“Political Forces of China,” The Economist

The role of the Chinese Communist Party

At end-2000 the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had 64.5m members, 5.2% of the total population, and was thus the world’s largest political party. Only 12m (17.4%) were women; 4m (6.2%) were from ethnic minorities. The party is still relatively old (77.7% of members are over 35) and poorly educated (only one-fifth of members have completed middle-school education). Party membership is a benefit in both material and professional life, and in some government bodies effectively a prerequisite of advancement.

The Central Committee

The CCP’s structure parallels and supervises that of the government and the legislature. Its main decision-making body is a Central Committee consisting, in 1997, of 151 full members and 191 alternate members. The Central Committee is elected at a party congress every five years, normally in the months preceding the first session of a new National People’s Congress (NPC, the legislature). The most recent party congress, the 15th, was held in September 1997. The next is due in 2002. The Central Committee meets in plenary session about twice a year. In the interim most of its power is vested in a Politburo that currently has 22 members.

The Standing Committee

A further tier of centralised leadership, the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), consists of seven Politburo members, who are the most powerful people in China. The Politburo will usually include some people of purely party standing and provincial- or municipal-level party secretaries. It may also include the premier and his deputies, other important state councillors and representatives of the military.

The 15th party congress

The 15th five-yearly congress of the CCP, the first since the death of Deng Xiaoping, was held in September 1997. As well as electing the new Central Committee, the congress approved the policy line hammered out in meetings held in the run-up to the congress and presented in a keynote speech by the president, Jiang Zemin. The centrepiece of the congress was the decision to elevate “Deng Xiaoping theory” to form part of the constitutional ideology of the CCP. This endows the leadership with the pragmatic ideology necessary to pursue, for example, reform of the ownership of industrial assets.

Party and government are still intertwined

In the late 1980s there was much talk of the “separation of functions” of the party and the government. The party would concentrate on its proper role of providing ideological leadership, while day-to-day economic and administrative management would be in the hands of the government. This separation has not taken place, however, and at the national level it still seems irrelevant whether it is the State Council or the CCP that makes administrative decisions, since the top echelons of both bodies are staffed by almost the same people.

The secretariats and commissions

The apparently clear-cut line of pyramidal control within the CCP is complicated by its various secretariats and commissions. The central secretariat handles the day-to-day business of the party. The general secretary is the party leader, following the abolition in 1980 of the post of chairman, and has the power to convene Politburo meetings. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, with responsibility for the internal discipline of the party—and hence managing a strong network of informers, spies and personnel files—is a particularly powerful body.

The People’s Liberation Army

The army was reduced in size in the 1980s, but, following the bloody crackdown by the military on popular demonstrations in 1989, a stronger military presence was felt in the Politburo; there were reports that a number of generals attended its meetings, albeit in a non-voting capacity. The increased politicisation of the military could also be seen in the role that the PLA played in the conduct of foreign policy, particularly towards Taiwan. It was widely believed that the large intimidatory military exercises by China in the Taiwan Strait in 1995 and 1996 reflected the need of Mr Jiang and other leaders to pander to military demands for China to take a more hardline stance towards Taiwan.

The retirement of Liu Huaqing from the PSC in 1997 and an order issued by Mr Jiang in July 1998 for the military to give up its business empire suggested that the civilian leadership was again trying to reduce the direct political power of the PLA. The military is, however, unlikely to be fully pushed out of politics. The profile and clout of the PLA was raised by the heightened tension with Taiwan in 1999. The high defence spending increase in 2001 may have been compensation for its withdrawal from business. Ultimately the PLA’s political power is guaranteed by the its role as the protector of party rule in China.

The People’s Armed Police

Since 1989 Mr Jiang has put much effort into building up the People’s Armed Police (PAP). This has partly been aimed at easing dissatisfaction within the PLA about having to take up responsibility for civilian crowd control. Mr Jiang, who initially had little authority within the military, also built up the PAP to strengthen his own political power base.

The Central Military Commission

Control over the army was vested in two parallel commissions, the State Central Military Commission and the Party Central Military Commission. The bodies usually have identical memberships, and meetings of the State Central Military Commission are rarely reported, leaving no doubt over the intended truth behind Mao’s maxim that “the party commands the gun”. The chairmanships of the two commissions were the last posts that Deng held, until 1989-90, when he handed both jobs to his designated successor, Mr Jiang, a man with no previous military experience.

