China’s domestic politics

Political reforms in the PRC since 1978 and upcoming challenges

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Inhaltsverzeichnis

1 Introduction
2 Brief overview on the political system of the People’s Republic of China
2.1 State institutions
2.2 The Chinese Communist Party
3 Political reforms since 1978 in a nutshell
3.1 Ideological adjustments and party reforms
3.2 Administrative reforms
3.3 Decentralization of power and political participation
3.4 Enhancement of the rule of law
4 Major domestic policy challenges in present-day China
4.1 Corruption
4.2 Social cleavages
4.3 New information and communication technologies
5 Conclusion
Bibliography
Autorin und Copyright

1 Introduction
In the past three decades, China has been experiencing a spectacular economic growth that has attracted great international attention. Due to Western scholars’ admiration for that rapid development and their eagerness to disclose the secret of the “China Miracle”, the economic reforms that have been conducted since Deng Xiaoping’s seizure of power in 1978 became a well-studied subject in research literature. Instead, transformations in China’s political sphere have long been largely disregarded (Heberer & Schubert 2006: 9 - 11; Zhang 2006: 151). This might be explained by the fact that economic changes have been more visible in China’s modernization process than political changes, because the former entailed a system change whereas the latter did not. It appears understandable that the transition from a planned to a market economy arouses much more curiosity than political alterations within the framework of the Communist one-party rule. But the fact that the nature of the existing political system has been maintained does not mean that China did not carry out proper political reforms or that they can be rejected as irrelevant.

On the contrary, political reforms might have been indispensable for the continuation of a smooth economic development and a successful handling of social change. It is supposed that the Chinese leadership was induced to carry out substantial reforms in the political sphere to be able to respond to the rapidly changing needs of its dynamic domestic environment.

For the verification of this hypothesis, the reasons and the extent of the political reforms in the People’s Republic of China (PRC) shall be explored in the following. Their significance for the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) regime legitimacy, the national economy and society is also subject of this paper.

To provide a basis for the subsequent examination of this question, a brief overview on the political-administrative system of the PRC will be given in the first part of the paper. The second part will then involve an outline of the major political reforms since 1978 as well as an analysis of the consequences they have entailed. Particular emphasis will be placed on the relation of China’s political reforms to the economic development and to the popular support for the CCP. Finally, the limits of the ongoing reforms shall be revealed by pointing out the political challenges the Chinese leadership is confronted with.

2 Brief overview on the political system of the People’s Republic of China
The political system of the PRC is primarily of Soviet-Leninist origin, and dates back to the year 1949, when the Communists assumed power over China. Although considerable structural modifications have been made since China’s opening up in the late 1970s, the system itself remained largely unchanged to the present day (Cabestan 1994: 35; Heberer & Schubert 2006: 13). Politics take place within the framework of a socialist single-party state with a highly centralized power structure (Heilmann 2002: 65). Based on a dual leadership pattern, state power is exercised through the CCP on the one hand, and the state institutions on the other. The actual control over China is though predominantly exerted by the CCP that is deeply immersed in the state apparatus both at the national and the local administrative levels. The complex interlacing between the state institutions and the CCP that characterizes China’s political system shall be illustrated in the following:

Figure 1: The political system of the PRC


2.1 State institutions
The main organs of state power are the National People's Congress (NPC), the State Council, and the President.

Under the constitution of the state, the highest legislative body in the PRC is formally the National People’s Congress (NPC). Its more than 3000 deputies meet once a year to take major political decisions, revise and enact laws, and to approve the national economic plan as well as the public budget. However, for operational reasons, most legislation is adopted through the NCP’s Standing Committee that is smaller in number and meets throughout the year. The election of the president of the PRC and of the highest government officials is though reserved to the plenary meeting of the NPC (Heilmann 2002: 126 - 129).

The president is China’s head of state and is mainly responsible for China’s foreign policy affairs. However, since the president usually holds other key positions within the state institutions and the CCP, he possesses immense power (Cabestan 1994: 76). Hu Jintao, the current president of the PRC, is also commander-in-chief of the army and acts simultaneously as an influential leader of the ruling party.

Executive power is formally wielded by the State Council, the government of the PRC. Its main functions include drafting legislative bills for submission to the NPC and administering the PRC government ministries by drawing up administrative measures, issue decisions and monitoring their implementations (Saich 2001: 119). At the head of the State Council is the Prime Minister whose office is currently held by Wen Jiabao.

