How Does China Work Anyway – BrotherAdso – Dec 10

So how the hell does China work? We post post post about it all the damn time.
Well for one thing it is functionally a one party state, but the party and state are not the same thing.

[Caption: though they do wear the same damn suits]


Well, the Communist party doesn’t have the numbers (it has about 78 million members, not all of who are active, and about 40 million cadres), coordination, or expertise to staff every village and township office and every judgeship with its members. Since the 1980s, there has been an ongoing diversification of power expression.

So in China, you have to make two important distinctions: the central government, where Communist Party affiliation and official rank are similar if not identical, and the local and regional governments, where there is divergence of authority.

This bifurcafted system is one of the main reasons the PRC’s central government and administration have remained so effective into the 1990s despite the slow erosion of some of the ideological and party elements of power in previous years.

State Central Government

In the central government of the PRC, the highest authority is the National People’s Congress, the 全国人民代表大会. In practice, the Standing Committee of the NPC excercizes a legislative power for most of the year, and consists of a select group of members of the NPC. Though they exercise a lot of constitutional power, they’re typically well-trained Communist party functionaries with a lot of experience in the Politburo or other bodies. Within the Congress, it is the Standing Committee which functionally excercizes power — full meetings are rare and mostly symbolic in nature.

Next on the ‘state functions side’ is the State Council (国务院), which replicates the functions of an executive branch and administrative agency. More than the NPC or it’s Standing Committee, the members of the State Council control administrative priorities and decisions on a day-to-day basis. The leaders of the State Council are always members of the Party, and usually of the Central Committee, and its head, the Premiere, is the main domestic authority.

Because the State functions are so heavily interpenetrated with the Party at high levels, the bifurcated model of government is much less powerful and evident than at provincial and especially local levels, which brings us to….

Party Central Government

On the Party side, the Politburo (中國共產黨中央政治局) and Central Committee make key decisions – especially high level personnel appointments. They’re self-perpetuating committees with several potential interlocutory agencies that check them (or promise to check them) if they become openly abusive. In particular, the Politburo is constitutionally appointed by the Central Committee, even though this hasn’t been really the case since the 1980s.

The Central Military Commission (中央军事委员会), also on the Party side (but with implications for the pure State side), is a lynchpin because it exists on both sides of the coin. It actually has two different names and administrative functions which are both administered by the same committee.

Caption: now that’s brutalism! Go military commission!

so wait, this is a shit-ton of information, why do I care?

Well, because it’s interesting.

But more importantly, because the way the Chinese organize their Party-State relations can give people who actually think about how to build or not build leftist states some important food for thought.

For example, the model of the highest levels of State and Party – bifuricated but interlaced – provides a leadership which can make effective decisions, but which spreads out authority enough to ensure that unstable or ineffective individuals are less able to set bad priorities or cripple the system. In addition, the consultative model inherent in the central committees creates an effective way to share the expertise and perspective of good leaders while make sure ideas can cross-pollinate across branches and individuals.

so what else does the Central Party do then?

The central party also runs a couple of other very important institutions. The first is the Central School (共中央党校), whose purpose and goal is to educate and train future party leaders, not just in ideological modes and doctrines, but in cooperative techniques, geopolitics, administration, anti-corrpution, and so on. The establishment of the school also creates a place for connections to be made among each group and generation of Party leadership, and a way to retrain or utilize party members not currently in rotation on one of the main power committees. For example, the incumbent President after Wen Jiabao, Ji Xinping, is the current head of the Central Party School.

Caption: congratulating graduates of this august institution…wearing totally westernstyle graduation regalia. Huh.

The other is the Discipline and Inspection Committee (中国共产党中央纪律检查委员), which is actually remarkably similar to the role of the office of the Imperial Censorate and other associated offices in the late Imperial era. The Committee is huge – employing at least 2,000 people centrally in Beijng and many thousands more in the provinces, and many more indirectly. Its counterpart on the State side (since the CDIC is technically Party-internal) is the Ministry of Supervision (中华人民共和国监察部). Together, they exercise a lot of authority to bring cases, indict individuals, and move the levers of power on the state and party apparatuses to enforce their decisions (even though their own real power is very poorly defined).

