Published Thursday, September 19, 19 | By PaulvHill
The politics of the People’s Republic of China takes place in a framework of a socialist republic run by a single party, the Communist Party of China, headed by General Secretary. State power within the People’s Republic of China (PRC) is exercised through the Communist Party, the Central People’s Government (State Council) and their provincial and local representation. The Communist Party of China uses Internal Reference to manage and monitor internal disagreements among the citizens of the People’s Republic of China. Document Number Nine was circulated among the Chinese Communist Party in 2013 by Xi–Li Administration to tighten control of the ideological sphere in China to ensure the supreme leadership of the Communist Party will not be challenged by Western influences. The PRC controls mainland China, Hainan Island, Hong Kong, Macau and some South China Sea islands.
Each local Bureau or office is under the coequal authority of the local leader and the leader of the corresponding office, bureau or ministry at the next higher level. People’s Congress members at the county level are elected by voters. These county-level People’s Congresses have the responsibility of oversight of local government and elect members to the Provincial (or Municipal in the case of independent municipalities) People’s Congress. The Provincial People’s Congress, in turn, elects members to the National People’s Congress that meets each year in March in Beijing. The ruling Communist Party committee at each level plays a large role in the selection of appropriate candidates for election to the local congress and to the higher levels.
The President of China is the titular head of state, serving as the ceremonial figurehead under National People’s Congress. The Premier of China is the head of government, presiding over the State Council composed of four vice premiers and the heads of ministries and commissions. As a one-party state, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China holds ultimate power and authority over state and government. The offices of President, General Secretary, and Chairman of the Central Military Commission have been held simultaneously by one individual since 1993, granting the individual de jure and de facto power over the country.
China’s population, geographical vastness, and social diversity frustrate attempts to rule from Beijing. Economic reform during the 1980s and the devolution of much central government decision making, combined with the strong interest of local Communist Party officials in enriching themselves, has made it increasingly difficult for the central government to assert its authority. Political power has become much less personal and more institutionally based than it was during the first forty years of the PRC. For example, Deng Xiaoping was never the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China, President, or Premier of China, but was the leader of China for a decade. Today the authority of China’s leaders is much more tied to their institutional base. The incident of Hong Kong’s Missing Booksellers had alarmed the public that political confrontation of different political cadre in the senior level of the Chinese Communist Party still dominates China’s politics.
Central government leaders must increasingly build consensus for new policies among party members, local and regional leaders, influential non-party members, and the population at large. However, control is often maintained over the larger group through control of information. The Chinese Communist Party considers China to be in the initial stages of socialism. Many Chinese and foreign observers see the PRC as in transition from a system of public ownership to one in which private ownership plays an increasingly important role. Privatization of housing and increasing freedom to make choices about education and employment severely weakened the work unit system that was once the basic cell of Communist Party control over society. China’s complex political, ethnic and ideological mosaic, much less uniform beneath the surface than in the idealized story of the Publicity Department of the Communist Party of China, resists simple categorization.
As the social, cultural, and political as well as economic consequences of market reform become increasingly manifest, tensions between the old—the way of the comrade—and the new—the way of the citizen—are sharpening. Some Chinese scholars such as Zhou Tianyong, the vice director of research of the Central Party School, argue that gradual political reform, as well as repression of those pushing for overly rapid change over the next twenty years, will be essential if China is to avoid an overly turbulent transition to a middle class dominated polity. Some Chinese look back to the Cultural Revolution and fear chaos if the Communist Party should lose control due to domestic upheavals and so a robust system of monitoring and control is in place to counter the growing pressure for political change.
China practices a form of democracy that it calls socialist consultative democracy. Socialist Consultative Democracy is the form of democracy that exists in the People’s Republic of China, though at least one source says that this form of democracy was created by the Communist Party of China. According to an article in Qiushi Journal, “Consultative democracy was created by the CPC and the Chinese people as a form of socialist democracy. In this sense, consultative democracy represents the grand product of our efforts to enrich and develop Marxist theories on democracy. Socialist consultative democracy exhibits distinctive features as well as unique advantages. Not only representing a commitment to socialism, but it also carries forward China’s fine political and cultural traditions. Not only representing a commitment to the organizational principles and leadership model of democratic centralism, but it also affirms the role of the general public in the democracy. Not only representing a commitment to the leadership of the CPC, but it also gives play to the role of all political parties and organizations as well as people of all ethnic groups and all sectors of society”.
