China’s annual political gathering – the “Two Sessions” – closed on Friday.
The “Two Sessions” refers to China’s two major political bodies – the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC). It is the biggest political event of the year wherein some 3,000 delegates as well as members from the political advisory body meet in Beijing to discuss the government’s plan for the year ahead.
Nominated and elected through China’s political hierarchy, a large proportion of the delegates and commitee members for the Two Sessions are elites from government agencies and various sectors across the country. Theoretically, they serve as the bridge between Beijing’s political elites and the common people, listening to the Government’s annual work report and putting forward motions and proposals that represent concerns of the general public.
For this article, Pandaily looked through this year’s 8,993 motions submitted to the Two Sessions, and selected some of the most prominent tech-related ones that have sparked attention on Chinese social media. If written into law, these motions will have a lasting impact on the economy and the everyday life of Chinese people.
“More factory workers, less deliverymen”
Proposed by Zhang Xinghai, chairman of Chinese automobile manufacturer Sokon Group, this motion points to the labor shortages that Chinese factories have been struggling with in recent years as more young people turn to digital platforms for work. In the last five years, an average of 1.5 million people in China have left the manufacturing industry each year, whereas the number of food deliverymen has grown beyond 10 million individuals. In the two months during the Covid-19 outbreak in 2020, China added 580,000 new food delivery personnel, and about 40% of them used to be industrial workers.
“Food delivery, e-commerce and livestreaming have attracted a large number of young people, and many are reluctant to work in the factories…The government, society and enterprises should work together to encourage young people to become industrial workers”, said Zhang Xinghai.
The motion quickly became a trending topic on Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, but the comments have been overwhelmingly negative. “Factory jobs mean no freedom, long working hours, night shifts, and low wages, who would go?” wrote one commenter, which received 125,000 “likes”. “Make sure industrial workers have enough social security benefits before you make a judgement about young people’s career choices”, commented another.
“Improved social security policies for gig workers.”
But digital platforms are not doing that much better when it comes to the protection of front-line workers’ social benefits, which makes the protection of labor rights in the platform economy another widely discussed topic during this year’s Two Sessions.
While the number of platform-based workers continues to grow, protection of their labor rights has been slow to catch up. A 2020 article titled “Delivery Riders, Trapped in the System” investigated the impact of food delivery platforms’ algorithmic control on deliveries. Delivery personnel were pressured by shortened delivery time limits, which then led to many of them violating traffic rules en route to their destination or, even worse, being injured or even killed in traffic accidents. The assessment and reward mechanisms of food delivery platforms have further subjected delivery riders to risks while shifting the blame and responsibility for safety onto the riders themselves. As a result, in the first six months of 2017, Shanghai’s food delivery industry saw a total of 76 traffic accidents, which yields one injury or death in a traffic accident every 2.5 days. In September 2018, over half of the 2,000 traffic violations in China’s southern city of Guangzhou involved food delivery riders. What’s worse, as opposed to “full-time employees” whose social secuirties are covered by their employers, most delivery riders have been “independent contractors” excluded from China’s social security system. Once injured, there is no way for delivery riders to ask for compensation whatsoever.
Chinese authorities have urged food delivery platforms including Meituan and Ele.me to strengthen delivery riders’ labor rights, but so far such efforts remain “guidelines”, and the core to the problem – whether and how should gig workers be included in the social security system – remain to be solved.
“Should livestreaming tips be banned?”
Another motion that sparked public debates concerns the “tips/rewarding” function on livestreaming platforms, which allows users to reward money to live-streamers. This has been a major source of income for Chinese live-streamers, apart from their e-commerce sales.
Li Jun, the Party secretary of a village in Sichuan Province and delegate for this year’s Two Sessions, said that the “rewarding” function may encourage profit-driven live-streamers to produce “eye-catching yet vulgar” content on the platform, and that cancelling the function will help to “cleanse the live-streaming environment.”
Another delegate, Xiao Shengfang, President of Guangdong Lawyers Association, listed some of the legal disputes related to livestreaming tips. “So you have a lady who wants back the 2 million yuan her late husband rewarded the live-streamer, a student who came from a poor family but loaned more than 100,000 to reward live-streamers, and a cashier who embezzled millions of public funds to reward live-streamers.” In light of these cases, Xiao proposed a “mandatory cooling-off period for livestreaming rewards” which allows users to withdraw their rewards within three days.
