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Government of China

Constitutional framework

The 1982 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China established the National People’s Congress (NPC) and its Standing Committee as the primary legislative bodies of the nation, entrusting them with all national legislative authority. In contrast, the State Council and its Standing Committee are tasked with the execution of laws rather than their creation. This fundamental separation of powers extends to each administrative level within the country, from provinces to counties, with the caveat that the scope of authority for local governments is confined to what is delineated by national law.

The right to vote is granted to all citizens who are at least 18 years old and have not been stripped of their political rights. Direct elections are utilized to select members of the People’s Congress up to the county level. For levels above the county, representatives are elected by their peers to serve at the next higher People’s Congress. If the constitution were an exact mirror of the political process, the People’s Congresses and their committees would play a pivotal role in the governance of China. However, this is not the case in practice.

In reality, the locus of decision-making power in China lies with the executive branches of the state and within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The State Council, presided over by the Premier, is the supreme executive body at the national level. The constitution allows for the appointment of Vice-Premiers, a Secretary-General, and various state councillors and ministry heads. The Premier, along with the Vice-Premiers, state councillors, and Secretary-General, convene as the Standing Committee of the State Council, where the Premier holds ultimate decision-making authority. The decisions of this Standing Committee effectively carry the weight of law in day-to-day governance.

Although not explicitly stated in the constitution, each Vice-Premier and state councillor is typically charged with overseeing specific sectors or issues, such as education, energy, or foreign affairs, coordinating closely with the relevant ministries and commissions. This delineation of duties enables the relatively small Standing Committee of the State Council, which comprises fewer than 20 individuals, to supervise and direct the activities of a comprehensive bureaucratic network. The Committee may also draw upon additional expertise as needed. The NPC convenes approximately once a year, primarily to endorse decisions that the State Council has already made.

Alongside the State Council, the CCP’s central leadership structure operates with its own hierarchy, including the Politburo’s Standing Committee, the Politburo itself, and the Secretariat. The distribution of power within these top echelons of the CCP has fluctuated significantly over time, and there was a period from 1966 until the late 1970s when the Secretariat was inactive. There is a degree of overlap in membership between these CCP bodies and the State Council’s Standing Committee. Furthermore, party elders, even those who are formally retired, have historically wielded considerable influence over CCP decision-making processes.

Administration of China

A structured hierarchy encompassing both organization and personnel is a characteristic feature of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and associated governmental entities. Within this framework, it is notable that personnel departments across the government spectrum are staffed with CCP members who adhere to regulations and directives independent of the institutions to which they are ostensibly attached. This arrangement has historically facilitated the CCP’s oversight and influence concerning appointments to pivotal roles within the party, government, and key sectors such as enterprises and educational institutions.

During the two decades from 1958 to 1978, these personnel departments predominantly employed political considerations when making appointments, often to the detriment of intellectuals, experts, and individuals with foreign connections or experience. Contrastingly, from 1978 to 1989, the policy orientation shifted significantly, with international affiliations being prized in alignment with China’s strategy of global engagement. Educational attainment emerged as a valuable criterion for career advancement, while political involvement became less influential and, in some cases, a barrier to progression. A recalibration towards the pre-1978 approach was instituted in 1989, and since then, there has been an oscillation between these two policy stances.

To curtail the influence of personnel bureaucracies, two key reforms have been implemented. Initially, in 1984, leaders within various CCP and government institutions were empowered to make autonomous decisions regarding the appointment and promotion of their staff, although the leaders themselves remained subject to appointment through the personnel system. This change has diminished the comprehensive control previously exerted by personnel departments. Furthermore, the establishment of a more open labor market for intellectuals and specialists has been promoted, which has the potential to further erode the dominance of the personnel bureaucracies over professional career trajectories.


In 1980, following the Cultural Revolution, the People’s Republic of China undertook a significant restoration of its legal system. The State Council reestablished the Ministry of Justice, along with the prosecutorial bodies and judicial courts. This revival was underpinned by the enactment of a variety of laws and legal statutes, which collectively provided a structured legal framework. Notably, the reformed law explicitly mandated the elimination of discrimination against defendants on the basis of class origin, marking a progressive step in China’s legal history. Additionally, the nation reinstated a professional body of legal practitioners.

