Is China a communist country?


Nele Noesselt

Nele Noesselt holds the Chair (W3) for Political Science and China / East Asia at the Institute for Political Science (IfP) and the Institute of East Asian Studies (IN-EAST) at the University of Duisburg-Essen. Her main research interests are international relations, global governance and comparative political science.

How is China governed, what are the guiding principles of the Communist Party, what strategic goals are subject to Chinese foreign policy? Political scientist Nele Noesselt, University of Duisburg-Essen, explains important questions about the political system in a nutshell.

(& copy bpb, Yi Luo)

What does the Chinese Communist Party stand for, how has it changed since it was founded in 1921?

The People's Republic of China falls under the group of communist one-party regimes. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), officially founded in Shanghai in 1921, saw itself in its early phase as a revolutionary party of workers, peasants and soldiers. Following their Soviet model, the Marxist-communist groups in China, which formed at the end of the imperial era, strove to overthrow the old system, first that of the Chinese Empire and later that of the nationalist party Guomindang / Kuomintag (GMD / KMT) Republic of China. Even after the proclamation of the People's Republic of China on October 1, 1949, the CCP initially remained committed to the basic principles of (permanent) revolution and class struggle. In the post-Maoist reform era (Mao's death: 1976; official start of reform policy: late 1978), the CCP was gradually reinvented to represent the interests of the entire Chinese people (including the intellectual and capitalist groups still persecuted under Mao). The revolutionaries have gradually been replaced by an elite group of Chinese technocrats with university degrees. Among the top politicians of the fourth generation of management there was an above-average number with a university education in engineering (the renowned Tsinghua University in Beijing). The fifth generation of management, which has been in power since 2012/2013, includes numerous law and economics graduates. Through the nomenklatura system, the CCP occupies important offices in the state, economy and society with its own cadres and thus permeates each of these areas.

What do the terms leadership generations, factions and patron-client networks mean?

Each generation of leaders - whereby the generation here sociologically stands for a group with a similar socialization background and common formative key historical experiences - is characterized by specific slogans (e.g. Harmonious Society; Chinese Dream) and contributes its part to the partial redesign of the Chinese model and the Chinese state ideology. All generation of leaders formally adhere to the ultimate goal of reaching the final phase of socialism (in a symbolic hundred years). The group, which has ruled since 2012, with Xi Jinping at the center of power, belongs to the fifth generation of leaders. The earlier generation of leaders, beginning with the first generation around Mao, had been characterized by their initial strong influence from the Soviet Union and revolutionary basic orientation. With the third generation of leadership, the transfer of power to the technocrats began, who instead of the permanent revolution focused on building a modern, efficient state bureaucracy. This technocratization trend reached its peak under the fourth generation of management (Hu Jintao / Wen Jiabao 2002 / 2003-2012 / 2013).

The division into generations illustrates the versatility and pragmatic adaptability of Chinese socialism. The image of the monolithic one-party state that had dominated the years of the East-West conflict has given way to the image of a "learning" system that is constantly adapting to social and economic changes. At the same time, China was assigned a special form of "fragmented authoritarianism", which relativized the idea of ​​a sole bundling of power and control by the party headquarters in Beijing. In the post-Maoist era, China's modern, flexible authoritarianism first made a transition from a personalist-charismatic model of rule to the principle of bureaucratic-rational collective leadership. The re-centralization and re-personalization tendencies under Xi Jinping, however, suggest an, at least partial, relativization of this principle. Xi rules far more as princeps inter pares than as primus inter pares.

Nevertheless, factions and patron-client networks also have a noticeable effect on the shaping of Chinese politics under Xi. In a one-party system, factions refer to interest groups (or "wings") within that one party. Each of these interest groups stands for certain basic ideas with regard to economic and social policy as well as the state structure of the People's Republic of China. For example, the supporters of the Chinese New Left as well as the Neo-Maoists advocate a social policy that aims to counteract the growing gap between rich and poor by redistributing them. While the neo-Maoists are thinking back to the Mao era, parts of the new left are primarily influenced by the global critique of capitalism New Left inspired. The neoliberals, on the other hand, prioritize a capitalist development path largely without social safety nets. [1]

How does China define its political model?

