Political structures in socialist China

This month sees the annual sessions of China’s leading advisory and legislative bodies – the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC) and the National People’s Congress (NPC). They are a key event in the country’s political calendar where the programme for government is debated and agreed. In this article, Charles McKelvey provides valuable insights into China’s socialist democracy and how it differs from bourgeois democracy.

In the Wikipedia entry on China, there is a section on “Politics of China,” and a subsection on “National People’s Congress.”  As is evident from the extensive citations, this subsection on the “National People’s Congress” was written on the basis of the archives and documents of the government of China, including those of the National People’s Congress.  It is a straightforward description, revealing the structures through which the Chinese political process favors the power of the people and limits the possibility for control of the decision-making process by the bureaucracy of the Chinese state, a Chinese capitalist class, or foreign capitalist or imperialist interests.  At the same, these structures permit the Communist Party of China to control the political process only insofar as the Party has support of a strong majority of the people.

One does not find in the Wikipedia entry on China any correction of supposed misstatements of fact or alleged distorted understandings found in the above-mentioned subsection on the “National People’s Congress.”  This is curious, given that the Western intellectuals who disseminate their claim of authoritarianism in China certainly have the means and resources to rectify any errors that appear in the English-language entry on China in Wikipedia.  The reason for this curiosity is that Western intellectuals who disseminate the claim of authoritarianism in China (and other states constructing socialism) use a strategy of ignoring the structures of people’s power.  They pretend that structures of people’s power do not exist, with the realistic expectation that their audience will not be informed about such structures, thus permitting Western “anti-authoritarian” intellectuals to get away with claims that are contradicted by reality.  Rather than refuting particular explanations offered in defense of the structures of people’s power, the strategy of the Western intellectuals is to depend on the deep-seeded and wide tendency to not pay attention to such explanations.  They therefore have no response to a fact-based description of the structures and processes of the National People’s Congress in China.

The National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China

The National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China, established by the Constitution of 1954, is the highest organ of state power in China.  All four constitutions of the People’s Republic have vested great legislative powers in the National People’s Congress (NPC).  Moreover, only the NPC has the power to amend the Constitution, with proposals for amendments requiring approval by 2/3 of the NPC deputies. 

The primary duty of the National People’s Congress is to enact and amend laws, in accordance with the Constitution and previous laws with respect to legislative activities.  These laws include matters that are of primary importance, such as laws that related to proposed plans for national economic and social development. 

The National People’s Congress also has the constitutional authority to elect the President and the Vice-President of the People’s Republic of China, and to appoint several governmental executives, reserving the power to impeach by majority vote.  And the NPC elects the Chairman, Vice-Chairman, Secretary-General and other members of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.  Whereas the NPC holds annual ten-to-fourteen-day sessions, its Standing Committee, consisting of approximately 150 to 170 deputies of the NPC, meets in continuous session.  In addition to the Standing Committee, there are nine special committees dedicated to such issues as legislative affairs; financial and economic affairs; education, health, science and culture; foreign affairs; environmental protection; and agriculture and rural affairs. These special committees study, consult, and debate with respect to legislative proposals put forth by the executive branch or by deputies of the National People’s Congress, which often includes proposals that originated in the Communist Party of China or its Central Committee.

The deputies of the National People’s Congress are elected, directly and indirectly, by the people, in a tiered structure of people’s congresses, with a foundation in the local village or urban neighborhood. At the lowest level, local People’s Congresses are directly elected.  At this lowest level, there is no limit on the number of candidates for each seat; candidates can be nominated by the Communist Party of China, various other political parties, mass organizations, and any voter seconded by at least ten other voters.  The list of candidates is finalized by an election committee that is appointed by the Standing Committee of the local People’s Congress.  Some districts elect one person, while others elect two or three, with the voter allowed as many votes as there are seats to be filled.  Voting is done by secret ballot.  There are provisions for runoff elections.

Local voting districts are generally from 200 to 1000 voters, but larger counties can have as many as 4,000 voters.  Local People’s Congresses also elect the executive branches of local government, including governors, mayors, and heads of cities, city districts, counties, townships, and towns. 