Despite these reforms, the practical application of the legal system has faced challenges, primarily due to a deficit of trained legal professionals and persistent attitudes that subordinate legal principles to the will of political authorities. A case in point occurred in 1983 when the upper echelons of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) initiated a stringent campaign against crime, resulting in numerous arrests and executions that did not adhere to the procedural standards set forth in the recently implemented criminal law. This law was later revised to better align with the procedures that were actually employed during the crackdown. Since then, China has continued to launch similar initiatives targeting criminal activities.

Political process

Pursuant to the 1982 Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), the National Party Congress is recognized as the paramount decision-making entity within the party’s structure. In light of the fact that the Party Congress convenes on a quinquennial basis, the Central Committee is vested with the authority to make decisions during the interims. Additionally, the Political Bureau is authorized to act on behalf of the Central Committee when it is not in session, while the Political Bureau’s Standing Committee orchestrates the Political Bureau’s activities. The Secretariat is tasked with managing the day-to-day operations of both the Central Committee and the Political Bureau. The party’s General Secretary oversees the Secretariat and is responsible for convening the sessions of both the Political Bureau and its Standing Committee. The Secretariat executes its responsibilities through various departments under the Central Committee, such as the Organization Department and the Propaganda Department.

Prior to 1982, the CCP’s leadership structure included a unique chairmanship, held by Mao Zedong until his death in 1976 and subsequently by Hua Guofeng until 1981. Hu Yaobang then assumed the role of party chairman until the position was eliminated in 1982. This redefinition was part of a broader initiative to mitigate the risk of any single leader attaining a level of power that supersedes the collective authority of the party, as was the case with Mao. While the Chinese government maintains a chairmanship, its powers are now significantly restricted and largely ceremonial.

The distribution of power within the CCP’s leading bodies and between these entities and the State Council is subject to continual evolution. The Political Bureau’s Standing Committee and the Political Bureau itself retain the discretion to address any matters they deem necessary. At times, the Secretariat has also played a pivotal role, convening with greater frequency than the Political Bureau or its Standing Committee and making critical decisions independently. The State Council, too, has been instrumental in decision-making, though its authority is ultimately contingent upon the endorsement of the CCP leadership.

Since the late 1970s, China has embarked on reforms aimed at fostering a more institutionalized governance system, wherein the power of an officeholder is defined by the office itself rather than the individual’s personal influence. For instance, the 1982 CCP and state constitutions, with subsequent amendments, delineated specific positions that automatically confer membership on the Political Bureau’s Standing Committee. These positions include the head of the Party Military Affairs Commission, the CCP General Secretary, the head of the Central Advisory Committee, and the head of the Central Discipline Commission. Moreover, for the first time, constitutional term limits of two consecutive terms were imposed on the roles of premier, vice-premier, and state councillor, though no analogous restrictions were applied to senior CCP roles.

In principle, the CCP is tasked with setting overarching policy directions and supervising their execution to prevent obstruction by state and military bureaucracies. The party is also charged with inculcating the populace with appropriate values. Theoretically, the government’s role is to implement CCP policies and make decisions as required. However, this delineation of responsibilities is often obscured for various reasons. For instance, only since the late 1970s has there been a concerted effort to appoint distinct individuals to key executive positions within the CCP and the government, a practice that was not previously observed. At the highest echelons, the government’s premier and the party’s chairman continue to serve on the CCP Political Bureau.

Moreover, the demarcation between policy development and execution is frequently indistinct within a vast and multifaceted organizational framework. CCP cadres have historically become more entangled in the government’s daily operations until corrective measures are taken by the national leadership. While the distinction between the CCP and the government holds significant importance, the governance structure in China can also be understood from a functional perspective. Officials often transition between roles within the CCP and the government, although typically within their specialized domain, such as economics, organization or personnel, security, propaganda, or culture.

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