According to another source in the People’s Republic of China, “Consultative democracy guarantees widespread and effective participation in politics through consultations carried out by political parties, peoples congresses, government departments, CPPCC committees, peoples organizations, communities, and social organizations”.
In 2012, Li Changjiang, a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top political advisory body, said that consultative democracy should be made a greater priority in China’s political reform. A significant feature of socialist consultative democracy is consulting with different sectors in order to achieve maximum consensus.
However, elections are also an element in the socialist consultative democracy, even though the People’s Republic of China is often erroneously criticized in the West for not having elections. This error likely stems from a misunderstanding of the PRC’s election system.
Socialist democracy and socialist consultative democracy do not appear to be the same as social democracy, with the former being the political system in place in the PRC while the latter is an ideology that argues for specific policies and social systems within the context of Western liberal democracies.
The 89 million-member Communist Party of China (CPC) continues to dominate the government. In periods of relative liberalization, the influence of people and groups outside the formal party structure has tended to increase, particularly in the economic realm. Under the command economy, every state-owned enterprise was required to have a party committee. The introduction of the market economy means that economic institutions now exist in which the party has limited or no power.
Nevertheless, in all governmental institutions in the PRC, the party committees at all levels maintain a powerful and pivotal role in the administration. Central party control is tightest in central government offices and in urban economic, industrial, and cultural settings; it is considerably looser over the government and party establishments in rural areas, where the majority of Mainland Chinese people live. The CPC’s most important responsibility comes in the selection and promotion of personnel. They also see that party and state policy guidance is followed and that non-party members do not create autonomous organizations that could challenge party rule. Particularly important are the leading small groups which coordinate activities of different agencies. Although there is a convention that government committees contain at least one non-party member, a party member is a definite aid in the promotion and in being included in crucial policy-setting meetings.
Constitutionally, the party’s highest body is the Party Congress, which is supposed to meet at least once every 5 years. Meetings were irregular before the Cultural Revolution but have been periodic since then. The party elects the Central Committee and the primary organs of power are formal parts of the central committee.
The primary organs of power in the Communist Party include:
- The General Secretary, which is the highest-ranking official within the Party and usually the Chinese Paramount leader.
- The Politburo, consisting of 22 full members (including the members of the Politburo Standing Committee);
- The Politburo Standing Committee, the most powerful decision-making body in China, which currently consists of seven members;
- The Secretariat, the principal administrative mechanism of the CPC, headed by the General Secretary;
- The Central Military Commission;
- The Central Discipline Inspection Commission, which is charged with rooting out corruption and malfeasance among party cadres.
The primary organs of state power are the National People’s Congress (NPC), the President, and the State Council. Members of the State Council include the Premier, a variable number of vice premiers (now four), five state councilors (protocol equal of vice premiers but with narrower portfolios), and 29 ministers and heads of State Council commissions. During the 1980s there was an attempt made to separate party and state functions, with the party deciding general policy and the state carrying it out. The attempt was abandoned in the 1990s with the result that the political leadership within the state are also the leaders of the party, thereby creating a single centralized locus of power.
At the same time, there has been a convention that party and state offices be separated at levels other than the central government, and it is unheard of for a sub-national executive to also be party secretary. The conflict has been often known to develop between the chief executive and the party secretary, and this conflict is widely seen as intended to prevent either from becoming too dominant. Some special cases are the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau where the Communist Party does not function at all as part of the governmental system, and the autonomous regions where, following Soviet practice, the chief executive is typically a member of the local ethnic group while the party general secretary is non-local and usually Han Chinese.
Under the Constitution of China, the NPC is the highest organ of state power in China. It meets annually for about 2 weeks to review and approve major new policy directions, laws, the budget, and major personnel changes. Most national legislation in China is adopted by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC). Most initiatives are presented to the NPCSC for consideration by the State Council after previous endorsement by the Communist Party’s Politburo Standing Committee. Although the NPC generally approves State Council policy and personnel recommendations, the NPC and its standing committee has increasingly asserted its role as the national legislature and has been able to force revisions in some laws. For example, the State Council and the Party have been unable to secure passage of a fuel tax to finance the construction of freeways.
Currently, the local government in China is structured in a hierarchy on four different levels. With the village being the grassroots (usually a hundred or so families), and not considered part of the hierarchy, local government advances through the township, county, prefecture or municipality, and the province as the geographical area of jurisdiction increases. Each level in the hierarchy is responsible for overseeing the work carried out by lower levels on the administrative strata. At each level are two important officials. A figure that represents the Communist Party of China, colloquially termed the Party chief or the Party Secretary, acts as the policymaker. This figure is appointed by their superiors. The head of the local People’s Government, is, in theory, elected by the people. Usually called a governor, mayor, or magistrate, depending on the level, this figure acts to carry out the policies and most ceremonial duties. The distinction has evolved into a system where the Party Secretary is always in precedence above the leader of the People’s Government.
