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China makes no pretence to be - or to want to be - a democracy in the Western style unlike the other countries whose political systems are described on this web site. However, I thought it appropriate to offer a guide to the Chinese political system because the country is the largest in the world by population and it is a nation of growing economic and political importance in global affairs, so we would all do well to have some appreciation of how the country is run. However, it is a political system probably rivalled in its opacity only by the government of North Korea.

Since the end of the civil war in 1949, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has ruled the country and operates a pyramid of power which reaches down to every village and every workplace. The Party's 89-million membership makes it the biggest political party in the world bua huge factor.

As with the former Communist-controlled USSR and its satellite states, China pretends to be a multi-party state by technically permitting a limited number of other political parties. The eight registered minor parties have existed since before 1950. These parties all formally accept the leadership of the CPC and their activities are directed by the United Front Work Department of the CPC.


The Constitution of the People's Republic of China is a changing document. The first Constitution was declared in 1954. After two intervening versions enacted in 1975 and 1978, the current Constitution was declared in 1982. There were significant differences between each of these versions, and the 1982 Constitution has subsequently been amended no less than five times (1988, 1993, 1999, 2004 and 2018). In addition, changing Constitutional conventions have led to significant changes in the structure of Chinese government in the absence of changes in the actual text of the Constitution.

There is no special organisation tasked with the enforcement of the Chinese Constitution. Furthermore, under the legal system of the People's Republic of China, courts do not have the general power of judicial review and cannot invalidate a statute on the grounds that it violates the Constitution.

The constitutional changes of 2018 are of great importance since they represent a consolidation of power of the current President Xi Jinping. Firsi, Xi Jinping Thought has been written into the Constitution, following its addition earlier to the Communist Party's Charter. Second, the five-year term limit on the positions of President and Vice-President have been abolished, allowing Xi to serve as long as he wishes.


Every significant decision affecting China is first discussed and approved by a handful of men who sit on the party's Political Bureau or Politburo which is the nexus of all power in this nation of 1.3 billion. The 25-member Politburo is elected by the party's Central Committee. New Politburo members are chosen only after rigorous discussion and investigation of their backgrounds, experience and views. To reach the top, people need a strong record of achievement working for the party, to have the right patrons, to have dodged controversy, and to have avoided making powerful enemies.

The full politburo tends to include party secretaries from big municipalities like Beijing and Shanghai and from important provinces like Guangdong. Recently, the wealth generated by China's economic reforms has led some analysts to suggest the power of the centre is waning. It is pointed out that party secretaries of large provinces like Sichuan and Guangdong are in charge of populations bigger than most European countries and that their tax revenues are vital to Beijing.

Formally, the power of Politburo members stems from their positions in the decison-making body. But in China, personal relations count much more than job titles. A leader's influence rests on the loyalties he or she builds with superiors and proteges, often over decades. That was how Deng Xiaoping remained paramount leader long after resigning all official posts and it explains why party elders sometimes play a key role in big decisions.

China's most senior decision-making body is the seven-member Standing Committee of the Politburo which works as a kind of inner cabinet and groups together the country's most influential leaders. The current members are Xi Jinping (the President), Han Zheng, Wang Huning, Li Zhanshu, Li Keqiang (the Prime Minister), Wang Yang, and Zhao Liji. Members are elected to serve for a term of five years.

How the Standing Committee operates is secret and unclear, but its meetings are thought to be regular and frequent, often characterised by blunt speaking and disagreement. 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.

Members of the Standing Committee also share out the posts of party General Secretary, premier, chairman of the National People's Congress, and head of the Discipline Inspection Commission.

The Politburo controls three other important bodies and ensures the party line is upheld through these bodies. These are:

The President of China is the head of state. He is currently Xi Jinping who was appointed at the end of 2012 in the expectation that he would serve for 10 years. He is widely regarded as having acquired more power and as behaving in a more paranoid fashion than any other leader since Mao Zedong. He has abandoned the Communist Party's once hallowed tradition of 'collective leadership' in favour of strongman rule by himself. While he is genuinely opposed to corruption among party officials, he has used his anti-corruption campaign to remove rivals and consolidate power.

