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Pestel China

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Understanding China’s Political System

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP or Party) has been in power in China for more than six decades, a record of longevity that rivals and could one day surpass that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.2 The CCP assumed power in 1949 by means of a civil war victory over the forces of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, who moved the seat of their Republic of China government to the island of Taiwan. The Communists named their new regime the People’s
Republic of China (PRC). Although the CCP has been continually in power since, China’s political institutions and political culture have evolved significantly over those decades, with the
CCP’s willingness to adapt helping to explain why it has, so far at least, avoided the fate of its sister parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
Today, although the Party is committed to maintaining a permanent monopoly on power and is intolerant of those who question its right to rule, analysts consider the political system to be neither monolithic nor rigidly hierarchical. Jockeying among leaders and institutions representing different sets of interests is common at every level of the system. Sometimes fierce competition exists among the members of the Communist Party’s nine-man Politburo Standing Committee and 25-member Politburo, China’s highest decision-making bodies. It also exists among ministries; between ministries and provincial governments, which are equals in bureaucratic rank; among provinces; and among the service branches of the military. The military and the Foreign
Ministry are often on different pages. Even delegates to the National People’s Congress, China’s weak legislature, sometimes attempt to push back against the government, the courts, and the public prosecutor’s office. As part of a trend of very modest political pluralization, moreover, other political actors are increasingly able to influence policy debates. Such actors, who may join forces to advance particular causes, include an increasingly diverse media, state-owned and private corporations, official and quasi-official research institutes, university academics, officially sponsored associations and societies, and grassroots non-governmental organizations.

One test of a political system is its ability to manage political transitions. At its 18th National
Congress later this year, the Party is expected to appoint a new leadership, with Xi Jinping, who is currently the Party’s fifth-ranked official, expected to take over the job of Communist Party
General Secretary from Hu Jintao, who will be retiring. The Party has worked hard to present the transition as routine and inevitable. It is worth remembering, however, that only the PRC’s last two political transitions have been relatively smooth. Those two transitions were from Deng
Xiaoping, China’s last supreme leader, to a collective leadership led by Party General Secretary
Jiang Zemin after Deng’s death in 1997, and the transition from Party General Secretary Jiang
Zemin to Hu Jintao in 2002. In this transition year, the fall from grace of Communist Party
Politburo member and Chongqing Municipality Party Secretary Bo Xilai has already exposed at least one serious rift in the leadership, raised questions about the unity and probity of China’s remaining leaders, and, because of Bo’s ties to senior military figures, raised questions, too, about the loyalty of parts of the military to the central Party authorities.
Many analysts, both in China and abroad, have questioned the long-term viability of China’s current political system, in which the Party remains above the law, leadership politics is a black box, and civil society and the right to free speech and association are severely constrained.
China’s outgoing Premier Wen Jiabao has called for political reform, including reform of “the leadership system of the party and the state,” warning that, “Without the success of political structural reform, it is impossible for us to fully institute economic structural reform. The gains we have made in reform and development may be lost, new problems that have cropped up in
China’s society cannot be fundamentally resolved and such historical tragedy as the Cultural
Revolution may happen again.”3 Wen has not elaborated, though, on precisely what sort of political reform he hopes to see. The views of China’s next leaders on the subject remain unknown. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)
The Communist Party’s 80 million members constitute approximately 6% of China’s population of 1.34 billion. Any Chinese citizen over the age of 18 who is willing to accept and abide by the
Party’s constitution and policies, which include a requirement that Party members be atheists, can apply for Party membership. In 2010, however, of 21 million applicants, just under 15% were accepted. The Party is heavily male, with female members making up less than a quarter of the total.29 Party membership is considered prestigious, although not to the degree that it was in earlier eras.
Every Party member, irrespective of position, must be organized into a branch, cell, or other specific unit of the Party to participate in the regular activities of the Party organization. Party units exist in all official and semi-official organizations and institutions, including state-owned enterprises and universities. As of 2010, they also existed in more than 400,000 private businesses and foreign-owned enterprises, and the party has sought to establish them in social organizations, too. 30 These Party bodies can wield great power within an institution, even though in some cases, as in foreign-owned companies, they may have little formal authority. With the Party controlling all avenues for public sector advancement, it is thought that many young people join the Party for career reasons.
Party policy is communicated down the layers of the Party organization by means of directives and Party committee meetings. At these meetings, Party members review and discuss the directives. The Party also ensures ideological conformity through nationwide study campaigns. In
September 2008, for example, the Party launched an 18-month-long campaign for Party members to study Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao’s concept of “scientific development.”
Party members throughout the system were required to study speeches and documents related to the concept. Party publishing houses published study guides. In another example, in 2009, as part of a broader study campaign on “the theory of socialism with Chinese characteristics,” the Party’s
Propaganda Department ordered Party organizations nationwide to lead study sessions on a set of concepts known as the “Six Why’s.” Among the six why’s were why separation of powers and a
Western-style multi-party system were not right for China.31
At the top of the Party’s hierarchy, the most powerful policy- and decision-making entity is the
Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), currently comprised of nine officials. They are all members of the broader Politburo, which started its current term with a membership of 25.
Politburo members are all members of broadest senior grouping of Communist Party officials, the
Central Committee, which has approximately 370 full and alternate members. (See Figure 1 for an illustration of the Party hierarchy.)
As noted above, each member of the PSC has a rank, from one to nine, and is responsible for a specific portfolio. (See “Collective Leadership.”) To ensure Party control, the top-ranked members of the PSC serve concurrently as the heads of other parts of the political system. The top ranked PSC member, Party General Secretary Hu Jintao, for example, serves concurrently as head of the military, in his capacity as head of Chairman of the Central Military Commission, and as the head of State, in his capacity as State President. The second-ranked PSC member, Wu
Bangguo, serves as Chairman of the National People’s Congress (NPC), while the third-ranked
PSC member, Wen Jiabao, serves as Premier of the State Council, and the fourth-ranked member,

