CHINA’S POLITICAL INSTITUTIONS: AN ASSESSMENT OF POLITICAL STABILITY
China is the fastest growing economy today and is a rising economic and military power. This has significant impacts on regional and global balance of power and in the international system and thus also affects regional and global security. In connection, this paper aims to examine the political institutions of the country in order to assess its level of political stability The paper seeks to develop an assessment of the extent of China’s political stability focusing on political institutions with given set of criteria. This can aid in knowing the similarities and differences between and among the countries in East Asian region and in so doing know how politically stable China is with respect to other countries of East Asia. The paper is divided into sections that will tackle political institutions then after assess its political stability based on indentified criteria. Concluding statements and assessment are given at the end of the paper.
According to the Library of Congress-Federal Reserve Division (2006), China is a unitary and socialist state whose constitution calls on the nation to “concentrate on socialist modernization by following the road of building socialism with Chinese characteristics” all the while adhering to the “leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory” as well as “the important thought of the Three Represents,” which are attributed to former CCP general secretary and president of China Jiang Zemin; political processes are guided by the CCP constitution and, increasingly, by the state constitution, both promulgated in 1982 (CCP constitution revised in 2002; state constitution amended in 1988, 1993, 1999, 2004). According to Martin (2010), China’s government is managed by the State Council, which is headed by its premier and the “Members of the State Council include in addition to the premier, a variable number of vice premiers, five state councillor, and 29 ministers and heads of State Council commissions” (East-West Economic Development Center 2007).
This shows that China has two heads: the Head of Government is its Premier (currently Wen Jiabao) while the Head of State is its President (currently Hu Jintao). This describes then China’s Parliamentary System of Government and because power is centralized, the country has a unitary form of government with the “local governments enjoying varying degree of autonomy” (Martin 2010). According to Article 57 of China’s constitution, “The National People's Congress of the People's Republic of China is the highest organ of state power” and its highest officers are the president and vice president of the NPC, who are directly elected by its members; Articles 85 and 92 of China’s constitution state that the State Council is the executive arm of the government and reports to the NPC (Martin 2010). Wang (1994) has noted that the government of the People’s Republic of China consists essentially of the National People’s Congress, the State Council, Provincial and local governments and people’s congresses, and a court system.
Explaining the country’s National Parliament which is the legislative branch of government, Wang (1994) writes about the National People’s Congress or the NPC saying that it “is the highest government organ and has constitutional duties similar to those of many parliamentary bodies in other nations.” Further, he has noted that the body is empowered to amend the constitution, to make laws, and to supervise enforcement; the NPC designates and may remove the premier and other members of the state council and can elect the president of the Supreme People’s Court and chief procurator of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate upon recommendation of the President of the People’s Republic. Moreover, Wang has discussed that the NPC is mandated by the constitution to meet at least once a year and its annual session in the national capital Beijing usually lasts for about two weeks; its permanent body is the Standing Committee which acts on behalf of the Congress when the NPC is not in session. According further to Wang, under the constitution, the Standing Committee has the power to interpret the constitution, to enact or amend statutes, to adjust plans for national economic and social development, to annul local government regulations, to supervise the central government’s administrative organs, and to appoint and remove court personnel as well as diplomatic envoys abroad; the constitution has also given power to the Standing Committee to enforce martial law in the event of domestic disturbance.
The State Council is the Central Government’s Executive Organ. According to Wang (1992), the State Council is the nation’s highest executive organ which administers the government through functional ministries and commissions. As earlier said, “The constitution stipulates that the State Council should consist of a premier, vice premiers, and heads of national ministries and commissions” (Wang 1994). Wang additionally notes that because the full State Council is too large for effective decision making, an inner Cabinet of the premier and his vice premiers has assumed this role. The State Council is the command headquarters for a network of bureaus and agencies staffed by cadres who administer and coordinate the government’s programs at the provincial and local levels (Barnett 1967 in Wang 1994).
Judicial authority for the state as provided for by the constitution is exercised by three judicial organs: the people’s courts, the people’s procuratorates, and the public security bureaus (Wang 1994). China has a four-level court system: at the top is the Supreme People’s Court in Beijing; lower courts are the higher people’s courts in provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities; intermediate people’s courts are at the prefecture level and also in parts of provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities; basic people’s courts are in counties, towns, and municipal districts; special courts handle matters affecting the military, railroad transportation, water transportation, and forestry (Martin 2010). According to Wang (1992), the Supreme People’s Court is responsible and accountable to the NPC and its Standing Committee and it supervises the administration of justice of the local people’s courts and the special people’s courts. Wang additionally notes that there is a parallel system of people’s procuratorates alongside the court system which is headed by the Supreme People’s Procuratorate which is responsible to the NPC and supervises the local procuratorates at the various levels. He explains that a procurator serves two functions as prosecuting attorney and public defender during a trial; it has a responsibility to monitor and review the government organs which includes the courts to provide a legal check on the civil bureaucracy and to authorize the arrests of criminals and counterrevolutionaries. This means that the body examines charges brought by the public security bureau (the police) and decides whether to bring the case before a trial court as explained by Wang.
