China (People’s Republic)

November 28, 2010 § 1 Comment


Who lives there?: Lots and lots of people. Currently 1.4 billion people. China is comfortably the world’s most populous country.

Following 1949 two organisations claimed sovereignty over the entirety of China. The People’s Republic of China (the PRC, who control all of mainland China) and the Republic of China (the ROC, who control the island of Taiwan and a few other smaller islands). The UN only recognises the existence of the PRC and so this article discusses the PRC.

The border with India has never been determined to the satisfaction of both parties and has been the subject of one war and much debate. Neither side accepts the current de fact border.

The situation is further complicated in Kashmir where there are no internationally recognised borders – only a ceasefire line between India and Pakistan. China occupies a small area of Kashmir and lays claim to another small area currently administered by India. These claims are accepted by Pakistan, but not by India. Meanwhile Chinese sovereignty over  Tibet has been accepted by the UN and all internationally recognised nations – although the UK only did so in 2008 and the USA has issued contradictory statements on the subject. In total China has eight territorial disputes with twelve different countries.

The issue of demographics in China is contentious. The government are keen to promote the idea of a nation where ethnicity is irrelevant – which inevitably leads to the presentation of a nation which is homogeneously Han Chinese. Meanwhile other groups with their own agendas are keen to present China as groaning under the weight of ethnic division, whereas in actuality there is not much in the way of ethnic conflict. Ethnic minorities only make up around 10% of the Chinese population – but occupy quite large areas of the nation as they tend to live in the more sparsely populated areas.

china demographics

Religion is an even less clearcut issue. The state is officially Atheist but apolitical religion is allowed to spread fairly freely: atheism is actually only at around 15%. However, it is a different story when it comes to religion with a political agenda. Religion in China has always been an analog continuum, with agnosticism, Taoism, and Buddhism being the main and overlapping segments – with about 30-40% of the population identifying with each section. To this most people add in a healthy dose of ancestor worship based on Confucianism. Christianity is at around 3% and Islam 2%.

One of the most unique features of China’s demographics is the implementation of the “one child policy” whereby urban couples are heavily fined for having more than one child. Whilst widespread exceptions mean that only about 40% of the population of China is effected, the policy has had far reaching demographic implications. For one thing China now has the greatest gender imbalance of any country in the world for children under the age of 15. Secondly “little emperor syndrome”, or to put it another way: a generation of spoilt brats who have not been taught by their siblings to share, has become a widely acknowledged problem.

How does the system work? (the theory): The important distinction to draw is between the organs of the communist party and the organs of the sate. To say that the organs of Chinese government are democratic in theory but not in practice is to only get half the picture. The organs are reasonably democratic, but within the confines of a one party state. The party itself however, is not. The primacy of the party over the government can best be illustrated by the fact the Chinese Army (the largest military force on the planet) is the private army of the party and is not controlled by the government.

The government consists of a network of complex bureaucratic structures. The four main institutions are the National Peoples Congress (NPC), the Standing Committee of the NPC, the President, and the State Council.

The National Peoples’ Congress is the most powerful institution. It meets for around a fortnight every year to endorse or veto government policy. It has previously been seen as a rubber stamp body, however in recent years it has developed more teeth. It has occasionally voted down policies; moreover a vote of less than 70% to approve the last years progress report has been seen as a major humiliation and a cause for resignations and rethinks. This has happened a number of times.

The NPC has around 3,000 deputies. These are elected indirectly. There are four different layers of local government in China and at each layer there is a congress with delegates elected for five year terms. At the lowest level these are popularly elected whereas at higher levels they are elected by the tier below, and in turn elect the tier above. The NPC is the highest tier. Elections take place under an odd form of election, in practice similar to first past the post: voters can vote for or against as many candidates as they like – votes against counting against votes for. The candidates with the best “goal difference” are then elected.

The organising committees of both the NPC and the communist party manage the process carefully to ensure competitiveness guidelines are met. Under these guidelines there should be between 10% and 50% more candidates than there are places, winning candidates should receive more than 50% of the vote, and losing candidates less. The latter is achieved by the communist party making clear who the favoured slates of candidates are, and by rerunning elections if candidates do not achieve 50% of the vote. However the poll itself is secret and fair – and as a consequence the results are never guaranteed.