What about local governance?

Just like the Central Government technically has divisions between Government office and Party office at most levels, all the localities are also governed in a two-half system, from province to township.

So let’s take Liaoning Province as an example. Liaoning has a Governor, at the moment Chen Zhenggao (陈政高), who has extensive experience in the Party and is a party member, but at the moment isn’t sitting on any major Party committees. His counterpart is the CPC Committee Secretary, currently Zhang Wenyue (張文岳), who is politically extremely reliable but less well connected in the region than Chen Zhenggao. The Governor has some autonomous power over the police and everyday administration of the region, but Zhang, as the CPC secretary, has much more final executive control and fewer symbolic duties of state.

This bifurcation continues down the scale, until at the local level you see power balance much more evenly between the local party and the local government, resulting in competition for bribe money etc.

OK, now this is a bunch of names and shit – what’s the upshot?

The dual-official system at the lower level creates an effective interlocking beaurocracy. At the highest levels of the government, where CPC rank and effective state authority are closely associated, but serve to spread out power among a larger number of high party officials. However, at the lower levels, it is not so likely that all people in the State side of the apparatus will be Party members at all, much less high ranking ones (note: this isn’t true of Province-level positions and most of the Autonomous Regions). This means there can be effective rivalries for power and dialogues between different wings of the apparatus. In addition, the State side can encourage inspection of the Party side, and Party officials can rotate into and out of State side positions. This is an effective way for the Party to educate or shake up positions and prevent too much local-institutional corruption.

The Chinese have also studied closely models of local and institutional governance in other countries, particularly Latin America and Singapore, and are trying to implement some of the corporatist models of countries like Chile. This model allows the state to actively intervene and place Communist and State officials in positions of power in powerful commercial and NGO groups. These models add a third leg to the stool of the State-Party model. In addition, they strengthen civil outlets outside the party, which has a relatively small membership.

Yeah, but what about all those propaganda campaigns that Maggotmaster so loved?

Well, the ‘golden age’ of silly propaganda is certainly over. But there are two remaining slogans it is still vitally important to understand and engage with. The first is the Scientific Development Concept campaign.

Scientific Development, pushed by Hu Jintao and members of his political clique into being included in the Chinese official party constitution and statements in 2007, makes it clear that an emphasis will be put on three things:
1) Equalizing economic gain and opportunity across the country
2) Creating intra-party democratic checking mechanisms.
3) Creating extra-party democratic and activist organizations that share membership with the party, to solve environmental problems.

Two of the most interesting examples of how these are working: masses accusation centers, which are anonymised phone lines, tip boxes, emails, and physical locations where citizens have direct access to the party-side disciplinary and inspection committees, and can bypass other party-side institutions to bring allegations of abuse and corruption to light. Second is approval period and party elections – most villiage and sub province level party branches and state organs have begun conducting elections among intra-party candidates for the office, and, once a candidate is elected or appointed, there is a ‘lag time’ of several weeks or a month where individuals can lodge complaints or worries about the individual who is going to occupy the post – and possibly halt their investiture.

This is further developed by the Harmonious Society Program, a subset of the Scientific Development campaign. The Harmonious Society program aims specifically to involve different sectors of society in government initiatives to create greater citizen investment in local offices – for example, environmental cleanups or ‘patriotic initiatives’ like community classes. This also includes a promotion of economic development of inland, western provinces at the expense of large technologically cutting-edge projects in Eastern cities – an approach which has proven very controversial.

The second is the Three Represents.

