18th Congress of the Communist Party of China
The constitutions of governments of all countries that seek to be representative of their people have evolved over centuries with both home grown and imported characteristics. In Britain, the first country to experiment with representative government, the system evolved from the time of the Magna Carta (1215). Yet it still retains elements of the past
authoritarian regimes like a monarchy and a House of Lords, dressed in the garb of harmless tradition. The United States evolved with the US Constitution (1787) and the Bill of Rights (1789), developed first by a land-owning aristocracy with no special interest in popular democracy, into a more representative form of government as a result of mass agitations. But it still retains the tradition of political patronage now in the form of giant corporations that have replaced large landowners. It seems that a continuation of some aspects of tradition gives strength to a constitution. China is no exception.
The 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China was held this month and the event was followed by thousands of foreign journalists and observers who came to Beijing to study the new projections planned for the country. At the same time, despite China being the world’s second largest economy and a major trading partner and the largest creditor of
the USA’s foreign debt, there was little attention to the event in the USA media except to fault Chinese economic policies and ridicule its politics (BBC, New York Times, Economist,
Wall Street Journal). This was in stark contrast to the run up to the USA Presidential election a fortnight earlier when both candidates inveighed against China and vowed to punish the country for the US economic problems.
There was a recent Chinese TV clip where post-graduate students of international relations at a prestigious US university were asked about their knowledge of the Chinese political system and they confessed they knew very little if at all. In contrast, USA and other Western news magazines and economic and political journals have over the last four decades being predicting the imminent collapse of the Chinese economy and the implosion of the system of government, notwithstanding that China has maintained the fastest
economic and social growth rates in the history of mankind during that time. Unfortunately, it is in the West that we now see economic collapse and social
upheaval, despite unending optimistic forecasts.
China is a one party state governed by the Communist Party of China (CPC). This is
well known to Westerners and is a major point of criticism. But the CPC is not your run of the mill political party found in Western democracies that was created by privileged classes to contend for the right to govern. It is a revolutionary party that was created by oppressed workers and peasants in 1923 which won control of the country through political campaigns and armed force in a country where democracy did not exist.
It is incomprehensible to Americans who have very little knowledge of Chinese history but not to those living in China. Since the overthrow of the last Manchu (also known as the Qing dynasty) emperor in 1911, China had not had a unified national government and endured ceaseless internal conflicts between government at the centre, feudal warlords, bandit armies, Western imperial powers that occupied the main port cities and rapacious
Japanese invaders. It was the Chinese Communist Party, formed in 1923 originally with 30 members that organised the oppressed workers and peasants, fought against the other contending forces, and finally gained supreme power in 1949 through military victories. It was this party that once again unified the whole of China, except for Taiwan which was protected by the US naval fleet against attack by mainland forces. The triumph of the Communist Party caused widespread anger in the USA at the time and there were political debates on “Who lost China?”
Against this background, the overwhelming majority of Chinese regard the Communist Party of China as the legitimate vehicle for the governance of China. It would be incomprehensible to the Chinese to have a two party system as in the USA where both parties are beholden to corporate donors and the 35,000 odd lobbyists who are perpetually advancing the cause of vested interests.
The Communist Party of China has evolved over the last six decades of power from a party with a primitive ideological vision with obsolete economic theories into one that is more sophisticated and highly management oriented. In the first decade of rule in the 1950s, under the authoritarian leadership of Mao Zedong, “The Great Leap Forward” sought to industrialise using primitive technologies and rigid performance targets, all under centralised planning and control. The resulting economic disasters and human suffering was worsened when Mao introduced the “Cultural Revolution” when the youth of this vast country was mobilised to turn society on its head by destroying all institutions and past
history to create a mythical pure communism where there were no formal social structures.