The Premier of China is the head of the government and leads the State Council. He is currently Li Keqiang who was appponted at the end of 2012 and is expected to serve for 10 years.

Although a relatively recent innovation, introduced in 1997, enforcement of age and term limits for top Party and State positions has brought a degree of predictability into otherwise opaque Chinese elite politics. So, over many years, for all senior officials, there has been an official retirement age of 65 and a limit of two five-year terms in the same post.

This meant that normally the President would serve for two five-year terms and his successor would effectively be nomintaed five years in advance. However, the current President Xi Jinping is doing things differently. First, at the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, he ensured that no member is young enough to take over from him in 2022. Second, he abolished the term limit for the Presidency so that he can now serve as long as he wants.

Finally, it should be noted that senior leaders sometimes retain great influence over decisions and appointments long after they officially step down from power. Part of the reason the elders wield such influence is because of the patron-protege nature of Chinese politics.


The Central Committee is elected once every five years by the National Congress of the Communist Party of China although in fact almost all of these people are approved in advance. This Central Committee has 205 full members and 171 lower-ranking or "alternate" members". It meets every couple of months.

The Central Committee is, formally, the "party's highest organ of authority" when the National People's Congress is not in session. According to the Party Constitution, it is vested with the power to elect the General Secretary and the members of the Politburo, its Standing Committee, and the Military Affairs Commission, and to endorse the composition of the Discipline Inspection Commission. It also oversees work of various powerful national organs of the party.


Under China's 1982 constitution, the most powerful organ of state is meant to be the National People's Congress (NPC), China's unicameral legislature. However, the reality is that this is little more than a rubber stamp for party decisions.

The Congress is made up of 2,270 delegates elected by China's provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and the armed forces. Delegates hold office for five years. The full Congress is convened for one session in March of each year and lasts a mere two weeks. This means that China has the largest legislature in the world which meets for the least time in the world.

In theory, the Congress has the powers to change the constitution and make laws. But it is not, and is not meant to be, an independent body in the Western sense of a parliament. For a start, about 70% of its delegates - and almost all its senior figures - are also party members. Their loyalty is to the party first, the NPC second.

What actually tends to happen, therefore, is that the party drafts most new legislation and passes it to the NPC for "consideration", better described as speedy approval.

The NPC has shown some signs of growing independence over the past decade. For instance, in a notable incident in 1999, it delayed passing a law bringing in an unpopular fuel tax. It has also been given greater leeway drafting laws in areas like human rights.

The formal position is that Congress "elects" the country's highest leaders, including the State President and Vice-President, the Chairman of the government's own Military Affairs Commission, and the President of the Supreme People's Court.


The State Council is the cabinet which oversees China's vast government machine. It sits at the top of a complex bureaucracy of commissions and ministries and is responsible for making sure party policy is implemented from the national to the local level.

In theory, the State Council answers to the National People's Congress, but more often the State Council submits legislation and measures which the NPC then approves.

The State Council's most important roles are to draft and manage the national economic plan and the state budget, giving it decision-making powers over almost every aspect of people's lives. It is also responsible for law and order.

The full council meets once a month, but the more influential Standing Committee comes together more often, sometimes twice a week. This committee is made up of the country's premier, four vice-premiers, state councillors and the secretary-general.


China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) - currently 2.25 million strong - has always defended the party as much as national borders. During the early years of communist rule, most of the country's leaders owed their positions to their military success during the civil war, and links between them and the PLA remained very close. However, as this generation has died off and reforms have been introduced to make the armed forces more professional, the relationship has shifted subtly.

Party leaders know they are lost without the army's support, as became clear during crises like the 1989 Tiananmen protests. At the same time, senior military leaders realise they need the leadership's backing if far-reaching plans to modernise the armed forces are to be paid for.

The party's control over the armed forces and their nuclear arsenal is institutionalised through the Central Military Affairs Commission. Currently the 11-member Commission has a civilian chairman (the President Xi Jinping), two uniformed vice chairmen, and eight uniformed regular members. The eight are the Minister of Defence, the directors of the PLA’s four headquarters departments, and the commanders of the Navy, Air Force, and strategic missile forces, known as the Second Artillery Corps.

