The Chinese Communist Party

Author: Beina Xu
Updated: August 29, 2013

Carlos Barria/Courtesy Reuters

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is the founding and ruling political party of modern China, boasting more than eighty-two million members to date. In 2012, the CCP underwent a pivotal once-in-a-decade power transition that saw its fifth generation of leaders set the future agenda for the second-largest economy in the world. While the party has maintained a political monopoly since its founding, the effects of China's rapid economic growth have triggered increasing social unrest and political destabilization that challenge the country's rise as a global power. A spate of political scandals has also exposed deep power struggles inside the infamously opaque organization. While the changeover will do little to affect immediate party policy and direction, the implications of the new appointments could shed some light on how China plans to position itself on the world stage.

Origins and Power Structure

Inspired by the Russian Revolution of 1917, the CCP was founded in 1921 on the principles of Marxism-Leninism after a lengthy civil war against the Kuomintang, its primary rival. Experts contend that despite China's economic reform to a market economy in the late 1970s, the modern Chinese state remains a purely Leninist system, like that of Cuba, North Korea, and Laos. The party's grip on power relies on three core pillars: control of personnel, propaganda, and the People's Liberation Army. Around 77 percent of its members are men, and farmers make up roughly one-third of its membership.

The CCP convenes its National Party Congress (NPC) every five years to set major policies and choose the Central Committee, which comprises around 370 members including ministers, senior regulatory officials, provincial leaders, and military officers. The Central Committee acts as a sort of board of directors for the CCP, and its mandate is to select the Politburo, which has twenty-five members.

"It will be very difficult for the fundamentals of the U.S.-China relationship to change absent the change in China's governance and its overall desire and commitment to assume a larger role in issues like Syria and Iran." —Elizabeth Economy, Council on Foreign Relations

In turn, the Politburo elects through backroom negotiations the nine-person Standing Committee, which functions as the epicenter of the CCP's power and leadership. Xi Jinping, who took over from Hu Jintao in 2012, sits atop the system as general secretary; as president and head of the military, he exerts enormous influence in setting parameters for government policy. The premier, Li Keqiang, heads the State Council, China's equivalent of a cabinet.

The Eighteenth National Congress

The new makeup of the Standing Committee, whose numbers were reduced from nine to seven, was the most watched development at November's eighteenth National Congress, in which China's next generation of leaders was chosen. Then vice president Xi Jinping took Hu's place, while Executive Vice Premier Li Keqiang replaced Wen Jiabao. Around 70 percent of the membership of the three most important leadership organs—the Standing Committee, State Council, and Central Military Commission—were replaced, making this leadership turnover the most significant in the past three decades.

Leadership succession is a fairly concentrated process, with positions decided by a very small number of top leaders through secretive negotiations. Some experts split the CCP's power structure into two distinct camps: the "princelings," or children of high-level leaders, and the "tuanpai," or those like Hu Jintao who have risen to power through the Communist Youth League and come from humbler backgrounds. Other experts see a much more complex power dynamic built from personal alliances and factional loyalties juggled among three groups: retired leaders (in particular Deng Xiaoping, who picked Hu Jintao), incumbents, and the incoming class, according to Minxin Pei, a China expert at Claremont McKenna College.

CCP leaders "all have conflicting interests that sometimes overlap," says Pei. "The dynamics can be very fluid in this three-way negotiation process."

Such complex dynamics can be seen in the scandals that have riled the transition process. Ling Jihua, a close ally of Hu's, was demoted after his son was killed in a car accident under lurid circumstances. Amid escalating rumors of factional struggles, Xi Jinping disappeared from public view for two weeks in September, and reports surfaced that meetings at Beidaihe, the summer congregation site for the Communist leadership, were inconclusive, with no big policy or succession decisions made.

But the downfall and subsequent trial of former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai marked one of China's biggest political scandals to date. Bo, considered among the ranks of princelings and once a frontrunner for a Politburo promotion, and his wife, Gu Kailai, were implicated in the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood. Bo was expelled from the CCP and publicly defamed in a move that seemed to satisfy the incumbents, whom Bo alienated with his leftist policies and self-promoting conduct, according to Pei.

Elizabeth Economy, CFR's director for Asia studies, says Bo's expulsion "reflected the depth of concern, if not animosity, that some in China's top leadership felt toward Bo." His trial, which culminated in late August 2013, saw Bo face charges of embezzlement and abuse of power—which he vehemently protested—and reflected the party's desire to promote the "rule of law" in its new crackdown on corruption. But the case also highlighted party infighting and the power struggles that plagued the party's transition.

Challenges in Governance

In recent decades, global events and internal strife have brought the CCP close to the brink of collapse several times. The 1989 Tiananmen democracy riots and the collapse of the Soviet Union at the beginning of the 1990s triggered a series of existential crises for the party that forced it to reconsider its mandate. The Soviet implosion in particular pushed the CCP to undertake systematic assessments of the causes of collapse and institute intraparty reform in order to avoid a similar fate. It determined that an ossified party-state with a dogmatic ideology, entrenched elites, dormant party organizations, and a stagnant economy would lead to failure, according to David Shambaugh's 2008 book China's Communist Party.

Since then, the CCP has shown a technocratic capacity to adapt in response to the developmental stresses of society brought on by China's dizzying economic rise. Today's party "is all about joining the highways of globalization, which in turn translates into greater economic efficiencies, higher rates of return, and greater political security," writes Richard McGregor in his 2010 book The Party.

Still, leaders at the top of China's power structure today lack the long-term vision for the party that reformists of the 1980s such as Hu Yaobang possessed; Hu, the former party general secretary, promoted greater party transparency and Deng Xiaoping's free-market reforms modernized China's economy.

