China’s Party – How Does the System Work?

China has a national parliament (The National People’s Congress), a constitution, an increasingly comprehensive national legal framework, a system of courts, a cabinet of Ministers, provincial and local level government, and many other institutions and processes that strongly resemble those found in western democracies like Australia. But despite all these organisations having an active role in shaping day-to-day government and administration in China, the real source of political power and authority lies within the Chinese Communist Party.

Despite decades of economic reform, rapid economic growth, dramatic social change, and integration with the outside world – the Party retains an iron grip on political authority and national policy making in China.

All institutions of the state, of government, and the military (with rare exceptions) are led by and staffed by Party members.  The exercise of all government administration is a direct reflection of Party-made policies and preferences. Party members are subject above all to internal Party supervision and discipline. Sitting alongside each level of government – national, provincial, city and down to village level – is a matching Party organisation.

“At each level the Party and government structures sit side-by-side, with the Party’s representative always the more powerful. Thus a province’s Party Secretary takes precedence over its governor.” BBC Website – How China is Ruled

By the end of 2011 total membership of the Chinese Communist Party had reached over 82 million – making it the largest political organisation in the world. How to become a Party member is not entirely clear to outsiders. To gain entry the applicant must be aged 18, have the endorsement of several existing Party members and undergo extensive background and personal political checks before being approved. At least one year of probation and further checks follow. Today many of the old barriers to Party membership – such as the applicant’s “class background” – have been removed; former senior leader Jiang Zemin took the step of allowing even private entrepreneurs to become Party Members.

Not a great deal is known about the internal processes and decision-making of the Chinese Communist Party. The simplest way to explain its operation is to adopt a pyramidal structure, with mass membership forming the Party base, and then leading up level by level to the apex. Here where final power and decision-making authority is concentrated in the seven member Standing Committee of the Party Politburo, headed by Xi Jinping.

The seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo have day to day responsibility for governing China and are believed to operate on a largely consensus based approach to decision-making:

“How the Standing Committee operates is secret. But its meetings are thought to be regular and frequent, often characterised by blunt speaking and disagreement. Senior leaders speak first and then sum up, giving their views extra weight. The emphasis is always on reaching a consensus, but if no consensus is reached, the majority holds sway. Once a decision has been made, all members are bound by it. Although policy disagreements and factional fighting are widely believed to take place in private, it is extremely rare for these to break into the public domain.” Source BBC website – How China is Ruled.

The members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo are Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji and Han Zheng.

Xi Jinping is the most senior of this so-called “5th generation leadership”; they were all born in the post-1949 era, and many suffered family and personal hardship during the excesses of the decade-long Cultural Revolution. Their government and Party careers have been shaped by the post-1979 economic reforms. The current group of senior leaders are arguably the best educated and most experienced in China’s modern history. Many are also so-called ‘princelings”- the offspring of prominent revolutionary leaders. (USCC Report, March 2012 p.4)

In theory the upper echelons of the Party – including these most senior leaders – are accountable to and elected by the Party’s grassroots membership through an ongoing series of formal meetings and internal Party processes, which are outlined in the Party’s Constitution. Every five years the Party convenes its National Congress to which over 2,000 delegates are elected / nominated. These delegates in turn elect the Party Central Committee, which in turn elects the higher-level Standing Committee, Politburo and ultimately the Standing Committee of the Politburo.

In reality the nomination and approval of appointments to the most senior positions is the result of extensive behind the scenes discussions, negotiations and compromises worked out between different groups, coalitions of interests and influential Party figures. Senior elders, like the retired Jiang Zemin, are believed to wield a certain amount of personal influence; but no single figure – or even small group of individuals – is able to exercise the dominant influence that Mao Zedong or even Deng Xiaoping once did.

The post-1978 era has seen the Party embrace a largely collective and consensus based process to make both national policy and select key leaders.

A report prepared for the US Congress in the lead up to the 18th Party Congress describes the leadership selection process as follows:

“In exchanges kept behind closed doors and out of the public eye, jockeying and negotiations among institutional interests; factional and patronage networks; contending ideologies; and powerful personalities are shaping up the leadership ranks for the rising generation of leaders that will guide China’s course into the 2020s” (USCC Report March 2012 p.4).

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