Jiang Zemin introduced the Three Represents in 2000, intentending it as his standing contribution to Chinese ideology and to refelect the problems he saw as emerging in the increasingly powerful economy his policies had allowed to grow. The Three Represents aimed to include new groups of people in the ranks of the party – particularly young high-achievers and intellectuals, and entrepeneurs and business-owners. The Three Represents took (and takes) a variety of approaches to this – perhaps the most interesting is A ‘decoupling’ of State enterprises. Many state-run factories and shops were separated from the funding and supervision of central planners, but retained the same staff, function (and many times, the same mission and limitations). The managers and owners of these enterprises were suddenly ‘independent entrepreneurs’, but also long-time party members. Voila! A more representative party.

Of course, there are advantages that emerged in the late-1990s and early-2000s that drew some members of the commercial class – for example, the higher level leadership of most of China’s main lending banks is subject to Party approval, and contain party representation in decision making at many levels. Thus, businesses with party members in their leadership are more likely to get good commercial loans and development funding.


Sorry for the lack of picures, it’s not really a topic which is real picture-friendly. Thanks for reading if you did, I can try to answer questions too. The Special Autonomous Regions, the Inter-Party Relations Committee, and the Eight Democratic Parties are all interesting and not touched on here.

Part Two: Special Administraion

Autonomous Regions in China

So the second part of this post will examine how China uses political and economic compromises to create expansion and stability without disturbing the solidity of the party system as it exists in most of the country.

There are three large ‘types’ of special administrative divisions in the PRC. The first are Special Autonomous Regions (usually but not always ethnic in nature), the second are Special Administrative Regions (political and economic in nature) and Special Economic Regions/Zones (soely economic in nature). Municipalities, while important, don’t deviate too significantly from the standard party/state structure detailed above, and also I don’t know much about them (it’s a hole).

So yeah. First off, Special Autonomous Regions.

Well, the need for Special Autonomous Regions comes from the fact that China is 92% Han (汉人), where its significant that the demonym (Hanren) in Mandarin is the same as the characters for the historical Han Dynasty and the Han river in Northern China. And in a country with such an overwhelming majority with an extremely powerful sense of identity, ethnic minorities (of which the PRC recognizes fifty-odd), will be in serious trouble.

China loves to make a big deal out of how inclusive they are, down to having special ethnicity zoos

So the CCPs solution has been to create Special Autonomous Regions.

Special Autonomous Regions are governed via the same divided state-party system outlined above, but have special processes for appointment of certain officials, especially the Governor and members of the financial boards and bodies.

Special Autonomous Regions are allowed use of ethnic languages and scripts – which, when you consider China has recently gone so far as banning use of English words in popular press and on television, even to refer to global trends and such, is a pretty big deal. In theory, they have a lot of economic planning leeway, but in reality they are fairly tightly controlled except in their own special economic zones, especially Guangxi and Xinjiang (because the first is host to drug trafficking and the second is exceptionally rich in natural resources).

Unlike those places, Mongolia (ironically enough) is one of the safer, more placed SARs

Just like the primary divisions of China, the Special Autonomous Regions have rotating boards of officials on the State and Party side, but tend to have stronger ties to the local governments on the township and village level – which can be both a good and a bad thing, depending on levels of corruption or ethnic antagonism. It’s important to note that, though some high-level officials in the Autonomous Regions are (as they are supposed to be) appointed from the minorities in the region, the majority will often be Han Chinese officials on rotation from other provinces. This is particularly true in troublesome areas, where the local minorities simply aren’t trusted by the central government and sometimes by their own Autonomous Region government.

So does it work?

Anti-land reclaimation riots in Guangxi


Riots in Urumqi

Or less well than the system for standard provinces, it seems. This might just be a function of poverty – the Special Autonomous Regions tend to be poorer and more rural as well as ethnically different – but the State-Party division of power, which tends to provide some checking and internal revision in the standard provinces, seems to break down when faced with an ethnic element. It doesn’t end well.

Guangxi, Tibet, and Xinjiang are three of the most troubled areas of China despite the presence and fairly effective management of the autonomy system.

So wait, there are two kinds of Special Autonomy though, right?

Yes – we were just talking about ethnically based special autonomous zones, which have been around more or less as long as the PRC has, and have special consideration in the constitution, etc. There are also political special zones, which don’t have a significant ethnic component, and have different political management systems altogether from the bifurcated state-party system in the provinces and ethnic regions.

