Governing China - Part 1

governing China

Governing China: The State, the Party, and the Military

For political scientists, China today represents a unique study in the way government and power can function outside of the familiar models we are used to seeing in the Western world. Chinese officials often speak about how we have much to learn about the way you can govern a country with a “Chinese style” of constitutional government, rule of law, and civil rights.
But these terms in the Chinese context are simply disingenuous. China has none of these things despite what it says but what it does have is no less interesting or unworthy of study, for China is a country governed like no other in the world right now.  This article looks at the three centers of political power that have helped govern the world’s most populous nation for the past 65 years and why this is so different from the way power operates in other countries.
The state
In countries we might describe as liberal democracies, countries in North America and Europe, but even more authoritarian ones elsewhere, governments tend to take on the same forms and structures as each other. 
A president or monarch is head of state and may also be the head of government or there might be a prime minister elected by a parliament; whatever, the difference tends to be in the “democratic-ness” of the country, not in its design.
The most powerful organization in all these countries is the state, defined as an organization having a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence over a society within defined geographic territory. However, in China, the state is but one of three actors vying for power, bargaining and positioning itself against the other two.
China has a head of state, currently Xi Jinping, it has a head of government in Premier Li Keqiang who leads a State Council of ministers who run government departments that sound familiar to all of us: foreign affairs, defence, health, education. These people are all in theory held accountable by a legislature, the National People’s Congress with it 3,000 members that meets in Beijing for about two weeks a years.
All this looks and feels very familiar and it’s supposed to, but true political power also lays elsewhere in organizations that are less well understood and who feel no pressure to make themselves more transparent to anyone.
The party
In other countries political parties, defined as members of civil society so basically non-state organizations, compete with each other in elections (free or otherwise) for the right to run the state. In China, a single political party places itself above every other political party, above the law, and above the state.
Political parties everywhere are important and are all seeking to run our lives in one way or another, the key difference is that in China the Communist Party believes it alone has the authority to govern the Chinese nation and that it is should not be hampered but anyone in doing so.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) an organization that emerged out of the early twentieth century in China, a period of great instability and transition, is the world’s largest political party with over 80 million members and one that has firmly established itself at every level of Chinese life in the twenty-first century. You cannot get away from the CCP in China; it is the most politically successful entity perhaps ever.
Chinese society is organized to feed the power of the CCP and keep it at the top of the country’s governing apex. Every school, every hospital, every street, every apartment building has its own CCP committee looking over you…seriously. An institution like a university will have a president in charge of the administrative and academic staff like anywhere else in the world, but it will also have a Secretary of its own CCP committee and guess who is actually running the show?
Every province of China has a governor who acts as the head of government but every province also has a provincial CCP committee with a Secretary who is also in charge, or more likely, is actually in charge. The divisive of authority is effectively this: the secretary runs the ideology and come up with the policies; the governor runs the bureaucracy and implements the policies. Not an alien concept but not one that you would guess just looking at the forms of government. The Party appears to be somewhat more hidden than the state is.
You cannot advance in Chinese society if you are not a member of or are under the protection of powerful members in the Party. No alternative sources of power can be tolerated, the state with its bureaucratic interests, and the military because it has the guns are enough to deal with. The CCP’s position as the most power organization in China is astounding considering the place of the state in the international system. The complete domination of the state by the party makes it appear that they are the same or the state is still at the top but it is not that simple.
The military
Finally, where in a liberal democracy the military is firmly kept under the control of the civilian-led state, in China the place of the military (the People’s Liberation Army or PLA) is much more complex and they hold themselves out to be their own center of power. For much of the last 65 years it was the PLA that was the most stable institution in China particularly when Mao Zedong declared war on the party and the state during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
In fact on two occasions it was the PLA that bailed the party out of the political mess it had gotten itself into, once after the Cultural Revolution and again in 1989 in Tian’anmen square. It is because it has the stability, the guns, and the prestige of “defeating” the Japanese in the Second World War that the People’s Liberation Army can muster a power base of its own in China.
Potential leaders in China must court the loyalty of the generals in the PLA before they can be seen to have legitimately and effectively taken power. During the transition from the leadership of Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao in the early 2000s, Jiang refused to give up his position as head of the Central Military Commission, the organ that effectively runs the PLA. This was seen as a way for him to stay relevant now that he was not head of state or the party anymore. Getting him out of this position took much political manoeuvring from Hu Jintao who had the good graces not to repeat the move when he handed over power to Xi Jinping in 2012.
The military has a deal with the CCP, we protect you from the people and those meddling foreigners and you give us whatever we want in the military budget and in research technology. Not bad. Although in recent years the party has begun to take back some of the quasi-state within a state status the PLA had begun to develop. For example China Unicom was once the property of the PLA, so was the area now known as 798. Wings have been clipped in this regard but no one should underestimate the political ambitions of the generals of the PLA and it is a politics unto itself.
Attainting paramount leadership in China is about getting yourself to the top of each of these three power centers in China. Prior to the 1990s, these three organizations were often headed by different people and the results were often disastrous. Today, Xi Jinping’s position as head of the state, head of the party, and head of the military is what gives him his undisputed power as paramount leader of China. Chinese politics is both complex and fascinating for this reason, what you see is definitely not what you get.


 In-Depth-China      CSA-blog



  • Beijing

    China Study Abroad Ltd
    3610 Capital Mansions,
    6 Xinyuan Nan Road, Chaoyang
    Beijing, 100027
    Phone: (+86) 10 8468 3799 
  • London

    China Study Abroad Ltd
    154 Bishopsgate
    London EC2M 4LN
    United Kingdom
    Phone: (+44) 0207 377 84 
  • Hong Kong

    China Study Abroad Ltd
    Rm 604-7 Dominion Centre
    43-59 Queen’s Road East
    Hong Kong
    Phone: (+852) 800 968 924 


f-grey t-grey

Our Newsletter