Academic journal article China: An International Journal

Chinese Presidency: Institutionalisation, Constitutional Ambiguities and the Trajectories towards Democratisation

Academic journal article China: An International Journal

Chinese Presidency: Institutionalisation, Constitutional Ambiguities and the Trajectories towards Democratisation

Article excerpt

For a long period since the founding of the People's Republic of China, the presidency as a state institution has seldom been taken seriously. For a while, it was even nonexistent: following the purge of Liu Shaoqi at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, China did not have a president for many years. By the late 1990s, however, the presidency of China had acquired significant institutional powers and it has since become a very important national institution. This article examines the evolution of the presidency since the 1980s, with particular focus on the period following the early 1990s. I argue that with the formal powers now embedded in the presidency, China has taken a preliminary form of a one-Party presidential system. Further institutionalisation of this one-Party presidential system may provide conditions favourable for the gradual evolution of China towards a democratic system. However, in order to enable such incremental institutionalisations of the Office, important constitutional ambiguities need to be addressed through political craftsmanship.


A number of efforts were made to rationalise China's Party and state institutions following the 1978 Party Plenum. A pressing priority for the new leadership under Deng Xiaoping was the reinstalling and streamlining of the State Council, the capacity of which was vastly compromised as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Major Party arms were also reinstalled and top structures of the Party reformed. (1) The 12th Party Congress in 1982 marked the formal arrival of a new era: if during the period before the Party congress was focused on cleaning up the late-Mao period mess (boluan fanzheng), then this would be the era that the Party embarked with full energy on its new mission of economic reform and development. Later that year, a new Constitution was adopted by the National People's Congress (NPC). This Constitution reinstalled the presidency as a national institution. (2) The first president of China in some 20 years was elected by the NPC in June 1983.

The 1983 presidency, however, started off as a weak institution. By constitutional design, the Office was merely a figurehead role to perform symbolic functions. As the supreme power of the State is constitutionally embedded within the NPC, the president performed all his (3) functions "according to the decision of" the NPC and NPC Standing Committee. (4) These roles include promulgating laws, appointing the Premier and cabinet ministers, declaring national emergencies and declaring wars. In terms of foreign affairs, the president would receive visiting heads of state from abroad, and in accordance with the decisions of the NPC and NPC Standing Committee appoint and recall ambassadors, as well as approve and invalidate treaties.

Hence, by constitutional design, the presidency has very limited powers. And for the powers it does have, they are exercised in accordance with the decisions of the NPC and its Standing Committee. But in reality, of course, the NPC's decisions all come from the Party's leadership, especially the Politburo and its Standing Committee. The presidency was clearly being used as an honorary office to reward old-time servants of the Party and the state. (5) It was clear at that time that the most powerful men were not to take up the presidency. (6)

Things took a sharp turn after the 14th Party Congress in 1992, when the Party's ruling power was transferred from Deng to a new generation of leaders. At the NPC in March the following year (1993), Jiang Zemin, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), was elected state president. This resulted in the Party's top leader serving as head of state at the same time, an unprecedented situation since Mao gave up the presidency in 1959. Note that no changes were made to the Constitution regarding the presidency. In theory, this should have meant that the formal powers of the presidency remained unchanged. …

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