Despite the apparent sophistication of the state apparatus, the actual role of these institutions is rather limited, as they are prevented from fulfilling their function as control entities through their very restricted autonomy.

2.2 The Chinese Communist Party
The state power is de facto held by the CCP, for it controls all political processes. Although the CCP is today not anymore directly involved in the routine work of government due to the gradual elimination of parallel administrative structures in the 1980s, it still exercises political leadership (Heilmann 2002: 88). In fact, all leading state officials such as the PRC President, the Prime Minister, or the Chairman of the NCP’s Standing Committee are united in the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the powerhouse of the CCP. Despite its formal accountability to the Central Committee of the CCP, the Politburo disposes of almost unlimited power of decision in Chinese politics, and represents therefore the major policy-maker in China (Heilmann 2002: 84, Oksenberg 2002: 194). Most initiatives of the Politburo’s Standing Committee are virtually firm resolutions that are usually approved by the NCP without any opposition, even though more room for discussion and pluralism has been created in People’s Congresses in recent years (Saich 2001: 116 – 118).

In present-day China, the state institutions cannot be dismissed as a mere façade of the Communist regime, but the complex interactions between state and the party apparatus are still clearly dominated by the CCP.

3 Political reforms since 1978 in a nutshell
When considering the success and unquestioned authority of China’s ruling party, it appears evident that a system change or a reform of the CCP’s basic structure is currently not taken into consideration by the Chinese leadership. Still, the CCP has made considerable reform efforts in the political realm to cope with the new challenges of a dynamic environment, so as to maintain its legitimacy.

3.1 Ideological adjustments and party reforms
One of the basic changes within the party appears to be the ideological realignment. The class-struggle ideology based on the proletarian-peasant tradition of the CCP was carefully abandoned and ideological campaigns were renounced. Instead, the CCP adopted a much more pragmatic approach in its public relations policy by placing particular emphasis on its capacity to grant a prosperous development and political stability. The CCP has also gradually retreated from people’s private life and largely limited its control to fields considered as potentially dangerous to the one-party rule such as the freedom of expression. By expanding its “zone of indifference”, the CCP is granting Chinese citizens now indeed “far more freedom of choice than any time since 1949” (Zhang 2006: 153). People can decide autonomously on their job, habitation, marriage, children’s education and spare time, and have the right to move relatively freely within China or to go abroad.

Another fundamental change occurred in the party’s policy-making processes. Even though immense power is still concentrated in a few persons, the CCP adopted a more consultative decision-making method. Major political decisions are no longer made at the discretion of the most powerful party leaders, but depend increasingly on expert advice. Consultation with think tanks or the affected stakeholders prior to important political decisions is now a common practice in the CCP’s policy-making, as this allows party leaders to better estimate the consequences of their actions (Oksenberg 2002: 197; Zhang 2006: 153).

3.2 Administrative reforms
A growing professionalization can also be found in the recruitment of political and administrative cadres. Although the nomination and dismissal of key officials is still kept under strict control of the CCP, the selection process of candidates, that used to be based first and foremost on political commitment and personal ties, has been legally regulated. A regulation on the recruitment of state officials of 1993 established clear qualification requirements for candidates, introduced mandatory entrance examinations and prescribed obligatory retirement. These conditions limited the arbitrariness in the recruitment process, improved the quality of officialdom in the PRC, and thus paved the way toward a public service system (Heilmann 2002: 118-119).

Administrative efficiency was further enhanced within the scope of a major rationalization reform conducted between 1998 and 2002, that downsized staff in the central and provincial administration by almost fifty per cent, and by twenty per cent on the county and township level (Dittmer 2003: 909). Particularly relevant restructuring measures were taken within the State Council where ministries with redundant functions were consolidated and modernized. As a result of this reorganization, government bureaucracy was streamlined, and the administration became leaner and more transparent (Oksenberg 2002: 196 – 197).

3.3 Decentralization of power and political participation
Within the political power structure of the state, slight shifts of power have occurred since the late 1980s, in view of China’s internal complexity and increasing regional disparities. The Chinese leadership has in fact gradually given its provinces more autonomy to enable them to respond to their specific needs, and gave people a voice, albeit to a very limited extent.

Democratic village-level elections were introduced on an experimental basis in 1987, and became legally binding in the whole country in 1998. Today, in many villages free democratic elections work properly, whereas others struggle with power abuse by local cadres and unfair domination of family clans. Despite these mixed results, enhanced political participation at the local level seems to contribute to the regime’s quest for legitimacy, as it allows individuals to engage in political affairs they are most directly affected by (Heberer & Schuberg 2006: 16 - 17; Lewis & Xue 2003: 930). At the same time, popular political participation doesn’t restrict the CCP’s political control in any way, as long as the people’s sphere of influence is kept at a very low administrative level.