This Commission has the final say on all decisions relating to the PLA, including senior appointments, troop deployments and arms spending.

PLA officers are also party members and there is a separate party machine inside the military to make sure rank and file stay in line with party thinking.

The Military Affairs Commission also controls the paramilitary People's Armed Police (1.5 million strong), which has the politically sensitive role of guarding key government buildings, including the main leadership compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing.


Party members suspected of corruption, bad management or breaking with the party line are liable to be brought before the Discipline Inspection Commission, set up to deal with internal party discipline and to monitor abuses. Indeed, as economic reforms have gathered pace, corruption has become probably the single most damaging issue for the party's standing.

President has launched an assault on inefficiency and corruption. The targets of the anti-corruption campaign have included the former head of security Zhou Yongkang, the country's highest-ranking official to be prosecuted in more than three decades, and Ling Jihua, a top aide to the former president Hu Jintao. Of course, such actions, as well as combating corruption, serve to eliminate opponents and consolidate power.


Unlike in democratic countries, the China's court system is in no sense independent. Both main legal organs answer to the National People's Congress.

The Supreme People's Procuratorate is the highest legal supervisory body, charged with safeguarding the constitution, laws and people's rights.

The Supreme People's Court sits at the top of a pyramid of people's courts going down to the local level. Public security organs are in charge of the investigation, detention and preparatory examination of criminal cases.


China is governed as 22 provinces, five "autonomous" regions, four municipalities - considered so important they are under central government control (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing) - and two special administrative regions. The people in charge of these bodies - a group of about 7,000 senior party and government leaders - are all appointed by the party's organisation department.

Although many are powerful individuals - the governor of Sichuan province rules over 80 million people - their ability to deviate from the party line is limited because they know their next career move would be at stake. Nevertheless, most analysts agree the centre has lost some control to the regions in the past two decades, especially in the economic field.


The Chinese Communist Party is almost schizophrenic in its economic policies. On the one hand, China is still a communist society but, on the other hand, its economy is more capitalist than most European countries. This contradiction is blurred by language with the use of vague phrases like "socialism with Chinese characteristics" and "the socialist market economy". The word 'capitalist' is rarely used; instead policymakers talk of "economic development" and "commercial business".

On one of my four trips to China, I was told by one person with an eye on the recent history of Russia's economy: "Socialism has not saved China; China has saved socialism".

Meanwhile politics is almost invisible in China. Although the country is still controlled by the Communist Party, there is none of the overt sloganising that one sees in communist countries like Vietnam or Cuba (both of which I have also visited). Real politics takes place opaquely in the organs of the Communist Party, not publicly on the streets or in the media.

Most citizens - even educated ones - have no interest in politics generally or democracy in particular. Instead there seems to be an unwritten and unannounced compact between the Party and the people: 'You leave us to run the country and we'll leave you to make as much money as you can'.

After the Roman Republic ceased to exist and the Roman Empire began, the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote: "Two things only the people anxiously desire - bread and circuses." The Chinese Communist Party leadership appears to be practicising a 21st century version of this dictum: as far as 'bread' is concerned, food is plentiful, living standards are rising and consumer goods flood the markets while, as far as 'circuses' is concerned, television and cinema provide exuberant entertainment, theme parks and scenic areas proliferate, and domestic tourism is booming. Meanwhile politics is for the few, behind closed doors, and totally in the confines of the Communist Party.

It remains to be seen whether this massive disconnect between economics and politics - the former liberal, the latter totalitarian - can survive and, if not, whether the changes are smooth or disruptive.

But fundamental change is unlikely under the current leadership. Early in 2014, President Xi Jinping said in a speech at the College of Europe in the Belgian city of Bruges: "Constitutional monarchy, imperial restoration, parliamentarism, a multi-party system and a presidential system, we considered them, tried them, but none worked."

Meanwhile Xi has consolidated his personal power to an extent unrivalled since Mao and indeed, at the Party Congress in 2017, had written into the Party Charter "Xi's Thoughts on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era". Since then, in 2018 his Thoughts have actually been written into the nation's Constitution and the term limit of the Presidency has been abolished.

Link: "Understanding China's Political System" by the United States Congressional Research Service click here


Last modified on 27 February 2018

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