Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia

Understanding China's Political System *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of South, Southeastern, and Central Asia

Understanding China's Political System *

Article excerpt


Analyzing the political system of the People's Republic of China (PRC) is difficult for many reasons. The inner workings of China's government have been shrouded in secrecy, and formal institutions can mask the underlying dynamics of political power. In addition, because of China's Leninist history, it is easy to assume that politics in China is rigidly hierarchical and authoritarian, whereas in reality, political power in China is diffuse, complex, and at times highly competitive.

Since the victory of Mao Ze-dong's communist forces in 1949, the Chinese mainland has been a communist state ruled by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Although other minor political parties exist, they are authorized by the CCP, operate under its leadership, and are effectively powerless. No independently organized and established political parties are tolerated, effectively making the PRC a one-party state.

Despite its position at the nexus of Chinese political life, the CCP [1] and its leadership are not always able to dictate policy decisions. Instead, the Chinese political process is infused with a number of bureaucratic and non-central government actors that both influence and sometimes determine government policy. These political actors include a muscular ministerial bureaucracy; provincial and local officials; a growing body of official and quasi-official policy research groups and think tanks that feed proposals directly into the policy process; a collection of state sector, multinational, and even private business interests that bring more pressure to bear on policy decisions; a vigorous academic and university community; a diverse media that increasingly brings issues of official malfeasance to light; and an increasingly vocal and better-informed citizenry who are demanding more transparency and accountability from government. In addition, China's approximately 3,000-member National People's Congress (NPC), largely a symbolic organization for much of its existence, has become somewhat more assertive in recent years, although it still cannot veto basic Party policies. To a great extent, the fragmentation of process and decision making has blurred lines of authority in China.

Chinese politics is further complicated by other factors. One is the role that personal, ideological, or geographical affiliations can play in political decisions in the absence of a more formalized institutional infrastructure. Individuals located in different arms of China's institutional political system may form political alliances on issues based on a history of personal friendship, shared doctrines, or common regional ties. As the issue at hand changes, these affiliations also can change, sometimes resulting in allies on one issue being opponents on another issue.

Another complicating factor is the propensity of PRC officials at all levels of government to render Machiavellian interpretations of provisions in the national constitution [2]. Officially considered the highest law in the land, the PRC constitution lays out a series of universally- accepted principles, a number of which appear to suffer seriously in implementation. Among noted examples are provisions setting up the relatively acquiescent NPC as the -highest organ of state power"; and provisions guaranteeing freedom of religious belief as well as -freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of procession and of demonstration" [3] PRC officials routinely justify actions to inhibit such freedoms by citing other constitutional articles requiring citizens to keep -state secrets" and not take acts detrimental to -the security, honour and interests of the motherland" [4]

What constitutes a state secret or an act detrimental to national interests is left wholly undefined. This opaqueness leaves citizens at the mercy of whatever definition suits a presiding Chinese official on any given occasion, allowing the state easily to prosecute individuals for a wide range of politically related activities. …

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