After Deng Xiaoping took power in 1978 greater autonomy has been given to provinces in terms of economic policy implementation as well as other areas of policy such as education and transportation. As a result, some provincial authorities have evolved tendencies of operating on a de facto federal system with Beijing. Prominent examples of greater autonomy are seen in the provinces of Guangdong and Zhejiang, where local leaders do little to adhere to the strict standards issued by the Central Government, especially economic policy. In addition, conflicts have arisen in the relations of the central Party leaders with the few provincial-level Municipalities, most notably the municipal government of Shanghai and the rivalry between former Beijing mayor Chen Xitong and Jiang Zemin. The removal of Shanghai Municipality Party Secretary Chen Liangyu in September 2006 is the latest example.
China’s system of autonomous regions and autonomous prefectures within provinces are formally intended to provide for greater autonomy by the ethnic group majority that inhabits the region. In practice, however, power rests with the Party secretary. Beijing will often appoint loyal party cadres to oversee the local work as Party secretary, while the local Chairman of the region’s government is regarded as its nominal head. Power rests with the Party secretary. To avoid the solidification of local loyalties during a cadre’s term in office, the central government freely and frequently transfers party cadres around different regions of the country, so a high ranking cadre’s career might include service as governor or party secretary of several different provinces.
The Communist Party of China created and leads the People’s Liberation Army. After the PRC was established in 1949, the PLA also became a state military. The state military system inherited and upholds the principle of the Communist Party’s absolute leadership over the people’s armed forces. The Party and the State jointly established the Central Military Commission that carries out the task of supreme military leadership over the armed forces.
The 1954 PRC Constitution provides that the State Chairman (President) directs the armed forces and made the State Chairman the chair of the Defense Commission (the Defense Commission is an advisory body, it does not lead the armed forces). On September 28, 1954, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party re-established the Central Military Commission as the leader of the PLA and the people’s armed forces. From that time onwards, the system of joint Party and state military leadership was established. The Central Committee of the Communist Party leads in all military affairs. The State Chairman directs the state military forces and the development of the military forces managed by the State Council.
In December 2004, the fifth National People’s Congress revised the State Constitution to provide that the State Central Military Commission leads all the armed forces of the state. The chair of the State CMC is chosen and removed by the full NPC while the other members are chosen by the NPC Standing Committee. However, the CMC of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China remained the Party organization that directly leads the military and all the other armed forces. In actual practice, the Party CMC, after consultation with the democratic parties, proposes the names of the State CMC members of the NPC so that these people after going through the legal processes can be elected by the NPC to the State Central Military Commission. That is to say, that the CMC of the Central Committee and the CMC of the State are one group and one organization. However, looking at it organizationally, these two CMCs are subordinate to two different systems – the Party system and the State system. Therefore, the armed forces are under the absolute leadership of the Communist Party and are also the armed forces of the state. This is a unique Chinese system that ensures the joint leadership of the Communist Party and the state over the armed forces.
No substantial legal political opposition groups exist, and the country is mainly run by the Communist Party of China (CPC), but there are other political parties in the PRC, called “democratic parties”, which participate in the People’s Political Consultative Conference but mostly serve to endorse CPC policies. Even as there have been some moves in the direction of democratization as far as the electoral system at least, in that openly contested People’s Congress elections are now held at the village and town levels, and that legislatures have shown some assertiveness from time to time, the party retains effective control over governmental appointments. This is because the CPC wins by default in most electorates. The CPC has been enforcing its rule by clamping down on political dissidents as well as simultaneously attempting to reduce dissent by improving the economy and allowing public expression of people’s personal grievances, provided that it is not within the agenda of any NGO or other groups openly or covertly opposing CPC ideals. Current political concerns in Mainland China include countering the growing gap between the wealthy and the poorer and fighting corruption within the government leadership and its institutions. The support that the Communist Party of China has among the Chinese population, in general, is unclear because national elections are mostly CPC dominated, as there are no opposition political parties and independent candidates elected into office aren’t organized well enough to realistically challenge CPC rule. Also, private conversations and anecdotal information often reveal conflicting views. However, according to a survey conducted in Hong Kong, where a relatively high level of freedom is enjoyed, the current CPC leaders have received substantial votes of support when its residents were asked to rank their favorite Chinese leaders from Mainland and Taiwan.