Decisions which cannot wait until the next NPC are made by the Standing Committee of the NPC. This 150 member body is the closest thing China has to a legislative. The 150 members are elected by the NPC; its chair is sometimes thought to be the second most powerful person in China, sometimes the third.

The most powerful person is the President – who is in practice always also the chair of the communist party. The president is elected by the NPC – but there is inevitably only one candidate. Each president can sere up to two consecutive five year terms. The actual powers of the president are largely ceremonial – the president is merely tasked with implementing the policies and the strategies of the NPC. However clearly they have enormous powers of influence, and input and shape much of the policy they are then asked to implement.

The State Council is the equivalent of the cabinet and – like the president – in theory has very little power except to implement the missives of the NPC, but in practice have a large degree of influence. There are 50 ministers in total -who meet monthly – and a standing committee of 11 – who meet twice weekly. They are all appointed by the NPC, except the chair of the State Council who is appointed by the President. The chair of the State Council is known as the Premier and is thought to be either the second or the third most powerful person in China.

A final body worth mentioning is the Chinese Peoples’ Consultative Conference. It is a parallel body to the NPC and has a parallel structure. Its role is merely advisory, however the idea is it provides a forum for debate and an outlet for constructive criticism. Other political parties, which have very limited representation in the NPC, have far greater representation here – although the Communist party still dominates. This is achieved by the Communist party making less of an effort to win every seat.

As for the Communist Party, it has a similar structure to the state. The National Congress of the Communist Party is the highest body and appoints all its other bodies. Like the NPC, the National Congress meets rarely (once every five years) and has 3000 delegates, indirectly elected by lower level regional congresses. The National Congress is far less independent than the NPC, and elections tend to be tightly controlled by the higher bodes of the party. It has two highest bodies: the Central Committee of whom the Chairman of the Party is, well, the chairman (it has various forms: the 9 member Politburo Standing Committee, the 22 member Politburo, and the administrative Secretariat and Military Commission); and the Central Discipline Inspection Commission – which has very strong and broad powers to root out corruption and maintain party discipline.

There is quite strong lower tier government in theory – although in practice internal Communist party discipline enforced by the Central Discipline Inspection Commission means that rule is fairly centralised. There are four layers: the township, the county, the prefecture (in rural areas) or municipality (in urban areas) and the province. In addition the four largest cities have the status of “directly controlled municipalities” – equivalent to cities. Below the lowest level villages have formally organised but powerless village organising committees.

Each level has a congress elected by the people (for the lowest level) or the congresses of the level immediately below (for higher levels) which in turn appoints an executive head, known as a magistrate, mayor or governor (depending on the level). Each level also has a local Communist Party chair appointed centrally by the politburo. The result is that the executive head and the local party chair are almost always one and the same. The only place this doesn’t happen is in autonomous ethnic minority regions: where the executive tends to be a member of the indigenous minority and the party chair a Han from the central areas. In these areas it tends to be the chair that has the greater power, although the point is contentious.

The autonomous regions are the equivalents of provinces in the five areas which have an ethnic minority majority (Xinjiang: Urghur, Inner Mongolia: Mongol, Tibet: Tibetan, Ningxia: Hui, Guangxi: Zhuang). The autonomous regions have the power to pass their own laws – however party discipline means they rarely choose to do so.

China also contains two special administrative areas (equivalent to provinces): the former British colony of Hong Kong and the former Portuguese colony of Macau. China has expressed its intention to make the currently ROC controlled areas a third special administrative area and, with that in mind, has created a shadow government for Taiwan from Taiwanese expats residing on the mainland. They retain a reasonable degree of autonomy from China: they have their own laws (derived from British and Portuguese laws), their freedoms are guaranteed for fifty years, they issue their own passports and tightly control immigration from the mainland. They are largely free to decide their own policy on everything except defence matters and – crucially – the Communist party does not have much of a presence in either area.

Hong Kong has an odd form of democracy. It has a legislative body which is half directly elected and half elected by an electoral college defined by law and consisting of 600 representatives from businesses and different sections of the economy and 200 representatives from local government. This electoral college also chooses the executive and Hong Kong’s representatives to the NPC.

