BEIJING, March 4 (Xinhua) -- Ahead of her twelfth consecutive term as a deputy to the National People's Congress (NPC), China's legislature, debate is swirling around Shen Jilan and the system at large.
The controversy around 83-year-old Shen, the oldest and longest-serving member of China's parliament, centers on whether she has sharp enough teeth to serve as a government watchdog and a representative of the people.
As the only deputy that has served in the NPC since its establishment in 1954, Shen's effectiveness has been in doubt in recent years, especially after she told media last March that she has never voted against any motion.
Media recalled these remarks when Shen was reelected a national lawmaker in Shanxi Province at the end of January.
Shen's reelection also made her one of the biggest newsmakers at the NPC's upcoming annual plenary session, which kicks off on March 5.
The public's growing awareness about political participation is fueling the discussion about Shen, as people are seeking a force to supervise and balance power.
Chinese people are becoming more critical about the qualifications and performances of "deputies of the people," who they believe should know the weight of their role when voting and not just serve as a rubber stamp.
There have been complaints that some seats in the parliament are occupied by farmers, industrial workers and ethnic minorities lacking political training. Critics say they applaud and sing praises, but only when they're not sitting silently at the sessions.
Such concerns indicate a challenge that authorities have to tackle: increasing grassroots participation in the parliament while simultaneously assembling an articulate law-making force.
According to an NPC Standing Committee release, of the 2,987 deputies from across the country that will serve a term of five years, 401 are workers and farmers, accounting for 13.4 percent of the total deputies, a rise of 5.18 percentage points from the previous term.
The increase shows a significant trend, as rising conflicts concerning the well-being of people at grassroots levels, such as land grabs, a yawning wealth gap, runaway housing prices and environmental woes, are all considered possible threats to stability.
Building a democracy of industrial workers and peasants was once a point of pride for New China, when NPC deputies representing these groups were on equal footing with researchers, professors, soldiers and officials in discussing state affairs.
The inclusion of these grassroots representatives into the country's organ of supreme power was a significant gesture that demonstrated the Chinese political system's feature as a democracy of the people.
Six decades after the founding of the People's Republic of China, as the country delves deep into economic and political reform, the public hopes NPC deputies shift their roles from people eager to applaud to people who constructively contribute to the process of creating policy.
Nevertheless, removing Shen from her position is not the key to solving this problem, but getting her to speak more loudly on behalf of the people she represents is.
As an individual NPC deputy, Shen's performance and remarks should be open for public criticism, but these factors should never be an excuse to deny the people she represents from having their voices heard.
Another sentiment running parallel to the controversy surrounding Shen is whether to replace deputies like her with those who have more political experience.
Such a proposal goes against the tenets of the people's democracy, which guarantees that people from all walks of life can be represented in the legislative body.
It would also be dangerous if all the parliament seats were occupied by elites, especially as they tend to make the legislature a club that works for their own interests.
This tendency, another challenge the authorities have to tackle, is exemplified by a bribery scandal that surfaced in the election of provincial lawmakers in Shaoyang City, Hunan Province, in late January.
Though local authorities have yet to release an official investigation report, it is safe to say that offering bribes in return for being named a "deputy of the people" was not a move meant for the good of the people.
Unlike Western parliaments, China's NPC is not a platform for career politicians pursuing their own political ambitions, but a venue where representatives from all walks of life participate in state affairs.
While Shen's lengthy tenure in the legislature is widely interpreted as a symbol of the history of the People's Congress, the entrance of more other deputies from villages, urban communities and factories demonstrates the authorities' determination and courage to amplify the voices of those at the grassroots level.