There are only two politically unique administrative regions, and, like any good leftist, I bet you can guess why these areas are so different?

Whats that?

You guessed right!

Yessir, these were two of the most important bases of Western colonization of China: Hong Kong and Macau (Shanghai was, too, but Shanghai’s industrial, national, and financial importance was such that it became and important symbol in the civil war and couldn’t receive the same political exemptions). The framework for their exceptional system is as old as the Deng administration, which talked about the return of Hong Kong and Macau (and indeed Taiwan) as being feasible under “One nation, two systems” (一国两制)

Hong Kong is the more important of the two, so we’ll talk about it rather than Maccau.

Hong Kong has some oversight from Beijing – the winner of their elections is appointed by the Beijing government to be Chief Executive once it is clear that he or she has won fairly – thus far, Beijing hasn’t shown any desire to interfere because of disapproval of a candidate, and has given most people their stamp of approval. These elections, and the fact that elected officials are able to appoint other administrators with a great deal of leeway (again, compared to the party-state relationship, rotational system, retraining, masses-approval and other systems on the mainland), make the Hong Kong political system remarkably free from direct control.

The economic system in Hong Kong has none of the barriers of entry or state control of financial capital you find on the mainland, either – it is more open than even the Special Economic Zones, though it has its own versions of mainland-style corruption.

Beautiful Hong Kong?

It’s worth noting, though, that Hong Kong isn’t exactly an open society – which is rather the way Beijing wants and needs it to be. For example, Falun Gong (established in a court case as legal and protected) has been repeatedly repressed on flimsy grounds, anti-PRC radio stations have been shut down, and street demonstrations are subject to pretty tremendous police brutality and very very strong regulation and prior approval.

Hong Kong is, according to the Communist Party itself, a testing ground for a Singaporean style of governance in China, and many people in openness-leaning cliques look to Hong Kong for ‘best practices’ and guidance for implementing certain accountability and openness reforms in the PRC itself without causing too many problems.

Alright, the last kind of special zone is the solely economic one: the Special Economic Zone. Interestingly, the biggest and most important Special Economic zones roughly coincide to the treaty ports China was forced to open to western occupation during the 19th century, but, y’know, that couldn’t possibly be of symbolic or real importance. Nope.

The biggest Special Economic Zone is probably Shenzhen, but the growth and creation of Shenzhen is closely intertwined with the special political and economic nature of Hong Kong, so there are more typical and useful cases to look at farther North.

Xiamen and Dalian are both excellent examples. Xiamen is one of the older SEZs, and was originally chosen because of its proximity to Taiwan, Macau, and Hong Kong back in 1979-1980. What makes the SEZs so special?

Well, first is availability of capital. In most of the provinces and areas, the Chinese system of government-party connected banking controls capital more closely, but there are tremendous incentives to invest in the SEZs – these take the form of both tax breaks and lower rates of interest or ease of getting loans. In addition, Chinese firms are free to seek partnerships with and capital from foreign firms when they are operating in a SEZ, which they typically cannot do elsewhere.

Banking: key to controlled and created capital movement?

While the actual format of provincial administration and registry for the population and so on is the same as in the rest of China, the governments of the SEZs get special considerations, just like the firms that operate there. They aren’t usually part of large scale initiatives and projects that come from the central province administration, they have their own financial structures and goals partly separate from the province, and have their own looser and central-local cooperative regulations on import, export, and other trade activities.

The final catch, though, is that they must be export-focused, capital-focused enterprises. The regulation of this is tough, of course – it is done on an industry by industry basis by special boards maintained within the SEZs.