Zhang Yiwu, professor at Peking University, holds a different view. In an interview with domestic media outlet Southern Weekly, Zhang argues that rewarding live-streamers is in essence no different from purchasing tickets for a performance. “High-quality content itself is the work of considerable labor and effort, and should be reasonably paid, and rewarding is one of the reasonable methods to compensate their efforts”, said Zhang. But he agrees that better regulation is needed for inappropriate content and live-streamers who induce users to send excessive rewards.
“Caution against Metaverse.”
Tan Jianfeng, Honorary Chairman of Shanghai Information Security Industry Association, suggests that regulators should be cautious of the current metaverse hype in China evolving into a “new form of economic bubble”, and asks for stricter regulation against metaverse and NFT transactions.
“Although the operators of the metaverse community claim that it is a decentralized society, the rules of governance and transactions are tightly controlled by corporate giants. Blockchain technology-based NFTs are already prevalent in the metaverse, but regulation is difficult to implement, which may breed a new channel for money laundering”, said Tan Jianfeng.
Chairman of Shenzhen-based Artron Art Group, Wan Jie, also a member of the political advisory body, voiced similar concerns about metaverse, and suggested that “regulations should proceed the innovations.”
2021 saw an array of Chinese internet companies jumping onto the metaverse bandwagon. From Baidu‘s metaverse app Xirang, Tencent‘s acquiring Black Shark for its metaverse plan, ByteDance’s advancement in VR devices, to the over 16,000 metaverse-related trademark applications submitted to the Chinese government (many of which were rejected), all of these reflect the excitement in the market yet a mindful regulatory hand. Metaverse-related proposals from this year’s Two Sessons further suggests that while Chinese regulators are still trying to find a balance between innovation and regulation, the bottomline has always been to avoid financial risks.
“Traditional Chinese internet businesses developed first and were then regulated. Industries like the metaverse will be regulated as they are built,” said Du Zhengping, head of the state-backed China Mobile Communications Association’s metaverse industry committee, itself only formed last October.
“Promote hybrid work model.”
The Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated the transition towards a hybrid work model – a combination of remote work and office work – in many companies, most notably in Silicon Vally. Although China was the first country in the world to be hit by the pandemic, Chinese companies are just now trying out “the future of work” by allowing their employees to work from home for one to two days each week. And in this year’s Two Sessions, this became a motion.
Minister of the Propaganda Department in China’s southern city of Huizhou, Huang Xihua, proposed that a “3+2” hybrid work model, that is, to have three days of office work and two days of remote work each week, will help “improve efficiency, employee satisfaction and loyalty.”
Ctrip.com, China’s leading travel service platform, was one of the earliest in the country to experiment with the hybrid work model by allowing its employees to apply to work from home for two days a week. Ctrip has found that the hybrid work model had no significant impact on employees’ work performance, but the company’s turnover rate dropped by about one-third. Less commute time, better life-work balance and more creativity at work have been the top three reasons for employees to choose this model.
In September 2020, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that China will “have a CO2 emissions peak before 2030 and achieve carbon neutrality before 2060”. The ambitious goal has put enormous pressure on local governments. At the end of 2021, a number of Chinese factories – particularly those in the South – reported power shortages, and complained about being requested by local governments to pause operations in order to attain their carbon neutrality goal.
This year, Beijing’s policy makers and the national delegates alike have released signals to slow down the aggressive steps towards “carbon neutrality”. CEO of Chinese energy solutions company Envision Group Zhang Lei, for example, has proposed to enact a Carbon Neutrality Act to ensure a “scientific and orderly achievement” of China’s climate goals.
“A carbon neutrality-centered legal document will effectively avoid short-term actions such as aggressive campaign-style carbon reduction governance”, suggested Zhang Lei.
Baidu CEO Li Yanhong also proposed to develop “green AI” technology, which involves, on the one hand, optimizing data processes and reducing energy consumption in data centers, while on the other, developing more environmentally friendly algorithms, and improving the energy efficiency ratio of technology infrastructure.
As the Two Sessions officially wrapped up on Friday, these motions and proposals will be forwarded to the presidium of the National People’s Congress (NPC) for further examinition and approval. While not every motion could really make it into China’s law books, as much as 90% of them will be addressed, and almost all will get feedback from the NPC.