Thus, the deputies of the National People’s Congress are elected by the People’s Congresses of the level immediately below, which in turn have been elected by the levels immediately below them.  The number of seats is proportionate to the population.  Deputies are elected to five-year terms. 

Elected in 2018, the current National People’s Congress consists of 2,980 deputies.  Twenty-five percent of the deputies are women; fifteen percent are ethnic minorities. 

The Communist Party of China enjoys a strong majority in the National People’s Congress, attained through the electoral process.  By convention, approximately one-third of the seats of the NPC are reserved for non-Party members, which can include technical experts and members of smaller, allied political parties.  These non-Party deputies provide a greater diversity of views, but they do not function as a political opposition.

New legislation is developed through consultation seeking consensus, different from the give-and-take compromising to attain narrow majorities that occurs in the USA.  Legislative proposals are initially drafted by a group of legislators or agencies of the executive branch.  A work-plan is formulated by the Legislative Affairs Committee, which includes consultation with experts and with the Communist Party as well as public consultations.  Inasmuch as consensus is sought in each step, the proposed legislation is modified as it proceeds through consultations.  On those occasions when there is not consensus, the National People’s Congress often has functioned as a forum for debating ideas and obtaining consensus. The final approval occurs in a plenary session of the National People’s Congress. 

Consensus can be difficult to attain.  Sometimes a vote will not be put before a plenary session when there is significant opposition.  Several times in the 1990s, proposals were supported by less than 70% of the deputies.  The 2007 Property Law was withdrawn from the 2006 legislative session due to objections that the law did not do enough to protect state property.  The debate over the Property Law spanned nine years, and it was reviewed seven times by the Standing Committee.  It was finally approved by the National People’s Congress on March 16, 2007, by a margin 2,799 votes for, 52 against, 37 abstentions, and one not voting. 

Often there is a high affirmative vote in the People’s National Congress, which is a result of the modifications that have been made during the legislative consultations.   We who are accustomed to the conflictive character of representative democracy should not assume that near unanimity implies the absence of democracy.  Quite the opposite is the case.  Near unanimity results from taking into account all views in the quest for consensus.  In some cases, a deputy may vote for a legislative proposal not because he or she is in agreement with all of its elements, but out of respect for the democratic character of the process. 

In evaluating the legislative process in China, we should keep in mind that the Party’s strong majority in the National People’s Congress enables the legislative process to move forward through consultations seeking consensus, rather than on the basis of conflicts between competing parties with opposed agendas.  And of course, its strong majority is established by the vote of the people in an electoral system of tiered direct and indirect elections.  The high prestige in which the Party is held among the people should not be a surprise, given its historic role in leading the nation in coalition with allied parties to the attainment of sovereignty, and its capacity in recent decades to overcome its divisions and lead the nation to its current position as a major non-imperialist world power that seeks cooperation and mutually beneficial trade with the nations of the world. 

The Communist Party of China

The Communist Party of China is guaranteed a leadership role by the Constitution; it is defined in the Constitution as the vanguard of the working class, the people, and the nation.  However, the Party is subordinate to the National People’s Congress, which is elected directly and indirectly by the people. 

Party committees permeate every state organ, mass organization, and state and private company.  The Party thus plays a key role in policy and in the selection of leaders at all levels.  But the Party does not have the constitutional authority to elect members of important committees on the People’s Congresses, which are elected by the people’s congresses at the corresponding level.  The Party can maintain de facto political power only with the support of the people.  To this end, the Party has developed structures for the education of Party members and the people. 

People must apply for membership to the Communist Party, and the Party can select as little as 10% of the applicants in a given year.  Those selected are probational members for one year, who have all the rights of full members, except the right to vote in Party elections.  Such rights included attending Party meetings, reading Party documents, receiving education in Party-run schools, participating in discussions in the Party’s newspapers and journals, and expressing well-grounded criticism of Party policies, proposals, and leaders.