Macau has a similar electoral college to appoint its NPC and executive. It also has a legislative made up of 12 directly elected members, seven appointed by the executive and ten elected by the electoral college.

How does the system work? (the practice): The incredibly complex interlocking arms of the bureaucracy and the party form the pieces for elaborate games of strategy with  individuals and factions jockey for position. The key is building consensus and allowing policies and leaders to emerge by acclamation. Appointments to various sub committees, and votes of confidence, are used to gauge support, and to send signals to the leadership. Almost every action, and almost every appointment, is part of a kind-of symbolic dance in which the rules are both incredibly rigid and completely unwritten. As a result, change normally comes slowly from below and can be seen coming a long way off, however a few subtle or unsubtle signals in a keynote speech by one of the main office holders of state can change the game completely. Critics say this is painfully slow, needlessly labyrinthine, and totally undemocratic; supporters say that it merely formalises and makes transparent the back-room politicking that takes place in all countries, that it makes leadership genuinely bottom-up, and that it ensures that policy has been closely scrutinised and carefully considered.

Seniority is a key factor in all the politicking. At every level you normally get a senior group commanding the higher tier appointing the lower tiers from a junior group, until the centre of gravity shifts and the junior group become powerful enough to take over the upper tier. As a result a number of discrete political generations can be observed moving like waves through the system. It speaks for the level to which political momentum is measurable and formalised that one can predict the exact moment when one generation will take over from the next. We are currently in the middle of a change over between generations: the fourth generation are still in charge but it is thought that the fifth generation will take over in 2012 or 2013. In theory the sixth generation will take power in 2022.

It is often said that the politburo standing committee of the Communist party is the greatest source of actual political power. The Communist party certainly has an incredibly tight grip on government. Opposition groups and human rights activists are strongly suppressed, many political parties are banned, and those which are allowed struggle as the rule of the Communist party is so institutionalised that membership and support are an informal requirement for advancement in many industries. The Chinese government takes the views that “civic rights” (human rights regarding the rights of the individual in relation to the state: freedom of expression, freedom of assembly etc) are far less important than “basic rights” (human rights directly impacting upon quality of life: the right to freedom from hunger, the right to freedom from poverty). Thus they justify the brutal suppression of civic rights on the basis of their commendable record on basic rights.

Whilst the leadership are totally unwilling to listen to critics who challenge the system in its entirety, they are willing to listen to dissenting voices provided they do not refute the logic of the state. The party holds open consultations with civil society groups, academics, dissidents and the public, and does genuinely listen to the responses up to a point: the point where the voices start to challenge the governing philosophy.

How did we get here?: This is a very very short summary of what is possibly the largest subject there is.

China was inhabited by Homo Erectus over a million years ago. It can make a reasonable claim to be the world’s oldest country. There’s been a nation of sorts since at least 2000 BC and a coherent empire since Qin (he of Hero, the great wall, and the terracotta army) in 200BC. Various dynasties ruled and expanded the empire in the following fashion (click to start):


China was one of the most advanced states in the world for much of its history. However at a crucial juncture, the eighteenth and nineteenth century, it fell under the control of weak and squabbling leaders and missed the industrial revolution. The result was a series of military defeats (to Britain, to China, and to France), enforced opium trade with the UK (a result of Britain’s victory in the opium wars) and a series of revolutions, the most powerful of which was the Boxer revolution: an exceedingly violent conservative movement calling for a return to the old ways.

Things finally came to a head in 1911 when the six year old Emperor (Ai-xin-jue-luo Pu-yi: Bertolucci’s Last Emperor) was replaced in a military coup by Sun Yat-Sen who set about trying to create a modern state. He was forced to abdicate almost immediately by the leader of the Army who died shortly afterwards. This heralded the warlord era whereby almost all of China was ruled by provincial warlords. The emperor continued – but was largely irrelevant – until he was thrown out of the Forbidden City by warlords in 1924.  Sun Yat-Sen set up a base in the south of the country and his support developed into two factions: the nationalists (under Chiang Kai-shek), and the communists.