The ruling party in China since 1949 is the Chinese Communist Party. The CCP is the source of all political power and has the exclusive right to legitimatize and control all other political institutions and solely determines social, economic and political goals for the society; these attainments are pursued by carefully recruiting its members and placing them into party organs that supervise and control all other institutions and groups in society (Wang 1994). This describes to us that China has a one party system with only one dominating party, the CCP. According to the Library of Congress-Federal Research Division (2006), the CCP’s national congress is the party’s highest body and it convenes every five years usually prior to the National People’s Congress; to operate it elects a Central Committee that in turn elects or approves the members of the Political Bureau and that organ’s even more elite Standing Committee. The central committee is vested with the supreme power to govern party affairs and to enact party policies when the Party Congress is not in session (Wang 1994). Wang further adds that the Politburo and its Standing Committee in essence possess “boundless power” over the general policies of the party and all important matters of the regime that affect the government organs; it is the Politburo that selects top personnel to direct the vast apparatus of the party, the government, and the military. All of China’s approximately 1 million villages are expected to hold competitive, direct elections for subgovernmental village committees under the Organic Law of the Village Committees; deputies to local people’s congresses of provinces, centrally administered municipalities, and cities divided into districts are elected by the people’s congress at the next lower level and deputies to people’s congresses of counties, cities not divided into districts, municipal districts, townships, ethnic townships, and towns are elected directly by their constituencies to five-year terms (Library of Congress-Federal Research Division 2006). James Wang (1994) has outlined the steps involved in local elections: first, establishment of electoral districts for a county (the local county and township governments determine their own ratios of population per deputy); second, publicizing of the election laws; third, registration of eligible voters (the citizens who are at least 18 years of age except those who were deprived of political rights by law); fourth, nomination of candidates (the CCP, other minor “democratic parties”, and mass organizations can nominate); fifth, campaigning for votes initiated by the candidates and the voting groups that nominated them; and sixth, elections which is held within the various electoral districts.
The social structure of China is made up of broad occupational groups in society which are the peasants, industrial workers, party or government bureaucrats, intellectuals, and military personnel and each of these possesses a certain amount of political influence in society and articulates its vested interests (Wang 1994). Yang Guangbin (2007) says that multiple interest groups managed to emerge and exert extensive influence in China. He identifies the four types of them to institutional interest groups, corporation interest groups, associational interest groups, and anomic interest groups. Institutional interest groups and corporation interest groups according to Guangbin are powerful groups that seek privileges or favorable policies through policy-making or through the administrative departments and supervising departments and through their special government and business relationship. Associational interest groups on the other hand according to Guangbin are used to mobilize institutional support and acts as policy instruments rather than channels of public articulation though some of them play a positive role in local governance. While anomic interest groups as described by Guangbin are weak which often resort to violence to articulate their needs which is called “social protest”.
In the case of the military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is as crucial to Chinese politics as the Party and the government (Martin 2010). As one of the major problems facing the Chinese, the military continues to play an important if not decisive role in Chinese politics (Wang 1992). According to Martin (2010), the PLA is China’s unified military organization, responsible for all air, land, and sea forces and is divided into five main service branches: air force; ground forces; naval force; the reserve force; and the second artillery command (responsible for nuclear and missile weaponry); there are currently approximately 3 million people serving in China’s military. Martin Wilbur (1968 in Wang 1992) defines militarism in Chinese political development as a “system of organizing political power in which force is the normal arbiter in the distribution of power and in the establishment of policy”. Wang notes that modern Chinese political development is to a large extent influenced by the power of armies on one hand and by the techniques involved in the use of armies and in military organization on the other.
This section assesses China’s political stability using the following measurable indicators: separate and independent government and political institutions; rational actor in decision making; social capital and political mass in the population; political will; and social security.
Separate and independent government and political institutions means that there is a line that separates the structures and functions of the various institutions in a country and there is independence among them which enables them to work for the benefit of the whole system. In the case of China, since the premier is elected from the NPC which is the legislative branch there is a fusion of powers between the legislative and executive branch although structurally there is distinction between them. It is important to take a look at the judicial branch whether it is separate and independent from the other branches which will ensure that there is a check to the exercise of power from other branches. But examining the institutions as earlier discussed, function wise independence can in some measures be questioned. As written above, both the Supreme People’s Court and Supreme People’s Procuratorate are “responsible and accountable” to the NPC and its standing Committee. Also, the NPC can elect the president of the Supreme People’s Court and chief procurator of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate upon recommendation of the President of the People’s Republic. In this case, the independence of the judiciary is not at all secured and the NPC can hold its grip to the judicial branch whenever it deems it to be politically necessary. Constitutionally, the exercise of judicial power shall be independent and without interference from “administrative organs, public organizations or individuals”; to what extent the provision is applied in practice remains to be seen (Wang 1992).