So if you look at Xiamen and Dalian, you have two different models. Xiamen, like Shenzhen, was in many ways a “labor camp” – access to shipping and migrant labor from interior Fujian and Guangdong combined with the strictures above to create a place where industrial manufacturing could absolutely explode – including food processing and export and light manufacturing. In the past five or ten years, a second stage of development has built on the first, and the Party has taken a very strong interest in the relationship of the second stage to the first. Second only to Shanghai and Hong King, Xiamen has become a finances and communications service city, because of the relaxation of the import/export and capital-intense regulations in their SEZ (and the relative wealth and infrastructre built up from 1980-1996 or 2000). Dalian, on the other hand, embraced the basic strictures of SEZ development and has become a petrochemical, electronics, shipbuilding, and trade processing center – high capital, high investment industries which requie relatively little labor force, but still propel the economy forwards in ways which would’t be possible without the SEZ policies.

So how on earth does all this dynamism coexist with a political structure that’s fundamentally the same as the one in the first part of this post? It’s an interesting question – the other two experiments (different political structure without different economic structure, radically different political and economic structure) are both problematic and hard to evaluate or manage effectively for the CPC, but the SEZs (despite some of the local unrest over state evictions and the nascent labor movement) have proven to be much more of a benefit than a cost.

So there you have it – a broad outline of the current Chinese political system and some of its exceptions.

The United Front and the Eight Democratic Parties

Well, so far we’ve covered the structure of the Chinese government, the way that interacts with specialized structures for ethnically or economically distinctive regions, and seen current event (the White Paper On Corruption) come into the narrative.

The last part of this post is about China’s nods to representation and the “alternative parties” in the Chinese system.

First off, you have to understand the origin of the CCP’s relationship with the ‘Eight Democratic Parties’.

The Second United Front: Getting Along with Whitey

Back during the Civil War and the post- Sun Yat-Sen/孫中山 reorganization of power by imperial interests, Communist parties were shattered or simply ill-funded and organized. There was a huge multiplicity of political factions in China, which ranged from monarchist to fascist to center-democratic. In order to get political bargaining power during truce periods, the CCP cultivated an early and close relationship with certain leftist elements of the main factions, especially the China Democratic League and the Zhi Gong Party.

Most of these parties were founded formally in the mid-1930s, and did not find themselves in formal alliance with the CCP until near the end of the civil war. Initially, many of them found a very functional role in the new Chinese state, since the CCP didn’t have the resources to totally consolidate political and economic power until the mid-to-late 1950s, especially in complex urban areas like Shanghai, Wuhan, and Nanjing.

Survivors during the Civil War in Shanghai, living in a very different world than 90% of the rest of China

So, that’s why they exist in one sense – as a historical legacy.

The most important historical-legacy parties are the

China Zhi Gong Party
This party is the legacy of the political and economic influence of Chinese expats in Singapore, Malaysia, Vietnam, the Phillippines, and the United States – hell, it was founded in San Francsico, not Sanxing. So what value does such a puppet of capitalist interests have, you ask?

The Early congress of the Zhi Gong party, which threw its lot in with the CPC

Well, initially, it acted as a counterweight to the China Lobby in the US Government in the 1930s and 1940s, which was badly dominated by Jiang Jieshi’s partisans, and as a bulwark in the CCP’s finances (though the majority were still supplied by the International). It had a lot of political clout because of its age and its closeness to Sun Yat-Sen’s already just about sacred memory. In addition, it was a powerful force for aid in the fight against the Japanese, though it has been accused of being too cozied up to the British after they moved their headquarters to Hong Kong.

But when the Japanese took Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaysia, the overseas Chinese communities there took a big chunk of the occupation’s brutality, and both the financing and membership of the Zhi Gong Party evaporated.

Hong Kong, and much of the network of overseas Chinese, burns.

So the CCP invited the Zhi Gong to return to formal coalition after the party, a shattered shell of itself, abandoned Jiang Jieshi in 1947 to strike out on its own. The party came along, and as soon as the People’s Republic was inaugurated, it had a significant number of reserved seats in the NPCC (which is symbolic but ineffective – see the very first post), and, more importantly, seats in county and city government and on specific boards and initiatives.

