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. And now Chairman and President Xi Jinping has stacked its highest echelons with supporters and amended the constitution abolishing term limits for leaders allowing him to rule for life.

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

“Now a central committee, politburo and standing committee dominated by Xi would mean a significant loss of checks and balances. Xi’s policy of putting ideology and national security over economic development will continue for the coming five or even 10 years as he is eager to rule until the 22nd party congress in 2032 when he will be 79,” said Willy Lam, a senior fellow at Jamestown Foundation, a Washington-based thinktank. (The Guardian)

All institutions of the state, of government, the military, and increasingly businesses 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. At each level of government – national, provincial, city and down to village level – is a matching Party organisation.

The Party and government structures sit side-by-side at all levels, with the Party’s representative always the more powerful. Thus a province’s Party Secretary takes precedence over its governor.

By the end of 2022 total membership of the Chinese Communist Party had reached over 96 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 Xi Jinping with seven members of the Standing Committee of the Party Politburo.

The seven members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo have day to day responsibility for governing China. 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.

The members of the Standing Committee of the Politburo are Xi Jinping, Premier Li Qiang, Zhao Leji, Wang Huning, Cai Qi, Ding Xuexiang and Li Xi – all men.

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 and increasingly with loyalty to Xi Jinping himself being the main criterion.

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