China in 1925 (blue = nationalist controlled, pink = regional warlords, orange = owned or occupied by other nations, white = largely lawless)

Under the military campaigns of Chiang Kai-shek, China was again unified under nationalist rule. They then – in 1927 – turned on the Communists sparking a civil war. From 1932 a third force entered the conflict: Japan invaded Manchuria and reinstalled the Emperor as their puppet. In 1937 they invaded central China. Meanwhile in 1934 the Communists, having been driven from their mountain bases, embarked upon the “long march”. The long march was a retreat whereby the nationalists chased the communists all over China; they destroyed 93,000 of the original 100,000 communist troops. However in doing so the communists escaped total devastation, reached remote areas where they were able to rebuild in peace, brought communism in passing to large areas of China (sowing the seeds for popular support and recruiting troops to replace those who had been lost), destroyed property owned by nationalist sympathisers over an enormous area, and allowed the communist party to reorganise under their new leader Mao Zedong.

The communists and the nationalists briefly declared a truce to fight the Japanese, but started fighting again shortly afterwards. By 1947 the communists had driven the nationalist from the mainland and a ceasefire was declared. The conflict has remained frozen ever since with nationalist controlled islands organising as the Republic of China, centring on Taiwan (Taiwan had been Japanese occupied for many years but after WW2 Japan had deliberately surrendered it to the forces of the ROC and not the PRC).

Meanwhile Tibet had used the chaos in China to escape from suzerenity and declare full independence. In 1950 the Chinese army went to Tibet in force to negotiate a return to suzerenity. In 1959 the Tibetans rebelled and again demanded full independence. The rebellion was brutally quashed and the leadership of the Tibetan state fled to India.

Mao was the first leader of the people’s republic and created a powerful personality cult. He reformed China through uncompromising social plans such as the cultural revolution and the great leap forward. Upwards of 40 million people died of starvation. Following Mao’s dotage and death (in 1975) there was a messy power struggle. Eventually Deng Xiaoping won out, and – whilst he never held any of the formal institutions of state – he dominated the politics of China from 1976 to 1989. Under Deng the market was liberalised (although a degree of state planning was retained) and the social welfare system was reduced; in other words communism in the traditional economic sense was largely abandoned. However the political structure remained intact. This caused increasing conflict with the emerging middle class who called for increasing liberalisation and democracy. Their leader was Zhao Ziyang: Premier from 1980 to 1987 and General Secretary of the Communist Party from 1987 to 1989.

Things came to a head with the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989. Students gathered initially to mourn the death of the moderate official Hu Yaobang. The numbers gathering in the square grew and it developed into a wide ranging pro reform protest lasting around seven weeks. In the end the army cleared the streets around Tienanmen square with live fire. Whilst estimates vary it is thought around 3000 people were killed.

In the aftermath  dissent was brutally crushed, Zhao Ziyang was put under house arrest and Deng Xiaoping lost power. Since then there has been some moderation in state policy – and much market reform –  under the fourth generation, but the pro-democracy movement has never really recovered.

Who’s in charge?: Whilst individuals are important, it is more the case that a ruling cadre and philosophy is in charge. This is the fourth generation of the Communist party and their official doctrine: the Scientific Development Concept. This is a largely technocratic and pragmatic set of ideas built around the goal of continued economic development and increased sustainability. The key figures are the President and chair of the Communist Party Hu Jintao, the Premier Wen Jiabao, and the chair of the NPC Wu Bangguo.

It is expected that the fifth generation will take over at the 2012 NPC – when Hu Jintao steps down as party chair – or in 2013 when Hu steps down as President. Xi Jinping is widely regarded as the leader of the fifth generation and is expected to become President. His appointment as the vice chair of the Central Military Commission was seen as a signal that Hu has accepted this succession: he had previously applied for the role and been unsuccessful.

There are two main factions within the party: the “Shanghai Clique” come from the more prosperous provinces, major cities and – in particular – Shanghai. They have mostly risen to power through their links to business interests and their networks in the centres of government. The other faction is the “Youth League”: not necessarily youthful themselves, they come from poorer provinces, rural areas, and political backwaters and rose to power the hard way,  through the structure of the Communist Youth League. Some people have identified a third faction: the “Princelings”. These are the sons and daughters of prominent politicians of former generations who benefit from the power networks their parents have created. Others suggest this is not so much a faction as a label applied by the political enemies of these individuals.