The concept of democracy is firmly anchored in the political narrative of the People's Republic of China - for example in the omnipresent formulas of the "democratic dictatorship of the people" or "democratic centralism". However, the PRC does not practice democracy based on western liberal principles. The central criterion for classifying a system as a democracy, the holding of free (and competitive) elections, [2] is not given in the Chinese case. The top leadership elite is selected through internal party structures and then formally approved in a subsequent step through the National People's Congress, which is only indirectly elected. A direct election by the people and the admission of competing candidates is not intended.

The recruitment and appointment process of the political leadership elite of the People's Republic of China follows the claim according to the principles of meritocracy: The most capable and morally integrity party politicians should be entrusted with the management of the state. This idea of ​​the enlightened, selfless state ruler who governs in the interest and for the good of the people shows clear parallels to the basic narratives of (state) Confucianism. As a benevolent ruler, the Chinese emperor, the "son of heaven", could only hold on to power as long as he fulfilled the appropriate rituals and was able to maintain general harmony. According to the narratives of Chinese dynasty historiography, violations of the cosmologically-based order could result in the loss of the mandate of heaven (tianming) and signify the replacement by a new dynasty.

Even if the state-theoretical foundations of the PRC reflect the political reality of the 20th and 21st centuries, rhetorical references to premodern Chinese philosophy and history continue to play a central role in the symbolic legitimation and stabilization of the one-party state. Particularly among the fourth (Hu Jintao / Wen Jiabao) and fifth (Xi Jinping / Li Keqiang) management generations, these bonds are clearly recognizable again and again. Confucius, who was targeted by the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) as a manifestation of the degenerate feudalist old order, has been symbolically rehabilitated under Xi Jinping. Under Hu Jintao was with the Harmonious Society (hexie shehui) a neologism was introduced that identified the politics of the fourth generation of leaders as a continuation of Confucian principles - even if the concept of the Harmonious Society is not part of the Confucian classics.

In the place of the Confucian civil servant exams, through which the Chinese Empire recruited its administrative elite for centuries, new selection and recruiting elements have appeared. Evaluation mechanisms are intended to ensure the performance of the administrative apparatus and prevent the arbitrary power of local cadres. At the same time, these should counteract the fragmentation and centrifugal tendencies of the system and swear the party cadres at all system levels to common principles and narratives.

What is a "party state"?

After the swearing in on a charismatic party leader who was enthroned over everything in the Mao era, after Mao's death (1976) and the disempowerment of the Gang of Four [3], thought was given to limiting the power of the top party elite. The general secretary took the place of the chairman of the Chinese Communist Party. The principle of collective leadership, the joint decision-making within the top leadership circles of the party, was formally fixed as a new modus operandi. For the highest state offices, a limit of two, each five-year terms of office was included in the constitution. All further attempts to smash the mirror structure of party and state organs and to end the personal union between leadership positions in the party and top positions in the state apparatus failed. At the end of the 1980s, particularly in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union, which was seen as a warning negative example of unsuccessful reform policies, the party's control over the state apparatus was strengthened again. Under Xi Jinping, party control over key areas of the economy has also been intensified with the new version of party cells. Party decisions continue to precede all important committee meetings and decision-making processes of the state organs. The lifting of the presidential term limit in March 2018 is seen as an indication that Xi should aim for at least a third term (2023-2028). The power of the party state is again becoming increasingly personalized.

Intertwining of powers versus separation of powers: rule by law instead of rule of law?

The fourth plenary session of the 18th Central Committee (2014) was the first plenary session in the history of the PRC to focus on aspects of law-based rule. The concept of rights-based rule (rule by law) differs in one essential point from the international concept of the rule of law (rule of law): Administrative processes should be formalized and institutionalized, the transparency and responsiveness of the bureaucratic state apparatus should be increased. But the law is set and interpreted by the party - the interconnection between the party and the judiciary therefore continues after the fourth plenary session. Instruments of internal party disciplinary control and the fight against corruption were transferred to the state apparatus with the constitutional revision passed by the National People's Congress in March 2018. With the newly created National Control Commission, the institutional foundations of the state apparatus have also been subjected to a radical reform for the first time in the constitutional history of the PRC. The CCP's penetration of the state apparatus was increased.

How is the Chinese state apparatus organized?

State affairs are formally coordinated via the National People's Congress (legislature; supplemented by an advisory body, the Political Consultative Conference of the Chinese People), which meets annually in plenary (usually in March). Daily politics is formally incumbent on the Council of State (executive), which is chaired by the prime minister. At the head of the state is the president, who also holds the office of general secretary of the CCP and the chairmanship of the Central Military Commission (since 2012/2013: Xi Jinping). The tasks of the state organs are set out in the state constitution.