The eight registered minor parties have existed since before 1950. These parties all formally accept the leadership of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and their activities are directed by the United Front Work Department of the CPC. Their original function was to create the impression that the PRC was being ruled by a diverse national front, not a one-party dictatorship. The major role of these parties is to attract and subsequently muzzle niches in society that have political tendencies, such as the academia. Although these parties are tightly controlled and do not challenge the Communist Party, members of the parties often individually are found in policy-making national institutions, and there is a convention that state institutions generally have at least one sinecure from a minor political party.
The minor parties include the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Guomindang, founded in 1948 by dissident members of the mainstream Kuomintang then under control of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek; China Democratic League, created in 1941 by intellectuals in education and the arts; China Democratic National Construction Association, formed in 1945 by educators and national capitalists (industrialists and business people); China Association for Promoting Democracy, started in 1945 by intellectuals in cultural, education (primary and secondary schools), and publishing circles; Chinese Peasants’ and Workers’ Democratic Party, originated in 1930 by intellectuals in medicine, the arts, and education; China Party for Public Interest (China Zhi Gong Dang), founded in 1925 to attract the support of overseas Chinese; Jiusan Society, founded in 1945 by a group of college professors and scientists to commemorate the victory of the “international war against fascism” on September 3; and Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League, created in 1947 by “patriotic supporters of democracy who originated in Taiwan and now reside on the mainland.”
Coordination between the eight registered minor parties and the Communist Party of China is done through the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference which meets annually in Beijing in March at about the same time that the National People’s Congress meets. In addition, there are a few minor parties which either lack official recognition or are actively suppressed by the government, such as the Maoist Communist Party of China, China Democracy Party and China New Democracy Party, which have their headquarters outside of the Mainland China.
The Chinese legal code is a complex amalgam of custom and statute, largely focused on criminal law, though a rudimentary civil code has been in effect since January 1, 1987, and new legal codes have been in effect since January 1, 1980. Continuing efforts are being made to improve the civil, administrative, criminal, and commercial law.
Although the current law of China cannot be categorized by arbitrary rule, it is over-simplifying to describe it as a system of rule of law. While personal freedom and right to private property are nominally guaranteed by law, officials maintain the right to trespass citizens before proving or suspecting them breaking the law through the use of Droit administration. In other words, the concept of Habeas corpus does not apply in China. Also, Party members are subjected to different sets of law, namely the Constitution of the Communist Party of China, which authorizes itself to use state apparatus to regulate behaviors of party members, sometimes overriding Law of the land. One of the most distinctive characteristics of the Chinese law is the lack of a mechanism to verify the constitutionality of statute laws. This in effect allows the enactment of any administrative laws as long as circumstances justify.
The government’s efforts to promote rule by law (not the same as rule of law) are significant and ongoing. After the Cultural Revolution, the PRC’s leaders aimed to develop a legal system to restrain abuses of official authority and revolutionary excesses. In 1982, the National People’s Congress adopted a new state constitution that emphasized the concept of rule by law by which party and state organizations are all subject to the law. (The importance of the rule by law was further elevated by a 1999 Constitutional amendment.) Many commentators have pointed out that the emphasis on rule by law increases rather than decreases the power of the Communist Party of China because the party, in its position of power, is in a better position to change the law to suit its own needs.
Since 1979, when the drive to establish a functioning legal system began, more than 301 laws and regulations, most of them in the economic area, have been promulgated. (After China’s entry into the WTO, many new economically related laws have been put in place, while others have been amended.) The use of mediation committees – informed groups of citizens who resolve about 90% of the PRC’s civil disputes and some minor criminal cases at no cost to the parties – is one innovative device. There are more than 800,000 such committees in both rural and urban areas.
Legal reform became a government priority in the 1990s. Legislation designed to modernize and professionalize the nation’s lawyers, judges, and prisons were enacted. The 1994 Administrative Procedure Law allows citizens to sue officials for abuse of authority or malfeasance. In addition, the criminal law and the criminal procedures laws were amended to introduce significant reforms. The criminal law amendments abolished the crime of “counter-revolutionary” activity (and references to “counter-revolutionaries” disappeared with the passing of the 1999 Constitutional amendment), while criminal procedures reforms encouraged the establishment of a more transparent, adversarial trial process. The PRC Constitution and laws provide for fundamental human rights, including due process, although those laws also provide for limitations of those rights.
