Apart from Cuba and North Korea, China is the last surviving major communist power on earth, even though the Chinese political system has been undergoing major changes since the 1980s when the leadership declared economic reform and opening to the west. Today, China is in many ways similar to a capitalist market, but the political system has not yet undergone substantial changes with the grip of the Chinese Political Party on power remaining as strong as ever.
More than 70 million people belong to 56 national minorities. Most of these groups are distinguished from the Chinese by language or religion rather than by racial characteristics. The principal minorities are the Thai-related Zhuang, about 15.5 million, largely in Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region; the Hui, or Chinese Muslims, about 8.6 million, in Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region, Gansu, and Qinghai; the aboriginal Miao, about 7.4 million, in Guizhou, Hunan, and Yunnan; the Turkic-speaking Uygur, about 7.2 million, in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region; the aboriginal Yi, counting about 6.6 million, in Sichuan, Yunnan, and Guangxi; the Mongols, about 4.8 million, in Inner Mongolia, Gansu, and Xinjiang; and the Tibetans, about 4.6 million, in the Tibetan Autonomous Region and Qinghai. Other groups include Tujia (5.7 million), Bouyei (2.5 million), Koreans (1.9 million), and Manchus. The Manchus are descendants of the people who conquered China in the 17th century and established the Qing, or Manchu, dynasty. Numbering 9.8 million, they are almost indistinguishable from the Han Chinese.
China has the largest population on earth, and even though the government has imposed very strict laws, some of which defy human rights, in order to control the population growth rates, the Chinese population has already exceeded one billion. The government had passed laws since the 1950s to force families to have no more than one child. At the same time, the government made available all types of public health facilities, contraceptives and birth control policies. In addition to this, the Communist Party imposed social pressures on those families that were planning to have more than one child. At the same time, however, minorities were not subjected to these pressures because of the cultural independence policy that the government adopted towards them.
In 1980 the government reported that 65 percent of the population was under 30 years of age. Thus, a substantial proportion of the Chinese population will be of childbearing age for at least the next several decades. In September 1982, the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party declared that the nation must limit the population to 1.2 billion by the end of the century. In 1988 the government recognized the goal as unattainable and revised it to 1.27 billion. The majority of the Chinese live in the eastern provinces. On the other hand, the western provinces and the autonomous regions do not have high population densities.
Between the 1950s and the 1970s, the government followed a policy of forced redistribution of population. Migration from the countryside to the city was prohibited because of the lack of productive employment for additional city dwellers. The government started a campaign of sending educated urban youth to the countryside for several years or even permanent settlement. This movement was intended to provide urban skills in rural areas, thereby reducing peasant interest in migrating to the city. This program was ended in 1978, but then, migration to the cities began to increase.
Residential mobility within cities is also restricted by the government. A person must have government approval and guarantee of a residence and employment before moving. Some residential movement within the major cities has resulted, however, from the large-scale destruction of old housing and its replacement by four- and five-story apartment buildings.
The annual gross domestic product (GDP) of China in the early 1990s was $544.6 billion, or about $460 per capita. Agricultural output accounted for about 24% of domestic income, and industrial output accounted for 42%. Between 1965 and 1979 the gross domestic product grew at a rate of 6.4% a year, and between 1980 and 1988 the increase was 10.3% annually. In the early 1990s, growth was above 10% annually, one of the largest growth rates in the world, something which turned China into one of the most attractive markets for investors from all over the world.
The Chinese labor force is estimated at nearly 584 million people. Unemployment and underemployment have caused labor productivity and income to be depressed, problems directly linked to the large size and rapid growth rate of the population. In the mid-1990s about one-quarter of the population was 15 years of age or younger meaning that the labor force will be increasing dramatically in the future. The rural family is estimated to receive three-quarters of its income from the collective economy and the remainder from sideline activities.
Since the Chinese Communists came to power on October 1, 1949, a a centralized form of government, based in Beijing, was established. China’s first constitution was declared in 1954. Several constitutional changes took place in 1975, 1978,1982 and finally in 1993 to embody principles of a socialist market economy.
By the 1982 constitution, the president is elected to a five-year term by the National People’s Congress. The office of the president is largely ceremonial, however. Executive powers rest with the State Council, which is headed by the premier and is charged with administering various areas of state business.
The command of the national military belongs to the Central Military Commission. Generally, the positions of greatest authority in the Chinese government are those of premier and general secretary of the Communist Party. However, authority relates very much to the individual personalities in such positions. In the early 1990s, however, Deng Xiaoping, who did not hold any official post, was the most powerful figure in the Chinese government.
Members of the National People’s Congress are chosen for five-year terms by a series of indirect elections; each province elects one representative or deputy to the congress for each 400,000 people, with at least ten deputies representing each province. The Fifth National People’s Congress, elected in 1978, consisted of 3497 deputies, with workers and peasants accounting for nearly half the membership. The Sixth National People’s Congress, which convened in June 1983, had 2978 delegates. The seventh Congress convened in March 1988, and the eighth in March 1993, with 2970 deputies.
The National People’s Congress is empowered to pass laws, amend the constitution, and to approve the national budget and economic plans. It also has the power to appoint and remove members of the State Council, that is, the cabinet.