Granting more political autonomy to the provinces instead had much more important effects on the party’s central leadership. The decentralization of power entailed an invigoration of the local People’s Congresses; they used their increased autonomy to start performing their actual function of government supervision and to reduce their unconditional dependence from the Party apparatus. In particular China’s economically strong coastal provinces exert increasing influence on Beijing’s policy-making thanks to their growing bargaining power (Heberer & Schubert 2006: 24; Oksenberg 2002: 197).

3.4 Enhancement of the rule of law
Economic factors have supposably influenced most political reforms in the PRC to a certain extent since the country’s opening up. A reform area where economic interests have been the driving forces of change is China’s judicial modernization.

Given the lack of an independent legal system, the Chinese leadership had to conduct significant legal reforms for the sake of the country’s economic development. Particular emphasis was placed on the enhancement of the rule of law in order to respond to the increasing demand of legal protection from China’s growing economy and to attract foreign investors with an improved legal certainty (Cabestan 2005: 425). According to Dicey, the rule of law means "in the first place, the absolute supremacy or predominance of regular law as opposed to the influence of arbitrary power, and excludes the existence of arbitrariness, of prerogative, or even wide discretionary authority on the part of the government" (Dicey 1982: 120). Although the nature of the PRC’s political system makes the elimination of all arbitrariness rather difficult, the Chinese leadership was able to enhance the predictability of the law considerably through a professionalization of the legal training and further elaboration of the legislation, in particular in the field of economic law (Cabestan 2005; Zhang 2006: 153). In 1996, former president Jiang Zemin officially adopted the political decision to establish a “socialist rule of law state in which the government must act in accordance with the law” (Peerenboom 2000), and three years later, this ambition was incorporated the Constitution. Up to what extent China will accomplish these objectives remains to see, but what is sure is that China’s accession to the WTO further accelerates the enhancement of the rule of law (Cabestan 2005).

4 Major domestic policy challenges in present-day China
Although these political reforms have contributed to the continuous economic development and the maintenance of political stability within the country down to the present day, they seem to be far from sufficient to handle China’s upcoming challenges in the social, economic and political spheres. The Chinese leadership is indeed confronted with a series of serious problems that require immediate action, if they are not to endanger the CCP’s legitimacy.

4.1 Corruption
A complex problem that overshadows the progress achieved in the judicial system is the rampant corruption. The extensive use of corrupt practices in China can be mainly ascribed to the fact that the introduction of a market economy without any systemic political change increased economic actors’ demand for power (Perry 1999: 311 – 312). But since the “legitimate access to power” (Lewis & Xue 2003: 928) is still very restricted, the PRC saw the emergence of informal relationship networks between party officials and enterprise managers, by means of which political power is bartered for personal enrichment (Heilmann 2002: 177). Due to the extent of corrupt practices and the potential danger they entail for the CCP, the fight against corruption was given top priority in the political agenda. Corruption is indeed extremely dangerous for the regime’s legitimacy, as it shows the party’s manipulability and impairs its credibility. However, the Chinese leadership has not been very successful at stemming cadre corruption (Dittmer 2003: 910). Although the party’s Commission for Discipline Inspection frequently reveals single scandals and takes rigorous steps against corrupt officials, corruption remains a widespread phenomenon in China, and appears to be one of the major unresolved problems the CCP faces (Heilmann 2002: 174).

4.2 Social cleavages
As the above analysis reveals, Chinese domestic policy since the late 1970s has predominantly aimed at accelerating national economic development and proved indeed to be very successful. However, China’s spectacular economic growth also brought about fundamental changes in the Chinese society that issued new challenges to the CCP. As a result of the unevenness of the economic development, regional inequalities and disparities between urban and rural areas have grown and led to social tensions. In the economically backward provinces and in the countryside, where the people have hardly benefited from the “economic miracle”, but suffered most of the state’s retreat from the economy, arose popular discontent and political disaffection (Heberer & Schubert 2006: 20). While incomes in rural areas remained relatively low, provincial authorities increased taxes and reduced benefits for farmers, predominantly in favour of economic growth. In order to boost private and foreign investment, many local authorities lowered the business levies that used to provide subsidies for the peasants. As a consequence, millions of peasants migrated toward the cities in search of employment, but many of them were forced to return back due to rising urban unemployment (Lewis & Xue 2003: 930). The difficult situation on the labor market that derives primarily from the stagnant state sector poses though not only problems to rural migrants, but also to city dwellers. Workers who got laid off from the State-owned enterprises are not provided with any pension or welfare protection, and have often difficulties to find a job in the private sector. In view of the hardships the losers of China’s economic growth suffer, it appears evident that recent years have seen a rise of peasant and worker protests that are increasingly difficult to appease (Heberer & Schubert 2006: 20; Saich 2001: 185 - 187).

