How would one summarise the current Chinese political system?

In my recently updated short guide to the Chinese political system, I conclude:

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 boomimg. 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.


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