Global Impact of the Rise of China: Defining Government

By Nadav Morag, Ph.D.

CTU’s Global Security Series offers background on current national and homeland security topics. Dr. Morag’s second post of this series, covered crucial events of the Twentieth Century that shaped modern China. Today’s post will focus on the structure of government and leadership in China.

CTU Security Studies - Chinese Flag The People’s Republic of China is governed by the Chinese Communist Party or CCP.  China is a one-party authoritarian state and the CCP is committed to maintaining a permanent monopoly on political power. China today has a collective leadership and major decisions require consensus among the CCP’s senior echelons, unlike North Korea and Cuba whose Communist parties have acted as support structures for the rule of dictators.

Controlling Power
The power of the CCP comes from: 1) its control of the Chinese military - known as the People’s Liberation Army, the Chinese armed forces consist of approximately 2.25 million men and women in uniform; 2) its control of personnel appointments throughout government, the military and government-owned industries; 3) its control of the media; and 4) its control of the police, judiciary and other internal security bodies1.   The CCP itself is governed by a nine-member Politburo Standing Committee and below that a larger 25 member Politburo.  Like other past and present Communist countries, the Party governs via a separate governmental apparatus.  The government side of the house primarily consists of a State Council, which is similar to a Cabinet, central government ministries, and provisional governments.

Governing through state institutions rather than directly gives the Party more legitimacy. It can argue that the Party represents the will of the people and that government machinery is independent and focused on running the country.  However, no one can be appointed to a significant government position without holding a post within the CCP.  In the past, the Party was subservient to a supreme leader with that role being filled for decades by Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung.  The last supreme Party leader was Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997 though he had previously stepped down from this role.  Since the 1990s, China has been governed by a collective leadership led by Party Chairman Hu Jintao. 

Communism to Capitalism
Ideologically, China once had one of the most extreme and aggressive Communist systems.  In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, China’s relationship with the Soviet Union went from a staunch alliance, with China playing the role of little brother to the Soviet big brother, to bitter mutual rivalry and hostility. China increasingly viewed itself as the main repository of the “true” Communism and saw its role as one of fostering global Communist revolution, particularly in the developing world.  Needless to say, things have changed quite a bit in China. 

Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and his successors, China has moved away from the actual practice of Communism, though it still provides lip service to Communist ideals, and increasingly encouraged the development of a free market economy.  While it would be an exaggeration to say that China has become a truly Capitalist country in all but name, the model that it is currently following is one of considerable support for free markets and private enterprise. It still allows the government to play a major role in the economy, not only via regulating the private sector but also via the huge state-owned enterprises that are thought to account for over forty percent of China’s non-agricultural Gross Domestic Product (GDP)2.   Instead of sending revolutionary propagandists to developing countries, China sends its businessmen and investors.

Limited Independence
In the capital of Beijing, the Party and Government often have trouble holding sway over the country’s 22 provinces, excluding Taiwan,  five autonomous regions, four large municipalities, and the Special Administrative regions of Hong Kong and Macau, which is not surprising for a large country. Unlike the United States, China does not have a federal system. Consequently, the provinces, unlike American States, have autonomy to run their own affairs only on the basis of their ability to negotiate greater freedom of action from the central government in Beijing.  China’s provinces, municipalities and other regional governments are also governed by parallel CCP and governmental institutions, provincial CCP secretaries and provincial governors respectively.  Provinces and other local governments have the right to pass their own laws and regulations as long as the acts do not conflict with those of the national government and provinces, municipalities, etc., and often differ significantly from each other in the area of economic policy3.  

This brief discussion of China’s governance seems to suggest, particularly in more recent years, a rapid evolution towards a free market economy and greater regional autonomy.  China has effectively jettisoned Communist economic principles and stifling central control over local governments. Can we expect it to also toss out the one-party state and create a democracy?  In short, not anytime soon. 

The last time China was faced with a major pro-democracy movement, during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, the Chinese leadership crushed the movement and executed several thousand activists.  Since then the Party has made it clear that it has no intention of sharing power. Policy debates will occur within the Party and not between the CCP and future rival political parties, though very few Chinese are privy to these debates. The CCP seems to believe that creating political stability and economic growth will appeal to the Chinese people more than the risks of democracy, particularly because democracy brings disunity.  One of the central themes of Chinese history is that the country has been weak, poor and dominated by outside powers when it lacked unity. Consequently the Communist Party is on fairly firm popular ground in arguing that China cannot afford the collapse of the one-party system.

The Party seems to believe that economic growth will act as an elixir and moderate the demand for political change. 

Next week, our focus will be the economic transformation of China and its effect on the world.

1 Susan V. Lawrence and Michael F. Martin, Understanding China’s Political System (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Research Service, 2012), p. 2.
2Andrew Szamosszegi and Cole Kyle, An Analysis of State-Owned Enterprises and State Capitalism in China (Washington, D.C.: Capital Trade Inc., 2011), p. 1.
3Lawrence and Martin, p. 5.

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