With the death of Mao Zedong in 1976, Deng Xiaoping reformed the party which had suffered abuses under Mao’s authoritarian rule with the “Cult of the Personality” built around him by his sycophants. He began the process of dismantling the rigid ideological Marxist economic and political theories and quietly introduced open market economic reforms, creating a more democratic party structure. His mission was carried forward by his successor as General Secretary of the Communist Party, Jiang Zemin. So much that the Communist Party under his successor, Hu Jintao, grew to an active membership of close to 88 million, which included workers, peasant farmers, public and private sector employees and now even twenty billionaires/millionaires. This makes it the largest party in the world, which is a record, even considering that China has a population of 1.3 billion comprising one fifth of the world.
After Mao’s death, it was Deng Xiaoping, who was also abused and suffered physical and mental punishment during the Cultural Revolution, who strongly advocated measures to avoid adoration and deification of leaders in future. It is now written into the Chinese constitution that the “cult of the personality” is illegal. He resisted calls to continue office
after serving his time and introduced the current practice of top leaders serving only two terms of five years each.
One feature emerges throughout this period of party evolution: at no time was the party controlled by privileged vested interests as in the case of political parties in the Western democracies. The victory of the communist revolution ensured that. In fact, it went to the other extreme for many decades, with the ideology of communism which sought to establish “a dictatorship of the proletariat”. In pursuit of this objective, as in the early Soviet Union, it sought to persecute and marginalise all families that were affluent or held high positions in the past, thus destroying the intelligentsia and managerial classes in the process.
The Constitution of China retains its loyalty to its ideological roots for continuity. The introductory paragraphs in the document carry this message.
“The Communist Party of China is the vanguard both of the Chinese working class and of the Chinese people and the Chinese nation. It is the core of leadership for the cause of socialism with Chinese characteristics and represents the development trend of China’s
advanced productive forces, the orientation of China’s advanced culture and the
fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people. The realization of communism is the highest ideal and ultimate goal of the Party.
The Communist Party of China takes Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents as its guide to action.”
The “Three Represents” are Jiang Zemin’s contribution to Chinese political theory.
The power structure in China is based on the Communist Party. Party cadres fill all the top positions as leading provincial officials, and are also found in every government department and public enterprise. They ensure that the guiding principles of the party line and policies are followed. The authority of the Communist Party is unchallenged. Any dissent or changes must come from within the party and emanates from party leaders depending on their support within the Standing Committee and the Political Bureau (Politbureau).
The highest leadership position is that of the General Secretary of the party. The principal political officers of the country are selected and voted into office by the CPC Congress of delegates which meets every 5 years. The recently concluded 18th Congress was attended by
2,307 delegates from all party regional offices. The Congress elected the Central Committee which now consists of 205 members and 171 alternate members. It also elected the smaller Political Bureau of the Central Committee (25 members) from among them and the even smaller (7 members) Standing Committee of the Politbureau responsible for the highest level of day to day decision making. In addition, as eradication of corruption was a major issue at this Congress, it created a Central Commission for Discipline Inspection of 130 members. The Congress also elects the members of the Central Military Commission which supervises the country’s military and consists of some of the highest ranking civilian and military officers.
The CPC consists of proven technocrats who are concerned with the practical problems unlike politicians in many Western countries that need to take populist positions on matters like abortion, gay rights, religious values, creating democracy in foreign lands, policing the world, etc. The aim for the next 5 years was defined as “building a moderately
prosperous society in all respects, we must, with greater political courage and vision, lose no time in deepening reform in key sectors and resolutely discard all notions and systems that hinder efforts to pursue development in a scientific way.” In summary, the primary goals were defined as follows: 1) Sustainable economic development; 2) Extension of country’s cultural soft power’ 3) Improvement of living standards; 4) Building a resource conserving and environmentally friendly society.
No wonder most of the top leadership elected consists of highly educated engineers, scientists and economists, some educated in the USA, and not lawyers as in many Western countries. Unlike in Western democracies, they do not canvass for positions through mass media and bitterly fought elections and make numerous promises which are generally left unfulfilled when they attain office. The top leaders are chosen from within after discussions and ratified by the CPC Congress. These tend to be people with long service
both in industry and government office who have ended successfully governing large provinces (provinces in China are more populated than any European nation) and tend to have a median age of around 60 years.