The Party has approximately 89 million members, which constitutes approximately 6% of China’s population of 1.4 billion.  Party members include farmers, herdsman, and fisherman (26 million); industrial workers (7 million); professionals and management (22 million); Party and government officials (8 million); retirees (17 million); college students (2 million); and other occupations (7 million).  Party members are organized in 4.5 million local party committees with an average of twenty members.  In addition, the Communist Youth League, which has 89 million members between the ages of 14 and 28, prepares young people for membership in the CPC.

In 1937, Mao expressed a vision of Party cadres as persons with high levels of understanding and commitment, capable of linking the Party with the masses in workplaces:

Our Party organizations must be extended all over the country and we must purposefully train tens of thousands of cadres and hundreds of first-rate mass leaders. They must be cadres and leaders versed in Marxism-Leninism, politically far-sighted, competent in work, full of the spirit of self-sacrifice, capable of tackling problems on their own, steadfast in the midst of difficulties and loyal and devoted in serving the nation, the class and the Party. It is on these cadres and leaders that the Party relies for its links with the membership and the masses, and it is by relying on their firm leadership of the masses that the Party can succeed in defeating the enemy. Such cadres and leaders must be free from selfishness, from individualistic heroism, ostentation, sloth, passivity, and arrogant sectarianism, and they must be selfless national and class heroes; such are the qualities and the style of work demanded of the members, cadres and leaders of our Party.

Critical reflection on electoral processes

There is a nearly universal prejudice against indirect elections as somehow not really democratic.  But let’s think this through.  At all levels higher than the local, the voters do not directly know the candidates.  If there were direct elections at the higher levels, the voters would be voting on the basis of information that they had attained through the print or audio-visual media, so that the most successful candidates would be those capable of inventing and disseminating literature and images that cast them in a favorable light.  In the United States, campaign advertising is an industry, requiring candidates for the federal congress to raise considerable sums of money, which places them in debt to their largest contributors, thereby enabling the elite to control the political process. 

A system of tiered direct and indirect elections is a much more democratic system, in that said structure favors the control of the state by the people, rather than control of the state by the wealthy.  If the lowest electoral level is a small voting district, not too large, the people have some level of direct knowledge of the candidates, and informal knowledge among the people can supplemented by the display in public places of basic information about each candidate, funded by the electoral commission.  In such an electoral structure, there are not election campaigns, and thus there is no need for campaign financing.  Freed from the continuous need to raise campaign funds, elected delegates and deputies are more likely to be focused on the desires of the majority of voters in his or her district as they carry out their duties, including the election of delegates to the next higher level of people’s congresses or assemblies.  This structure favors the lifting up of deputies to the national legislative body who do not have obligations to any privileged or powerful economic sector.  They may have a debt to a political party, if a party leader had played a supportive role in their election; if so, the fulfillment of such a debt would not violate their constitutional and moral obligations to the people who elected them, if that party were widely supported by the people.

I have observed people’s democracy in Cuba.  It seems to me the development of structures that favor control of the state by the people is the most important dimension of the construction of socialism, because many things follow from control of the state by the people.  Yet it is the least discussed aspect of the ongoing socialist projects.  In contrast to this prevailing inattention, my view is that the development of a structure of people’s power, in accordance with the particular characteristics of each nation, ought to proposed by all of us who proclaim adherence to socialism. 

The problem of the rich having control of the political process is a problem that must be addressed, because the rich, having more money, have more influence in almost everything.  In the United States, there are periodic efforts at campaign-financing reform, reflecting the inquietudes of the people with respect to the role of money in elections.  By and large, such efforts are window dressing, at most.  However, the 2016 platform of the Green Party put forth proposals designed to ensure the independence of officeholders from the demands and expectations of the corporate elite.  The platform proposed the enactment of proportional representation voting systems, full public funding for election campaigns, equal television and radio time for candidates, and the prohibition of corporate contributions to election campaigns.  But the Green Party proposal leaves intact a system of direct elections at the state and national levels. 

