president in 2013.

This year, the few delegates keen to "speak the truth" were rebuffed or censored, Cui said.

He called his apparent muzzling "brutal and cruel," akin to the actions of "the mafia or hooligans."

Yet he defends the parliament session as necessary, and backs official party calls for more transparency in the process.

The problem is the "brain sickness" of delegates, which Cui likened to the mindless conformity of the Cultural Revolution, when a single indiscreet comment could be perilous.

"If it were the 50s or 60s, I bet even my mother would be killed. We'd all be taken and heads would roll," he said.

Cui said he won't drop his anti-GMO crusade, calling it a patriotic duty.

"It's exactly because there are so few people who are willing to speak up that I must continue to do so."