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CRS: Understanding China's Political System

Authors: Susan V. Lawrence, Beijing Correspondent, The Far Eastern Economic Review, and Michael F. Martin
May 15, 2012

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This Congressional Reseach Service report aims to give an overview of the Chinese political system, as well as to introduce a number of distinct features of China's formal political culture and discuss their implications for U.S.-China relations in time for the upcoming NATO summit in Chicago.

This report is designed to provide Congress with a perspective on the contemporary political system of China, the world's second largest economic power, one of five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, and the only Communist Party-led authoritarian state in the G-20 grouping of major economies.1 By introducing some of the distinct features and governance challenges of China's political culture, the report aims to help Congress understand the ways in which political actors in China interact, or in some cases, fail to interact, with implications for China's relationship with its neighbors and the world. By introducing some of the leading political institutions and political actors in China, the report aims to help Congress understand where Chinese interlocutors sit within the Chinese political system, gauge their relative influence, and judge the authoritativeness of their statements with respect to official policy. Where appropriate, the report also seeks to highlight ways in which China's political culture affects official Chinese interactions with the U.S. government.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP or Party) has been in power in China for more than six decades, a record of longevity that rivals and could one day surpass that of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.2 The CCP assumed power in 1949 by means of a civil war victory over the forces of Chiang Kai-shek's Nationalists, who moved the seat of their Republic of China government to the island of Taiwan. The Communists named their new regime the People's Republic of China (PRC). Although the CCP has been continually in power since, China's political institutions and political culture have evolved significantly over those decades, with the CCP's willingness to adapt helping to explain why it has, so far at least, avoided the fate of its sister parties in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.

Today, although the Party is committed to maintaining a permanent monopoly on power and is intolerant of those who question its right to rule, analysts consider the political system to be neither monolithic nor rigidly hierarchical. Jockeying among leaders and institutions representing different sets of interests is common at every level of the system. Sometimes fierce competition exists among the members of the Communist Party's nine-man Politburo Standing Committee and 25-member Politburo, China's highest decision-making bodies. It also exists among ministries; between ministries and provincial governments, which are equals in bureaucratic rank; among provinces; and among the service branches of the military. The military and the Foreign Ministry are often on different pages. Even delegates to the National People's Congress, China's weak legislature, sometimes attempt to push back against the government, the courts, and the public prosecutor's office. As part of a trend of very modest political pluralization, moreover, other political actors are increasingly able to influence policy debates. Such actors, who may join forces to advance particular causes, include an increasingly diverse media, state-owned and private corporations, official and quasi-official research institutes, university academics, officially sponsored associations and societies, and grassroots non-governmental organizations.

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