Workers’ organisations are discouraged

The CCP has tried hard to maintain China’s monolithic power structure, leaving various identifiable interest groups in effect under-represented. Although there are national organisations supposedly looking after the interests of women, farmers and workers, all are tame bodies pliant to the will of the CCP. Even before the CCP mobilised against student protesters in 1989, it had denounced as “counter-revolutionary” the independent trade unions that had sprung up during the protests. The CCP remains extremely nervous of any sign of organisation among workers, mindful of the role of Solidarity in the downfall of Communist Party rule in Poland.

The party has enforced social control and political discipline in large measure through the pervasive role of the “work unit”. State-owned factories provide not just a salary but housing, education and political indoctrination. The so-called neighbourhood committees, often composed of retired workers, provide another mechanism of control in the cities, in such areas as family planning and crime prevention. But these systems of social control are gradually breaking down. This is partly the unintended result of government policy, as the government pursues structural reform of the state-owned enterprises (SOEs). It is also because social mobility, and the aspirations that 20 years of strong income growth have heightened, have made people less susceptible to constant surveillance.

The shrinking bureaucracy

The bloated government bureaucracy began to be streamlined in 1998. In March 1998 the NPC voted to cut the number of central government ministries to 29 from 40 and to lay off half of the 8m civil servants. Although the ministries have been restructured, many of the supposedly laid-off civil servants have been transferred elsewhere within the public sector. Local governments started to do their share of job-cutting, belatedly, in 2000, but progress has been much slower than at the central government level.

China is almost the same size as the US. Many of its provinces, autonomous regions and municipalities are the size of European countries. The provinces extend over a large landmass and have widely differing resource endowments. Some are sparsely populated; others, mainly along the eastern seaboard, have for many decades been among the most densely populated places on earth. Lines of communication are poor and, apart from the Yangtze river region, tend to follow a north-south axis. Sheer size, diversity and difficulty of communication have meant that even at times of comparatively strong central control the unitary state has been far from uniform.

Post-1949 centralisation

After 1949 there was a centralising thrust, based on the Soviet model of control and development. Both economic and political decisions were of a top-down nature. But some local variation was inevitable, and in the 1960s the “Third Front” industrialisation policies adopted in response to the Sino-Soviet rift and the perceived threat of a US invasion prompted a wave of investment in manufacturing activities in the interior, helping to create an economic model characterised by local autarky, diversifying the economy and encouraging a measure of devolution of economic initiatives. It was on local initiatives that many of the reforms of the late 1970s were based.

Recent local autonomy

The reform era has greatly increased the de facto autonomy of local governments, mainly as a result of a devolution of resource mobilisation powers and spending responsibilities. This has tended to encourage the time-honoured practice of resistance, albeit usually passive rather than active, to directives from above that are not perceived to be in the local interest. Local governments have also increasingly become entrepreneurs and major stakeholders in local enterprises. The culture of commerce has spread through the bureaucracy, and local governments tend to regard their mandate as being heavily economic in content, consisting largely of the requirement to maximise employment and revenue-raising opportunities in the areas under their jurisdiction.

These attitudes and actions create a particularism that can frustrate the aims of the central government and in the competition to attract foreign investment can lead to wasteful duplication of effort. Local governments are also anxious to maximise their ability to retain revenue collected locally and this makes it difficult for the central government to increase its tax take. A continuing tussle between local and higher-level governments is occurring over the closure of SOEs that are not viable. Responsibility for the welfare of workers at SOEs that have been closed down devolves upon local governments, which have a vested interest in pressing the banking system, and hence the entire economy, to continue to support SOEs. As a result, they tend to resist central government orders to hasten the reform and closure of SOEs.

The central government can usually command compliance, albeit sometimes reluctant and slow, with its major policies. But most provincial bureaucrats and cadres are now appointed locally and the loyalties that they are building up present an increasing constraint on policy at the national level. Some observers argue that devolution is irreversible and that it will increase so that the Chinese state is eventually organised on federal lines. The powers of political patronage enjoyed by the central government are, however, still considerable and there is a centralising thrust to current economic policy.

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