The factions do not represent ideological differences as policies normally need multi-faction support to be successful. They are more like mutual support networks. Hu and the current leadership are closely associated with the Youth League faction; Xi is more loosely associated with the Princeling faction.

The NPC currently contains 2099 delegates from the Communist party and 888 from eight other parties. I haven’t been able to find an exact breakdown of these seats, or any figures at all for the Chinese Peoples’ Consultative Conference. However the CPCC also has a (smaller) Communist party majority, increased representation for these eight parties, and a number of independent seats held by academics, technocrats, and leaders of civil society and the business community.

All the eight other parties predate 1947 and part of are a coalition called the United Front (which also contains the Communist party). This coalition came out of the war with the Nationalists and as such is a collection of the various political alliances that made sense in 1947 – and do not necessarily make sense now. The legal fiction of 1947 was that it was the United Front that runs China, and as such China is not a one party state. That idea doesn’t even really merit lip service these days; the other parties of the United Front instead act as think tanks and provide constructive criticism and advice whilst accepting the primacy of the Communist party. To briefly describe them:

  1. The largest of the eight, and the least independent from the Communist Party, is the Revolutionary Committee of the Kuomintang. It consists of those Nationalists who sided with the communists against Chiang Kai-shek when he started the civil war.
  2. The China Democratic League is a party made up of the supporters of increased democracy in China who nevertheless support the communist government.
  3. he China Democratic National Construction Association, as its name suggests, is a splinter of the China Democratic League based upon support in the manufacturing sector.
  4. The China Association for Promoting Democracy is  fairly similar to the CDL.
  5. The Chinese Peasants’ and Workers’ Democratic Party started life as the third centrist party in the 1930s. These days it acts as a kind-of lobbying group for the public health sector.
  6. The China Zhi Gong Party was founded in San Francisco by Chinese expatriates as an anti Japanese force before and during world war two. Since then it has continued as a lobbying group for the expatriate community and was influential in maintaining contact with the populations of Hong Kong and Macau before they rejoined China. As the Communist party find them useful in liaising with Chinese communities in other countries, they are favoured by the government and, in 2007, a member was made Technology minister – the first ministerial appointment of a non Communist since 1950.
  7. The Jiusan Society were an intellectual antifascist movement. These days they act as a kind-of lobbying group for the academic community and senior engineers.
  8. The Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League consists of Taiwanese expatriate communists. It is tiny and the division from the Communist party is largely artificial. However it is maintained as a separate entity in the hope that in this format communism will be easier to sell to the people of Taiwan.

There are various other banned pro democracy movements including the China Democracy Party and the New China Democracy Party. However the main political challenge to the Communist party comes from the Charter 08 movement. This grouping of 300 or so academics, dissidents, and former senior officials within the Communist party wrote an open letter to the government in 2008 calling for 19 democratic reforms and changes to human rights legislation. The government has brutally cracked down upon the original authors but the movement has not gone away. Its established leader is Liu Xiaobo, which explains both his Nobel prize and his eleven year jail sentence.

Secessionist movements are most prevalent in Tibet and Xinjiang, and often take the rather unpleasant form of ethnically motivated violence against Han settlers.

What does it look like?: China is massive. Generally speaking the east is fertile lowland whist the west is a series of plateaus reaching upwards and eventually topping out in the highest mountains on earth. In the north you have the massive Gobi desert whist in the north east you have the frozen Siberian Manchurian plateau. Development and communication has traditionally taken place along the huge floodplains of the many rivers – of which the most important are the Yellow and the Yangtze. And then there’s weird stuff like this:


What are the issues?: It is fair to say that for the most part people in China accept the governments poor record on civic freedoms in exchange for their reasonable record on basic freedoms. In other words, whilst the economy is functioning the lack of human rights and democracy is not a pressing issue for most people. However this may be slowly changing as urbanisation and market liberalisation creates both a powerful middle class hammering at the door of government, and a dissatisfied underclass. Development is traditionally thought to make totalitarianism difficult: to grossly simplify and indulge in a easy stereotype many young people may not be that interested in the thoughts of John Stuart Mill, but they are irked that the government is blocking access to youtube – so they use a proxy server and so access the most dangerous substance to any totalitarian regime: uncensored information.