Although the human rights situation in mainland China has improved markedly since the 1960s (the 2004 Constitutional amendments specifically stressed that the State protects human rights), the government remains determined to prevent any organized opposition to its rule. Amnesty International estimates that the PRC holds several thousand political prisoners. Although illegal, there have been reports of torture by civil authorities.
Nationality and ethnicity
Nationality is granted at birth to children with at least one Chinese-national parent, with some exceptions. In general, naturalization or the obtainment of the People’s Republic of China nationality is difficult. The Nationality Law prescribes only three conditions for the obtainment of PRC nationality (marriage to a PRC national is one, permanent residence is another). If a PRC citizen voluntarily obtains a foreign nationality, he or she loses Chinese nationality automatically (yet this regulation does not apply to party members or government officials). If the citizen then wishes to resume PRC nationality, the foreign nationality is no longer recognized. For more details, see Nationality Law of the People’s Republic of China.
The PRC is officially a multi-ethnic state providing ethnic autonomy in the form of autonomous administrative entities in accordance with Section 6 of Chapter 3 (Articles 111-122) of the Constitution of China, and with more detail under the Law of the People’s Republic of China on Ethnical Regional Autonomy System. By law, ethnic minorities receive advantages in areas such as population control, school admissions, government employment, and military recruitment. The PRC recognizes 56 nationalities in China and simultaneously categorizes them as one hegemonic Chinese nation. However, separatist sentiment has occasionally flared in Tibet and Xinjiang. As such, independence groups and foreign human rights groups are critical of the PRC’s policies in ethnic areas and have bemoaned the presence of Han Chinese (the main ethnic group of China) in Xinjiang and Tibet.
The PRC maintains diplomatic relations with most countries in the world. In 1971, the PRC replaced the Republic of China, commonly known as “Taiwan” since the 1970s, as the sole representative of China in the United Nations and as one of the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. China was represented by the Republic of China at the time of the UN’s founding in 1945. (See China and the United Nations).
Under the One-China policy, the PRC has made it a precondition to establishing diplomatic relations that the other country acknowledges its claim to all of China, including Taiwan, and severs any official ties with the Republic of China (ROC) government. The government actively opposes foreign government meetings with the 14th Dalai Lama in a political capacity, as the spokesperson of a separatist movement in Tibet.
The PRC has been playing a leading role in calling for free trade areas and security pacts amongst its Asia-Pacific neighbors. In 2004, the PRC proposed an entirely new East Asia Summit (EAS) framework as a forum for regional security issues that pointedly excluded the United States. The EAS, which includes ASEAN Plus Three, India, Australia, and New Zealand, held its inaugural summit in 2005. China is also a founder and member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), alongside Russia and the Central Asian republics.
Much of the current foreign policy is based on the concept of China’s peaceful development. Nonetheless, crises in relations with foreign countries have occurred at various times in its recent history, particularly with the United States; e.g., the U.S. bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade during the Kosovo conflict in May 1999 and the Hainan Island incident in April 2001. China’s foreign relations with many Western nations suffered for a time following the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. A much troubled foreign relationship is that between China and Japan, which has been strained at times by Japan’s refusal to acknowledge its wartime past to the satisfaction of the PRC, such as revisionist comments made by prominent Japanese officials, and insufficient details given to the Nanjing Massacre and other atrocities committed during World War II in Japanese history textbooks. Another point of conflict between the two countries is the frequent visits by Japanese government officials to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors not only Japanese World War II dead but also many convicted World War II war criminals, including 14 Class A convictions.
The PRC is in a number of international territorial disputes, several of which involved the Sino-Russian border. Although the great majority of them are now resolved, China’s territorial disputes have led to several localized wars in the last 50 years, including the Sino-Indian War in 1962, the Sino-Soviet border conflict in 1969 and the Sino-Vietnam War in 1979. In 2001, China and Russia signed the Treaty of Good-Neighborliness and Friendly Cooperation, which ended the conflict. Other territorial disputes include islands in the East and South China Seas, and undefined or disputed borders with India, Bhutan and North Korea.
The following territories are claimed by both China and one or more other countries:
- Socotra Rock (with South Korea)
- Diaoyu Islands (with Japan)
- Spratly Islands (with Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, the Philippines)
- Paracel Islands (with Vietnam)
- Panatag Shoal (with the Philippines)
- South Tibet – parts of Arunachal Pradesh (with India)
- Aksai Chin – (with India; however, Pakistan has accepted an unmarked boundary and recognized China’s governance of the area).
In addition, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of China (Taiwan) share the 1992 Consensus that there is only “One China“; thus, each claims sovereignty over the entire territory of the other.