Jia Qinglin, heads the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and oversees the Party’s relations with non-Communist groups. Portfolios for other PSC members include the propaganda system; management of the Party bureaucracy and Hong Kong and Macau; finance and economics; Party discipline; and the internal security system. 32
PSC members also head Party “Leading Small Groups” (LSGs) for their policy areas. LSGs are secretive bodies intended to facilitate cross-agency coordination in implementation of Politburo
Standing Committee decisions. The National Security Leading Small Group and the Foreign
Affairs Leading Small Group, for example, are both headed by Party General Secretary Hu
The next highest decision-making body is the full Politburo, which, with the suspension of the disgraced former Chongqing Party Secretary, Bo Xilai, now comprises 24 officials. In addition to the nine members of the PSC, Politburo members include the heads of major departments of the
Party bureaucracy, the two highest ranking officers in the Chinese military, State Council Vice
Premiers, a State Councilor, and Party leaders from important cities and provinces. The current
Politburo has only one female member. Because of its relatively unwieldy size and the geographic diversity of its members, the full Politburo is not involved in day-to-day decision-making. In
2011, it met eight times, with its meetings often focused on a single major policy area or on preparations for major national meetings.33
According to the Party’s constitution, the PSC and Politburo derive their power from the Central
Committee, whose full and alternate members together “elect” the Politburo, Politburo Standing
Committee, and Party General Secretary, and “decide” on the composition of the Party’s Central
Military Commission.34 In practice, incumbent top officials provide a list of nominees to the
Central Committee, which ratifies the leadership’s nominees.35 The current nearly 400-member
Central Committee (including alternates) is made up of leaders from the provinces (41.5%), central ministries (22.6%), the military (17.5 %), central Party organizations (5.9%), and stateowned enterprises, educational institutions, “mass organizations” such as the Communist Youth
League, and other constituencies (12.4%).36