Today, the Zhi Gong, which was very badly damaged during the Hundred Flowers and especially during the Cultural revolution, is undergoing a rapid increase of relevance. The modern CCP uses the Zhi Gong as an intermediary with Hong Kong democrats, international organizations and other countries, and to keep the wealthy and influential Chinese communities overseas in the orbit of Beijing and inclined to lobby for pro-Chinese trade parties. Numberically, it’s one of the larger parties, with a little over 150,000 registered members, but that is little clue as to their real influence as a favored tool of the CCP itself during a period of internationalization.

The head of the Zhi Gong party at the moment, Li Peng, is the former Chairman of the NPCC standing commission, and was treated as both a senior diplomat and legislative authority for many years. He had tremendous influence in the 1990s and he, along with other secondary party officials, make state visits to conferences and so on.

The Zhi Gong taking part in negotiations about trade and technology

The other highly influential and important secondary party is the China Democratic Leaguge. Just like the Zhi Gong party, the CDL was tremendously influential during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War II – in fact, probably more so. Why? Because far from simply being a second voice outside of the GMD/China Lobby, the US State Department saw the CDL as a viable third power group in China, without the corruption of Jiang’s GMD or the unacceptable Communism of Mao.

The original CDL

Today, the CDL serve the same purpose internally that the Zhi Gong party does with regards to overseas Chinese. It’s actually pretty damned influential for a small party – its leader gets to be on the Standing Committee, which means he can influence appointments and legislation.

The modern CDL has almost 200,000 members – again not something which should be taken too strongly as a measurement of its power and influence. For example, the current head of the CDL is also a world-famous physicist, Jiang Shusheng, and he represents the highly elite scientific and intellectual membership of the CDL quite well.

The CDL routinely does “wonky” stuff on food security, infrastructure, and education, and serves a great political purpose by redirecting some of the reforming energy of the university-educated elite into an acceptable, controlled, and vetted “fourth party”.

Guo Quan, who was the model CDL member until recently — now in jail for ten yeas.

The third important party is the Revolutionary Committee Of the GMD.

Huh? I thought, you say, that the GMD was in Taiwan/the hated enemy of the people. How do they have a revolutionary committee? What kind of revisionist shit is this?

What are these fuckers doing here?

Well, the GMD split (like many other parties) in 1949-1950, as the war was lost and the exodus to Taiwan began. The RCGMD went through a really pronounced period of recession in the 1950-1980 period. However, it has always maintained a large number of seats and a relatively large numbers of members, sometimes people who were ‘quarantined’ from the regular political system because of ties to Taiwan and the GMD. Today, the GMD has a very important role as the symbolic ‘reform party’ of the post-1990 Chinese government. The GMD, many of whose membership are government-side bureaucratic insiders, have taken a strong role in proposing internal legal reforms to create anti-corruption oversight and increase the interaction of the government-side appointment process and the people.

The other minor parties are much smaller, typically with less than 100,000 members. Each one is analogous to the GMD – for example, the Chinese National Democratic Construction League plays a strong role in the proposition of policy with regards to industrial development, tax policy, and industrial-applied scientific research.

So what’s the goddamned point of all these tiny 100-200,000 person parties?

Well, for the CCP, they provide extremely useful tools for a number of situations.

First, they neatly segregate interest groups which could be troublesome and put a closer track on them.

Second, they provide a slightly outside-the-box viewpoint on problems, since their well-educated members don’t have the same worries about internal party advancement as regular members of the Central Committee but have more standing than many NPCC members.

Third, they provide a method of outsider interaction for both diplomatic and political purposes. China can claim a much stronger image of democracy as long as it keeps these parties active, and can use them to relate to countries and factions that reject the central CCP.

Fourth, as the CCP moves, as per the recent White Paper, to increase certain kinds of controlled internal democracy and anti-corruption, pro-press campaigns, the infrastructure and known-quantity high level members of the Eight Democratic Parties will provide a controlled alternative and set of personnel to implement those policies.

So in the next decade, you’ll be seeing more of the past and future members of the United Front – remember where they fit into the larger structure of the Chinese Government.