Electoral systems with a combination of direct and indirect elections have an important history in the United States.  They were common in the constitutions of the thirteen colonies, which generally had direct elections in small voting districts to unicameral legislators authorized to make appointments to the executive branch and/or an upper chamber.  In addition, indirect elections were common in the early years of the American Republic.  Popular movements pushing for direct elections did not foresee the negative consequences, and they certainly could not possibly foresee today’s electoral farce.

It seems to me that socialist parties and organizations in the United States, alongside support for the 2016 Green Party proposal, ought to call for one or more states to experiment with a system of direct and indirect elections in their particular states.  Such a proposal could involve direct elections at the base, with candidates disseminating digitally and on social media their positions on the issues, with debates among the candidates on public media, financed by state electoral commission or by the public media.  Self-promotion would be permitted, but not paid advertising.  The candidates that win elections for local assemblies would, among other duties, elect delegates and deputies to the state assembly, which in turn would elect the governor and lieutenant governor as well as the state’s congressional representatives and senators in the federal congress. 

On the concept of a vanguard political party

There is nearly universal lack of understanding and appreciation of the important role of a vanguard political party in the construction of socialism.  In the first place, it is not understood that a national assembly decides, not the party.  If there is a similar perspective and broad agreement between the deputies of a national assembly and the leadership of the party, this is because the people, in a system of direct and indirect elections, have elected a solid majority of party members to the national assembly.  Deputies who are party members have consciousness of their different roles.  That is, when they speak or vote in the national assembly, they are acting as a deputy of the people, and not as a party member; in meetings of the party, they are speaking as a party member.

The fundamental role of a vanguard party is to educate.  It develops schools for the education of party members and of non-party members who are leaders of workers’, peasants’, and women’s organizations.  Armed with well-developed historical, global, and scientific understanding, party members educate the people in the practical fulfillment of their roles in all the institutions and organizations of the nation.  Journalists and educators especially play an important role.  When a non-party citizen seeks to understand an issue, he or she often will talk to party members in their neighborhood, mass organization, or workplace.

Because of the educational role of the party, citizens in nations constructing socialism have a well-developed understanding of national and international issues.  There is not the confusion and division that is found in capitalist societies with competing political parties in a system representative democracy.  The political parties of representative democracies do not educate the people.  In fact, they miseducate the people.  They put forth superficial and often misleading slogans and soundbites in order to gain electoral advantage over a political rival; and they enlist the support of contacts in the press to disseminate information that discredits a rivel.  A good percentage of the people are so disheartened by the political spectacle that they disengage.  The fifty percent who are engaged are divided into two bands with opposed assumptions and beliefs, hurling insults at one another, with the support of the news media.  Educators, whose own education has been limited by the bureaucratization of elite-endowed universities, are not intellectually prepared to effectively respond to the prevailing confusion and division.  The spectacle includes superficial discourses with respect to the nations constructing socialism, discourses that ignore the role of the people’s assemblies and that distort the role of a vanguard political party. 

Perhaps political parties in the representative democracies ought to give thought to how they could develop structures designed to educate the people.  Perhaps journalists and educators ought to critically evaluate their structures and habits.  Perhaps all would have something to learn from the vanguard political parties in the nations constructing socialism.

We intellectuals of the West ought to give more careful observation to the alternative world under construction in the Third World plus China.

2 thoughts on “Political structures in socialist China”

  1. Thank you Charles,
    for this excellent story explaining in detail as you do the depth and value of what the CPC/PRC now refers to as whole process socialist people’s democracy. A revolutionary historical process well defined in the latest edition of the CPC’s bi-monthly Quishi journal.
    Your final sentence points world leaders in a good direction; we could all do with a bit more Yin-yang power.

  2. Excellent article! The only thing I would add would be a paragraph or two contrasting the demographic composition of the legislature in socialist vs. capitalist systems. E.g., the NPC is far more statistically representative of the population of China than the U.S. Congress or U.K. Parliament or any legislative body in capitalist countries. This is a very strong argument for its democratic character, vs. the oligarchic character of capitalist countries.

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