The National People’s Congress (NPC)
The third major political institution in China is the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s unicameral national legislature. According to Article 57 of China’s constitution, the NPC is “the highest organ of state power.” The Constitution tasks the NPC with overseeing the Presidency, the
State Council, the State Central Military Commission, the Supreme People’s Court, and China’s national level public prosecutor’s office, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. In practice, however, the NPC’s powers are severely limited, and the entire entity operates under the leadership of the Communist Party.
The public theater of the NPC’s work is centered around its ten-day-long annual full session, held every March and attended by all of the NPC’s nearly 3,000 deputies. The next full session, in
March 2013, will mark the start of a new five-year Congress, and is expected to approve a major leadership transition, including a new President and Premier, and new Vice Premiers and State
Councilors. At the annual full sessions, NPC deputies almost always vote to approve the reports, laws, and candidates put before them, usually by overwhelming margins, leading many observers to describe the NPC as a “rubber stamp” parliament. NPC delegates do occasionally push back, however. At the March 2012 session of the NPC, for example, a record 20% of deputies withheld their support from the Ministry of Finance’s budget report, reportedly in protest over the
Ministry’s longstanding refusal to accept any NPC suggestions for revisions to the budget.47
(Unlike the U.S. Congress, the National People’s Congress does not pass spending bills. Rather, at the annual full session each year, it votes to approve the budget presented by the Minister of
Finance.) The NPC also makes revisions to the Premier’s annual report on the work of the government, the State’s most important policy document.
Out of the public eye, individual committees and the Standing Committee exercise more meaningful influence. They shape legislation and can exercise a degree of oversight over government entities through “inspection” visits and committee reports. The power of individual
NPC deputies to exercise oversight is largely restricted to the right to submit “proposals” advocating for reforms or demanding better implementation of laws or regulations, to which officials are required to respond in writing.
Because the annual full session of the congress is so brief, much of the NPC’s work is undertaken by its approximately 175-member Standing Committee, which meets about half a dozen times a year.48 Other important NPC bodies include nine specialized committees and a legislative affairs work committee, all of which review and revise draft legislation before sending it to the Standing
Committee or the full Congress for action. Like the State Council, the NPC has a Party

organization embedded within it. The NPC’s chairman serves on the Politburo Standing
Committee and is currently the Party’s number-two ranked official.
NPC deputies are not directly elected. The Communist Party draws up lists of nominees, based in part on potential nominees’ perceived loyalty to the Party. Thirty-five electoral units, most of them provincial-level People’s Congresses, then vote upon the Party’s nominees. The process is modestly competitive in that the Party nominates 20% to 50% more candidates than available positions and those with the most votes are elected to serve as NPC deputies. NPC election rules stipulate quotas for the representation of ethnic minority groups, the military, women, and other groups, including the Party itself. Because China rejects any separation of powers, the President,
Premier, and other top leaders are all NPC deputies. 49 Deputies serve for five-year terms.
The NPC is the uppermost layer of a nation-wide system of People’s Congresses. These congresses are loosely linked together in process and function. Only deputies for the lowest level of People’s Congresses are directly elected. Traditionally, even at the lowest level, candidate lists are controlled by the Party, and elections are uncontested. Since 2011, however, China has seen a wave of independent candidates contesting elections for People’s Congresses in city districts and townships. Most such candidates have faced forms of official harassment, including intrusive surveillance, extra-legal detention, intimidation of their supporters, and election irregularities designed to keep them from appearing on ballots, but some have succeeded in being elected to office.50 Corruption
Corruption in China is widespread and takes many forms, from lavish gifts and expensive meals bestowed on officials by those seeking favors, to bribes explicitly offered in exchange for permits and approvals, to embezzlement of state funds, exemption of friends and relatives from enforcement of laws and regulations, and the appointment of relatives to lucrative jobs in stateowned companies. A 2011 report released by China’s Central Bank estimated that from the mid-
1990s to 2008, corrupt officials who fled overseas took with them $120 billion in stolen funds.28
The CCP uses its Central Discipline Inspection Commission (CDIC) to police its own ranks for corruption, an arrangement fraught with conflicts of interest. As noted above, the Party metes out its own punishments for wrongdoing by its members, and has sole discretion about whether to hand members over to the state judiciary for investigation and possible prosecution. (See “Weak
Rule of Law and Ineffective Policy Implementation and Enforcement.”) Critics charge that CDIC investigations are frequently politically motivated, even if they uncover real wrongdoing.
Officials who keep on the right side of their superiors and colleagues may engage in large-scale corruption, while other officials may be investigated for lesser infractions because they have fallen afoul of powerful officials.

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