The Congress made the following amendments to the constitution, given here in summary.
- Guide to action should be based on a scientific outlook on development.
- Path and theories to be based on the socialist system with Chinese
- Need to promote ecological progress.
- Reform and opening up to the world will be a path to a stronger China.
The constitution of China is not considered sacrosanct as in the West and is routinely amended at the CPC Congresses to meet new demands in a changing world.
Corruption was a major issue at this Congress. Retiring General Secretary Hu Jintao warned that rising corruption could threaten the party and even the state. Between 2007-2012, 660,000 cases of corruption were prosecuted, which included 60 top level officials from the provinces. The high-level Central Commission for Discipline was created for
this reason to give more powers to investigators. Despite this, the highest level of party officials at the centre are generally incorruptible and live very modest lives while most cases of corruption are from the provinces. The increase in corruption is traced to economic expansion coupled with very low salaries for public officials compared with much higher earnings by private business people and corporate managers.
Now that many regions of China are gaining a new prosperity, the CPC has to evolve to give more voice in government to those who are not within the party and are not tied to its
ideology. There are now 350 million internet users in China (the largest for any country in the world) and 250 million social media network users who would criticise local administrations and force officials to correct abuses and often act as independent watchdogs. The growth of the Chinese social media networks (such as Sina Weibo, Renren, Tencent, Douban and Wichat) has made a difference to politics. The answer is not to restrict access to mass media, as has often happened, but to encourage criticism even if it is sometimes a nuisance. The Chinese public is now mostly mature enough to be trusted and deliberate malcontents will be marginalised by them.
The major lines of conflict within the communist party are between the conservatives and the progressives calling for change. The conservatives in China, unlike elsewhere, are those who are more committed to doctrinaire communism who would be called leftists in the West, and progressives are those strongly advocating open market reforms who would be called rightists elsewhere.
The other major drawback in China today is the weakness of the judicial system in implementing the Rule of Law. While crimes of violence are surprisingly low compared to Western countries which have urban areas that law-abiding people have to avoid, there are fewer safeguards for citizens against official harassment. Yet the Chinese police forces are in marked contrast to those in the USA where all police personnel are armed and yet hundreds of them lose their lives annually in the line of duty. Chinese police personnel do not carry routinely carry guns or even batons but citizens would not dare to confront them in the performance of their duties. Let us illustrate this with a first hand experience.
Our family was touring China in April 2009. We had arrived in Kunming airport from Guilin and were looking out for our guide who would be with a placard with our name. There were 4 young men with bags fidgeting near the exit point. After a little while they started to leave. At the exit, two men in casual dress confronted them and showed them their identity cards. The young men froze. Within a few minutes a large open police truck with a big dog pulled up and the men were placed inside. The truck went off. Not a single word was spoken during this encounter. It all took barely five minutes and people around did not even notice what was taking place. In contrast, if such an arrest was done in the USA, the place would have been surrounded by heavily armed police and SWAT teams. The suspects would have been wrestled to the ground and manacled and led into police cars with screaming sirens. Bystanders would look on in terror.
US President Ronald Reagan theatrically intoned that “government is not the solution, government is the problem”. The neo-conservatives who hold the ideological high ground in the USA have since demanded the dismantling of government and the substitution of large private corporations to handle business usually done by governments (except to increase the military to unprecedented levels). If this were to be practiced, the CPC
which governs China is the closest to this model. It has all the trappings of a large corporation, the largest in human history, but with all citizens as shareholders and not a
This leads us to conclude that China should not blindly copy from the West but should evolve its own institutions and structures at its own pace. It could ignore the patronising advice and hectoring of Western analysts and critics. The CPC has demonstrated unrivalled successes in the last four decades and it can be left to continue their
15 November 2012.