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Congressional Research Service, "Understanding China's Political System," May 10, 2012

This CRS report was written by Susan V. Lawrence (specialist in Asian Affairs) and Michael F. Martin (specialist in Asian Affairs).
May 10, 2012

This report is designed to provide Congress with a perspective on the contemporary political system of China, the only Communist Party-led authoritarian state in the G-20 grouping of major economies. China’s Communist Party dominates state and society in China, is committed to maintaining a permanent monopoly on power, and is intolerant of those who question its right to rule. Nonetheless, analysts consider China’s political system to be neither monolithic nor rigidly hierarchical. Jockeying among leaders and institutions representing different sets of interests is common at every level of the system. A test of the political system will come later this year, when the Communist Party plans to usher in a new set of top leaders at its 18th
 Congress. China’s last two major political transitions, in 1997 and 2002, unfolded relatively smoothly. This year, the political system has been shaken by the recent ouster of a senior Party leader, Bo Xilai. The unity of the remaining leadership remains unclear.

The report opens with a brief overview of China’s leading political institutions. They include the Communist Party and its military, the People’s Liberation Army; the State, led by the State Council, to which the Party delegates day-to-day administration of the country; and the National People’s Congress (NPC), China’s unicameral legislature. The NPC is meant to oversee the State Presidency, the State Council, the Supreme People’s Court, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (China’s public prosecutor’s office), and the military. In practice, the legislature is controlled by the Communist Party and is able to exercise little oversight over any of those institutions.

Following the overview, the report introduces a number of distinct features of China’s formal political culture and discusses some of their implications for U.S.-China relations. Those features include the fact that China is led not by one leader, but by a committee of nine; that provincial leaders are powerful players in the system; that the system treats statements by individual leaders as less authoritative than documents approved by committee; and that ideology continues to matter in China, with the Communist Party facing vocal criticism from its left flank each time it moves further away from its Marxist roots. Other themes include the importance of meritocracy as a form of legitimization for one-party rule, and ways in which meritocracy is being undermined; the introduction of an element of predictability into elite Chinese politics through the enforcement of term and age limits for holders of public office; the Chinese system’s penchant for long-term planning; and the system’s heavy emphasis on maintaining political stability. The next section of the report discusses governance challenges in the Chinese political system, from “stove-piping” and bureaucratic competition, to the distorting influence of bureaucratic rank, to factionalism, corruption, and weak rule of law, as highlighted by the case of the blind legal advocate Chen Guangcheng. A text box discusses the case of the disgraced senior leader Bo Xilai.

The second half of the report is devoted to detailed discussion of China’s formal political structures—the Party, the military, the State, the National People’s Congress, a consultative body known as the China People’s Political Consultative Conference, and China’s eight minor political parties, all of which are loyal to the Communist Party. Also discussed are other political actors who are playing a role in influencing policy debates, including the media, big business, research institutes, university academics, associations, societies, and grassroots non-governmental organizations. The report concludes with a discussion of prospects for political reform, noting that while China’s Premier Wen Jiabao has called for undefined political reform, Party policy is to reject vigorously the notion of a multi-party system, separation of powers, a bicameral legislature, or a federal system, on the grounds that all are unsuited to China’s conditions.

Click here for a listing of reports released by the Congressional Research Service.