Four state constitutions of the PRC have been adopted since 1954 (1954, 1975, 1978, 1982). The reform constitution of 1982 has undergone several rounds of revision, most recently in March 2018. The constitution continues to reflect the legacy of the Soviet model, whose socialist constitution and Leninist-centralist principles of order had significantly shaped the structure of the Chinese party-state. The post-Maoist constitutions initially left the chapters and articles on the basic state organs unchanged, but gradually rewrote the passages on political economy to reflect the political reality of the PRC. In 2018, a new organ was anchored in the constitution with the anchoring of the National Control Commission (Articles 123-127). Article 1, which was revised in 2018, now officially fixes the leadership role of the Communist Party; the limitation of the President's term of office to two consecutive legislative terms has been lifted. Thus, under Xi Jinping, a re-personalization of Chinese politics has taken place, which is flanked by a stronger coupling of the state apparatus to the party.

What are the basic principles of party politics? Which party organs are there?

The CCP was founded in Shanghai in 1921. Since then, the party statutes have been gradually expanded to include slogans from the leading politicians, but the basic principles of the party have not been substituted. Even in the post-Maoist era, the party is committed to the so-called "four cardinal principles" with which the party formally follows the socialist path, Marxism-Leninism and the Mao-Zedong ideas, the principle of the democratic dictatorship of the people and the leadership role of the party.

The CCP meets every five years for its national party congress, at which the pragmatic course adjustments that have taken place over the past years are legitimized ex post and integrated into the official party ideology. In addition, the party congress decides on the composition of the executive bodies. At the 19th party congress in 2017, the Xi Jinping ideas, which are considered a further development of the Mao Zedong ideas and a new edition of the sinization of Marxism in the 21st century, were included in the ideological canon of the party statute. Likewise, the "New Silk Road" (also known as "Belt and Road Initiative", BRI) as a core principle of Chinese foreign policy. In the time between two party congresses, party policy is coordinated by the Central Committee and the Politburo and its Standing Committee. The Central Committee meets once or twice a year in plenary Third plenum, at which key issues of economic policy are discussed and reform packages are put together. The third plenum on the decisions on reform and opening up in 1978 initiated the integration of market economy elements into the Chinese planned economy towards sustainable development. Since 2014, the PR China has officially entered the New Normal phase (xin changtai), which aims at green, sustainable development and the reduction of socio-economic development disparities. The PR China officially plans to be climate neutral by 2060.

The party organ with the greatest power to make decisions, however, is the Politburo (2017: 25 members), especially its Standing Committee, which currently has seven members and is headed by the General Secretary of the CCP (since 2012: Xi Jinping).

What is the status of Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan?

The formerly British crown colony of Hong Kong and Macao, which was formerly administered by Portugal, have a special status: Formally, they are managed as special administrative areas. After the two territories were transferred back to China (Hong Kong: 1997; Macao: 1999), the formula "One country, two systems" (yi guo, liang zhi) the continued existence of their economic and social structures, which deviate from the one-party system of mainland China, symbolically guaranteed for 50 years. The protests in Hong Kong, which have intensified since the first wave of umbrella protests in 2014, document the fear of a "takeover" by Beijing and the ultimate loss of a "Hong Kong" identity.

Taiwan - from 1895 to 1945 a colony of Japan - is regarded by Beijing as a Chinese province and thus part of the territory of the People's Republic of China. If the government of the Republic of China (even after its flight from the Chinese communists to Taiwan) was recognized as the sole diplomatic representation of "China" until the beginning of the 1970s, the tide turned in Beijing's favor with the transfer of representation of "China" to the United Nations (and thus also the permanent seat on the UN Security Council) to the People's Republic of China in October 1971.

Taiwan, de jure since then a Chinese province for all those states that diplomatically recognize the PRC according to the "one China principle", is administered de facto autonomously. Since the mid-1980s, a multi-party system has developed in Taiwan, which can be roughly divided into two camps (Pan Green / Pan Blue). Under President Tsai Ing-wen, who was elected in 2016 and is a member of the green camp, Taiwan's aspirations for autonomy have intensified, at least on a rhetorical level.The rapprochement between Tsai and then US President Trump between 2016 and 2020 - and the enactment of US federal laws such as the TAIPEI Act, which from Beijing's point of view violate the one-China principle - have triggered new security spirals.