The People’s Republic of China is comprised of two vertically integrated, but interlocking institutions: the Chinese Communist Party headed by the Party Politburo and its Standing Committee and the other is the state government headed by the premier who presides over the State Council (Martin 2010). This describes the complexity of China’s institutions and the dominance of the Chinese Communist Party in political and governmental affairs. Martin also discusses that throughout China, Party or the CCP and government structures closely parallel one another, with Party committees and representatives present not only in government agencies, but also in most organizations and institutions, including universities and foreign-owned enterprises. This largely describes how the CCP shape Chinese politics. Currently, Hu Jintao is the President and is at the same time the Party’s general secretary. With enormous political power, the Party can control all of the aspects of China. There is largely no check to the exercise of power which is important to prevent abuses.
The future of the country relies heavily on the decisions made by decision makers most importantly the leaders. China, given her fast rising economy, is confronted with various challenges and the demand and need for reforms. A rational decision maker will take note broadly of all the possible policy choices and will decide in context and in applicability to the situation and the choice will be the one that promises maximum benefits. In this case, we can take a look at the reforms in China by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. The fundamental problems which are of concern are: positive economic growth and the rising social costs of that growth; the mounting pressures for political reform and the stronger opposition to reform from political losers and entrenched conservatives; and increasing international power matched by an ever greater sense of insecurity (Lewis and Litai 2003). This has put forth the need to have beside economic reforms, political reforms. And the CCP has apparently recognized this need. Given the unrests and impacts of economic growth to China, the measures of political reforms and the promise of the so-called “democracy with Chinese characteristics”, will help the CCP retain its power and influence. Largely, this is a rational choice with the CCP still focused on its goal towards the realization of communism. The Party has responded to the challenges generated by these problems and been forced to undertake more active political reforms or else face an even greater loss of its authority (Lewis and Litai 2003).
Aside from participating in the voting and electoral process, involvement to mass campaigns, and regular participation to some sort of political activity usually as members of “small groups,” are the organizational devices used to assure active participation by ordinary citizens in political action; the basic purpose of the extraordinary stress upon active mass participation and periodic mass has been to inculcate new values and to induce correct attitudinal and behavioural patterns for making political, social, and economic changes necessary in building socialist society (Wang 1992). Wang notes that these activities are based from Mao’s mass line which is a process by which the leaders (cadres) and the people (masses) establish a close relationship. By doing this, the cadres attempt to seek willing compliance from the masses he explains. This is how the Chinese government invests in social capital in an institutional way. Wang additionally regards this institutionalization of mass participation in politics and in decision making as highly successful given its large population (1.3 billion in 2005). In this regard, we can also see the presence of political will among the institutions and the society in building “harmonious society”.
Social security can be measured in terms of the provision of basic services to the people. Education in China is the responsibility of the Ministry of Education and the education system provides free primary education for five years, starting at age seven, followed by five years of secondary education for ages 12 to 17; The Ministry of Education reports a 99 percent attendance rate for primary school and an 80 percent rate for both primary and middle schools and the literacy rate in China is 90.9 percent, based on 2002 estimates (Library of Congress-Federal Research Division 2006). According also to the Library of Congress, in health, some 37.2 percent of public expenditures have been devoted to health care in China in 2001 but 80 percent of the health and medical services are concentrated in cities and timely medical care is not available to more than 100 million people in rural areas; in 2005 China set out a five-year plan to invest money equivalent to US$2.4 billion to offset the imbalance to rebuild the rural medical service system composed of village clinics and township-and county-level hospitals.
As further stated in the Library of Congress article, by 2002, 92 percent of the urban population and 68 percent of the rural population have access to an improved water supply, and 69 percent of the urban population and 29 percent of the rural population have access to improved sanitation facilities. It is also stated in the article of the Library of Congress that under the constitution, the state “builds and improves a social security system that corresponds with the level of economic development.” It is likewise stated that since the late 1990s social security reform included unemployment insurance, medical insurance, workers’ compensation insurance, maternity benefits, communal pension funds, and individual pension accounts.
In terms of the identified indicators, there is no independence among the government and political institutions. But, the CCP decides rationally for the purpose of achieving its goal and maintaining its authority allowing greater participation from the masses. The social cost of rapid economic growth is addressed through reforms in social security and building a “harmonious society”. In general, China is politically stable based on the identified indicators.
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