4.3 New information and communication technologies
Further challenges to the Chinese domestic policy arise from China’s integration into the international communication networks. The Chinese leadership is confronted with a rapid diffusion of the internet and mobile telephony, whereby the information monopole of the CCP - an important power resource of the one-party rule – is seriously threatened.

The Chinese internet that has now evolved to the second largest network after the United States with more than 100 million users is indeed difficult to control, but the regime has set up a cyber police force that blocks Chinese users’ access to displeasing information on the World Wide Web by means of a sophisticated firewall. The web publications on China-based servers are rigorously monitored in order to filter out disliked contents and track down the respective authors (Dittmer 2003: 917; The Economist 2006). Despite this hitherto very successful censorship system, the internet indubitably has brought people closer to the world around them and has granted them more room for expression. Internet has thus enhanced the level of information pluralism in China to a certain extent – with yet incalculable consequences for the Communist regime.

The potential risk the diffusion of new information and communication technologies entails can though not merely be limited to the World Wide Web. Other internet technologies such as e-mail, instant messaging or discussion forums, as well as mobile telephony and text messaging that possess high networking capabilities granting at the same time an acceptable degree of anonymity, are on the rise, too (The Economist 2006).

In view of the rapid spread and increasing sophistication of communication technologies, one wonders for how long the CCP will be able to keep the nation-wide flows of information under control and how the government will deal with the erosion of its information monopoly.

5 Conclusion
When recapitulating the reflections about China’s modernization process since 1978, it appears that the political reforms were all primarily designed to promote economic growth or to reinforce the resilience of the CCP. For this purpose, the Chinese leadership has been implementing gradual political changes in several key fields: The party’s turning away from ideological doggedness granted people more personal liberty and brought about the emergence of consultative policy-making based on pragmatism. On the administrative level, the Chinese leadership has improved good governance by means of restructuring measures and changes in personnel management that increased the government’s efficiency and transparency. What is more, the CCP conceded provinces more autonomy and introduced grassroots political participation at a national scale in the form of democratic village elections. Finally, considerable legal reforms have been carried out to enhance the rule of law in the PRC and to pave the way for the possible establishment of an independent judicial system in the future. To sum up, these political reforms are on the one hand concessions to the market economy and concessions to the people on the other, albeit the latter can be in part regarded as an (apparently quite successful) attempt of the CCP to convince people of its benevolence in order to maintain popular support.

Since the Communist regime’s legitimacy is deemed to be essentially based on a smooth economic development and political stability (Lewis & Xue 2003: 934), the realized political reforms have, at least to a certain extent, contributed to the perpetuation of party rule. However, in view of the challenges the Chinese leadership faces, it seems that serious problems slipped through the party’s comprehensive safety net of political reforms.

Social disparities and rising unemployment increase tensions among peasants and ordinary workers, the rapid spread of new communication technologies menace the state’s information monopoly, and cadre corruption gnaws away at the party’s credibility and popular prestige. The main challenge to the CCP in the near future might be the endeavour to meet the basic needs and expectations of all social groups of China’s diversifying society, in a way that builds confidence between the government and the people. But how and to what extent the Chinese leadership will be able to cope with these upcoming challenges remains to see.

Still, it can be concluded that China’s political reforms within the framework of the existing political system have been meaningful, because they have had a positive overall impact on state and society, and effectively counteracted systemic weaknesses without compromising the Communist one-party rule and domestic stability.

Bibliography

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7. Autor und Copyrighthinweis

Dieser Beitrag wurde von Annette Ryser im Juni 2007 an der Universität Genf im Rahmen einer Seminararbeit erstellt.

Annette Ryser

Annette Ryser aus Bern, 23 Jahre alt, ist Kommunikationswissenschaftlerin (B.Sc.) und Studentin des Masterstudiengangs „Interdisziplinäre Asienwissenschaften“ an der Universität Genf. Ihre Studienschwerpunkte liegen im Bereich der chinesischen Politik und Chinas wirtschaftlicher Entwicklung.

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