Many China experts think that the fourth generation will be able to withstand the pressure for increased liberalisation but that the fifth generation will be neither willing nor able. As such they expect major liberalisation and a sea change in Chinese politics around 2025. However whilst Chinese politics is quite predictable, it is not that predictable, and no-one really knows.

As I say this is in any case not the main concern of most people: the economy is. Chinese development is progressing at a frankly terrifying pace:more than five skyscrapers are built every day, two major coal fired power stations are built every week, and the population are urbanising at a rate of an additional city the size of Chicago every week. Clearly the potential for this to all go horribly, horribly wrong is massive and averting disaster is the main concern of the government and the people. Disaster could come in all kinds of forms: deadly pollution, triggering catastrophic climate change, famine, major demographic imbalance, a cadre of displaced dirt poor sweat shop workers who are mad as hell and not going to take it any more … you name it, it might happen.

Another major problem for the economy is the amount the US owes China. America’s “war on terror”, its first stimulus package, and the George W Bush tax cuts were all largely funded by Chinese debt. For a while this put China in the enviable position of effectively holding the USA to ransom, as China could have bankrupted the USA by calling in its debt. However US debt further increased beyond this level and is now thought to stand at over a trillion dollars. This means that if China called in its debt it wouldn’t just bankrupt the USA, but the USA’s inevitable inability to pay would bankrupt China. Thus until the USA substantially pays off its debt (which won’t happen soon) the economies of the USA and China are symbiotically linked – and will succeed or fail together.

A good source of impartial information is: China brief has a slight American bias, Xinhua a Chinese government bias, and the Epoch Times a Chinese anti-government bias. However, all three are very comprehensive and if you read all three you will get to something approximating the truth.

A good book is: From a situation where there was previously a lack of books on China there are now more than you can shake a stick at. However I’ve spoken to a couple of China experts who say that all the learned works of political science are nowhere near as useful as two books that purport to be not much more than “what I did on my holidays” style gap year journals – but are in fact brilliant works of political anthropology. Peter Hessler’s River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze is the story of an American student teaching English in a small rural town in 1996, almost by accident it explains perfectly how China’s rural society works. Rachel DeWoskin’s Foreign Babes in Beijing: Behind the Scenes of a New China does the same job for urban China and is even more esoteric. It covers the story of a student of Chinese and daughter of a professor of Sinology who went to China in 1994 and, by virtue of being one of the only Caucasians in town, became the star of one of China’s most popular TV shows. It also tells the story of how Beijing works.

In terms of the heavy works of political science Andrew Walder’s Communist Neo-Traditionalism: Work and Authority in Chinese Industry is good on the Communist party, Kraus et al’s Urban Spaces in Contemporary China: The Potential for Autonomy and Community in Post-Mao China is good on urbanisation, Dru Gladney’s Muslim Chinese: Ethnic Nationalism in the People’s Republic is good on separatism and ethnicity, Perry and Wasserstrom’s Popular Protest and Political Culture in Modern China is good on the democratization movement, and White et al’s In Search of Civil Society: Market Reform and Social Change in Contemporary China is good on civil society.

I haven’t read Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China because it looks really long and gruelling. However it is supposed to be absolutely fantastic as a human’s – and particularly woman’s – eye view of the long march, the civil war and the cultural revolution.

When are the next elections?: The NPC will next be re-elected in 2013.


§ One Response to China (People’s Republic)

  • CTerry says:

    In addition to the books you mentioned I highly recommend Mark Leonard’s ‘What Does China Think?’:

    Its a short book (I have twice read it in the process of a single afternoon) but it is very enlightening. In short it is a book based on the view that Chinese policy is influenced very much by academics and the book is split into three chapters – one on economics, one on democracy and one on foreign relations. Leonard essentially gives you a feel for the major theories, splits and conflicts in this area, some of which have been put into practice – and you will be surprised by the uniquely Chinese elements in all three chapters.

    I cannot claim the book is comprehensive, but it is not meant to be and it is excellent introduction to Chinese thinking.

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