In practice, however, the National People’s Congress has little real power. Because of its size, the congress meets only irregularly to conduct required business. While the congress is not in session, a Standing Committee, elected from its membership, acts in its place. The Standing Committee also represents the congress in a variety of government functions, including receiving foreign envoys and ratifying or nullifying treaties with foreign governments.
The State Council is the central governmental body of the National People’s Congress. It is led by the Chinese premier and vice premiers. Various ministries, commissions, and agencies are responsible to the Council.
The Chinese have had a tradition of judicial process that differs considerably from that of Western nations. Civil order has historically been the responsibility of the family, the neighborhood, or the local government. Generally speaking, the Chinese judicial process has been more concerned with understanding the context of an individual crime in an effort to redress its causes than with creating a highly formal judicial system. Since the promulgation of the 1978 constitution, however, China has made a considerable effort to align its judicial and legal systems with Western models; the 1982 constitution guarantees the right of legal defense.
The Chinese legal system has three components: a court system; a public security administration, or police component; and an office of the procurator, or the public prosecutor. The highest organ is the Supreme People’s Court, which ensures observance of the constitution and of regulations of the State Council. Offices of all three judicial branches are found at the provincial, county, and municipal levels, and the public security offices function at the local neighborhood level.
One reason for China’s reluctance in developing a more formal legal framework is that the Communist Party has acted as an informal mediator between the aggrieved parties in cases of civil wrongdoing. This role has given the party an important function in the day-to-day workings of Chinese society. Resolution of neighborhood disputes, divorces, family arguments, and minor thefts have been particularly influenced by this type of paralegal mediation; the local party secretary is usually the mediator in such cases.
As the Chinese move toward closer relations with Western nations, pressure to institute a more formal body of legal statutes will probably increase. This may in turn generate an associated network of lawyers, courtrooms, and more formal legal procedures.
Local government in China is organized into three major administrative tiers: provinces, counties, and administrative towns and villages. At the first level, directly below the central government, are the 22 provinces, 5 autonomous regions, and 3 directly governed municipalities: Beijing, Shanghai, and Tianjin. China considers the island of Taiwan a 23rd province. At the second level are prefectures, counties, and municipalities; at the third are municipal subdivisions, administrative towns, and villages. At each of these levels are found special autonomous entities in areas inhabited primarily by non-Chinese minorities.
In most areas administrative towns and villages were replaced by communes as the basic administrative units and the communes were further divided into production brigades. However, in 1985 a five-year campaign to dismantle 56,000 rural communes was completed.
Although each layer of governmental structure is responsible to the layer above it, much authority has generally been vested in small local units. Such an arrangement was promised to the locals and hence, leading to the Communist victory in 1949. The government has expended considerable energy to continue to have such local government provide a forum for discussion of and input into the governing process in China.
According to the constitution of 1982, China is a socialist dictatorship of the proletariat led by the Communist Party and based on a united front that includes other democratic parties. In practice, the Communist Party fully orchestrates national political activity. The vast majority of significant governmental offices are filled by party members.
The Chinese Communist Party has more than 52 million members and is the world’s largest Communist Party. The party held its first National Party Congress in 1921, when it had only 57 members. The organization and functions of the Communist Party are set forth in the party constitution; the sixth party constitution was approved in 1982 at the 12th Congress. It is notable for de-emphasizing the authority of the party leader, whose title was changed from chairman to general secretary. The National Party Congress is the highest party organ. The Central Committee, elected by the National Party Congress, elects the Politburo and its Standing Committee, as well as the party general secretary. Functional authority over the party machinery resides with the Politburo and the Standing Committee.
Several minor political parties and mass organizations are active in China. Among these are the China Democratic League, the All-China Athletic Federation, and the All-China Woman’s Federation, but the only one with any potential for political influence is the Communist Youth League, with about 56 million members in the early 1990s. This organization plays a major role in recruiting youth who wish to prepare for membership in the Communist Party after the age of 18.
Other interest groups include the retired executive members of the Communist party both at the central and the local level. In addition to this, the heads of state-owned enterprises play an important role in affecting the economic executive decisions. Foreign investors have recently become an important pressure group in China, especially as much of China’s growth today depends on large companies such as IBM, General Motors and others.
Students are also considered to be an important pressure group in China, especially in the awakening of the Tiannenmin Square massacre. Although the Communist Party has been imposing controls over students through recruiting them into youth organizations, the fact is that millions of students have organized themselves into active groups that demonstrate and demand reforms.
All mass media in China are under the direct control of the state, mostly through ownership, and partly through censorship. Newspapers are generally allowed more freedom with respect to coverage of events and news outside China, except where Chinese interests are directly involved. On the other hand, news related to differences and disputes within the Communist Party are referred to through a special system of communication that conceals such disputes. In addition to this, the media are totally restricted from exposing any disputes within the party in a direct manner.
The Chinese Communist system established in 1949 still survives, even though most communist regimes elsewhere have collapsed. China’s political system, huge as it is, is still as strong as ever, mainly due to the unique combination of political structure and distribution of power and influence. Although massive reforms have been taking place on the economic level, China still suffers heavily on the levels of human rights and political liberties, especially as the power remains in the hands of the military Communists.
Dittmer, Lowell. China under Reform. Boulder: Westview Inc., 1994.
Lieberthal, Kenneth. Governing China. New York: Norton Inc., 1995.