"The CCP could survive to this point today because of people thirty years ago. Today, they worry about how to get to where they want to be." —Minxin Pei, Claremont McKenna College

"They're mostly reactive," says Pei of the Chinese government. "The CCP could survive to this point today because of people thirty years ago. Today, they worry about how to get to where they want to be."

Fears of social unrest are persistent. In the spring of 2013, a memo named Document No. 9 that was distributed within the CCP outlined seven dangers that threatened the party's control, including "Western constitutional democracy," human rights, promarket "neoliberalism" and Western-inspired ideas of media independence and civic participation. The document pointed to internal fears about the party's vulnerability in light of China's economic slowdown and public anger about issues like corruption.

Actual governance of China can be extremely decentralized. While Politburo members retain responsibility for dictating policies and staffing ministries, they do not manage day-to-day portfolios the way a cabinet would. Chinese provinces enjoy tremendous autonomy, and subprovincial officials and leaders, appointed by the central government, have almost total control over governance. Policies can originate "haphazardly" in bureaucracies and ministries, within the committee, inside the NPC, or from think tanks and advisers, says Pei.

This lack of accountability has compounded grievances over income inequality, lack of consumer protection, land grabs, and human rights issues. Many of these have been brought to light across the country by the Internet, which has heavily eroded the CCP's control over political communication. Forced evictions have spiked over the years as debt-laden local governments raised capital by selling seized land to developers. Activists like Chen Guangcheng, a blind lawyer who exposed forced sterilizations, raised public flags around human rights violations stemming from local corruption. And after consumers expressed fury surrounding melamine-tainted milk that poisoned thousands of babies, the central government was forced to act on long-standing concerns about the safety of Chinese products.

Domestic and Foreign Policy

Perhaps most pressing is the CCP's treatment of the massive income disparity that China's economic boom created; in mid-2012, the CCP announced a new income-distribution framework set for approval to redress the growing gap. The country's emergence as an economic superpower has heightened governance challenges as China's middle class expands. In particular, the "side effects of rapid economic growth, including the gap between rich and poor, rising prices, pollution, and the loss of traditional culture are major concerns, and there are also increasing worries about political corruption," according to the Pew Research Center. At the start of his term, Xi vowed to crack down on corruption and curb official power.

Health care also has been a major initiative for the party as a vast aging population drives government efforts to broaden insurance coverage. Spending on health care will almost triple to $1 trillion annually by 2020 from the $116 billion spent in 2011, and medical insurance now covers more than 95 percent of the population.

The party has also moved on energy policy, releasing a white paper outlining China's initiatives for the next five years that includes developing clean energy to reduce its carbon footprint. After a heavy smog coated Beijing for weeks in January 2013 , the government announced in mid-June a series of reforms to restrict air pollution that included the country's first carbon market and an allocation of $275 billion over the next five years to improve air quality. It also eased prosecution of environmental crimes and increased local accountability for air quality problems.

China's economic growth, which has slowed since its breakneck double-digit growth in the early 2000s, has also been a point of concern for policymakers who have called for reforms to increase domestic consumption and curb reliance on exports for growth. The CCP set a November 2013 meeting on deepening such reforms that is expected to address how the leadership will support a slowing economy.

Meanwhile, China's burgeoning power on the global stage has sparked widespread perceptions of the country as an aggressive, expansionist power. Beijing has protested plans for U.S.–South Korean naval cooperation in the Yellow Sea and reacted vehemently to the U.S. sale of arms to Taiwan, suspending top-level security dialogue and announcing unprecedented sanctions against U.S. companies with ties to Taiwan. It has staked unwavering claims of territorial sovereignty over the islands in the East and South China Seas—a move that pits the country against Japan and four other neighbors and has caused a diplomatic rift and stalemate in the immediate region. In June 2013, Beijing gave tentative indications of cooperation on the South China Sea dispute by agreeing at an annual security forum in Brunei to work with the regional organization ASEAN on establishing a binding code of conduct for the contested South China Sea waters.

Some experts contend that while China's relative power has grown significantly with its economic rise, the main tasks of Chinese foreign policy are still defensive in nature: destabilize influences from abroad, avoid territorial losses, and sustain economic growth. What has changed "is that China is now so deeply integrated into the world economic system that its internal and regional priorities have become part of a larger quest: to define a global role that serves Chinese interests but also wins acceptance from other powers," write Andrew J. Nathan and Andrew Scobell in Foreign Affairs.

By and large, the rational objective for the new leadership in China is to move away from an antagonistic relationship with the United States, experts say. But U.S.-China relations could continue to suffer until Beijing adjusts its foreign policy and political structure more radically, starting with the normalization of its regional relationships.

"It will be very difficult for the fundamentals of the U.S.-China relationship to change absent the change in China's governance and its overall desire and commitment to assume a larger role in issues like Syria and Iran," Economy says. "It would require change in some fundamental principles of Chinese foreign policy."

Additional Resources

The BBC outlines the Communist Party's structure and system of rule, including the influence of the Politburo, National People's Congress, and State Council, in this graphic.

The Pew Research Center issued this October 2012 report on the side effects of China's rapid economic growth, including gaping income inequality, rising prices, pollution, and worries about political corruption.

Xi Jinping is profiled in this Foreign Policy exposé detailing his biography, party associations, and political leanings.

This Financial Times feature discusses the ascent of the bureaucrat in China's transition and an incoming leadership focused more on factionalism within the party than reform.

This interactive from the South China Morning Post offers a comprehensive guide to the government's crackdown on corrupt officials.

More on this topic from CFR