The powerful factions among China's rulers


The Chairman
Apr 17, 2009
Viewpoint: The powerful factions among China's rulers

China's political elite is dominated by two factions. But once the new leaders are unveiled, who will have the upper hand, and how will competing factions balance power? As part of a series on challenges for China's new leaders, political analyst Cheng Li says the country's future could be decided by a tussle at the top.

Of all the concerns about the forthcoming political succession in China, none may ultimately prove as important as whether or not the factional balance of power will be maintained.

China is now confronting widespread social unrest, slowing economic growth, increasing divisions within domestic public opinion on the issue of the country's political trajectory and rampant official corruption as revealed by the Bo Xilai scandal.

Any further signs of elite disunity or upsets in the factional balance of power within the top leadership could be overwhelmingly detrimental in terms of the continued rule of the Communist Party.

That is why the composition of the new Politburo Standing Committee (PSC), the supreme decision-making body in China, is critically important.

What will be the status of the competing factions in that committee? Will the existing system of collective leadership in China continue - or is it headed towards failure?

Populists vs princelings
China is a one-party state in which the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) monopolises power. The party leadership, however, is not a monolithic group. Its members do not all share the same ideology, political association, socio-economic background, or policy preferences.

In fact, two main political factions or coalitions within the CCP leadership are currently competing for power, influence and control over policy initiatives. This bifurcation has created within China's one-party polity something approximating a mechanism of checks and balances in the decision-making process.

This mechanism, of course, is not the kind of institutionalised system of checks and balances that operates between the executive, legislative and judicial branches in a democratic system.

But this new structure - sometimes referred to in China as "one party, two coalitions" - does represent a major departure from the "all-powerful strongman" model that was characteristic of politics in the Mao and Deng eras.

Solitary strongman: China's leadership these days is more about groups working together

One of the two intra-party groups in China is the "populist coalition", which is led by President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao. The other is the "elitist coalition", which emerged in the Jiang Zemin era and used to be headed by Jiang but is currently led by both Wu Bangguo, chairman of the national legislature, and Jia Qinglin, head of a national political advisory body.

These four individuals - Mr Hu, Mr Wu, Mr Wen and Mr Jia - are currently China's top leaders. These two political camps share the seats in the top leadership organisations in a way as to reach a near-perfect balance.

The nine-member PSC, for example, has - at least prior to this 2012 Party Congress - maintained a four-to-five split, with four seats for the populist coalition and five going to the elitist coalition.

Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang, who will likely take over the top two posts at the 2012 Party Congress, each represent one of these two coalitions.

The two coalitions represent different socio-economic and geographical constituencies. Most of the top leaders in the elitist coalition, for instance, are "princelings", leaders who come from families of veteran revolutionaries or of high-ranking officials. These princelings often began their careers in the economically well-developed coastal cities. The elitist coalition usually represents the interests of China's entrepreneurs.

Most leading figures in the populist coalition, by contrast, come from less-privileged families. They also tend to have accumulated much of their leadership experience in the less-developed inland provinces.

Many advanced in politics by way of the Chinese Communist Youth League and have therefore garnered the label tuanpai, literally meaning "league faction". These populists often voice the concerns of vulnerable social groups, such as farmers, migrant workers and the urban poor.

The politicians on the "populist" side tend to emphasise the concerns of China's poorest: farmers and migrant workers, for example

Leaders of these two competing factions differ in expertise, credentials and experience. Yet they understand the need to compromise, the necessity of cutting deals, in order to co-exist - especially in times of crisis.

And there is a crisis going on now - one brought on by scandals among the factional leaders.

Threats to stability
The most serious one has centred on Bo Xilai, a prominent princeling. Another case is Ling Jihua, Hu Jintao's former chief of staff and up until recently a rising star in the tuanpai faction. Having become embroiled in a scandal of his own, Ling was appointed to a less important position on the eve of the Party Congress.

These scandals among factional leaders, however, can and should be easily dismissed. Factions themselves are too strong to be dismantled.

Leaders of these two competing factions differ in expertise, credentials and experience. Yet they understand the need to compromise, the necessity of cutting deals, in order to co-exist - especially in times of crisis.

And there is a crisis going on now - one brought on by scandals among the factional leaders.

Threats to stability
The most serious one has centred on Bo Xilai, a prominent princeling. Another case is Ling Jihua, Hu Jintao's former chief of staff and up until recently a rising star in the tuanpai faction. Having become embroiled in a scandal of his own, Ling was appointed to a less important position on the eve of the Party Congress.

These scandals among factional leaders, however, can and should be easily dismissed. Factions themselves are too strong to be dismantled.

The widely speculated downsizing of the PSC from nine seats to seven is significant on two counts. First, this move will likely eliminate two specific positions - the propaganda czar and the police czar - that have constituted the main obstacles to economic liberalisation and political reform. Second, this smaller size will likely enhance the top leader's power.

More importantly, given the deep legitimacy crisis facing communist rule and the growing public resentment of nepotism and patron-client ties in the selection of leaders, the authorities should adopt more mechanisms for intra-party elections.

The full Central Committee can elect seven from the eight candidates on the ballot for the standing committee, which will in fact not change the factional balance of power (as four candidates can be chosen from each camp). Or alternatively, the full Central Committee can elect the 25-member Politburo with more candidates on the ballot. The intra-party election in this highest level of leadership can build a new source of legitimacy and mandate for new leaders.

Success or failure, China's collective leadership and its factional dynamics will have a major impact on how the most populous country in the world will be governed in the years to come.

China leadership: Faces to watch

Xi Jinping: Widely tipped to become China's next Communist Party chief and president, he is a so-called 'princeling', the privileged son of a former top leader, learning Chinese politics from an early age when his father was purged and he himself was sent to work in the countryside

Li Keqiang: Li Keqiang's career has seen him rise from manual labourer on a rural commune to provincial party chief and now a leader-in-waiting. He has a reputation for caring about China's less well-off, perhaps a result of a modest upbringing

Challenges for new leaders

BBC News - Viewpoint: The powerful factions among China's rulers


The Chairman
Apr 17, 2009
China's congress: Front-runners for power

Xi Jinping

Xi Jinping is widely tipped to become China's next communist party chief and President.

He is a so-called 'princeling', the privileged son of a former top leader, learning Chinese politics from an early age when his father was purged and he himself was sent to work in the countryside.
Mr Xi's close ties to the military and his support for state-owned industries suggest he is rather conservative.

Born in Beijing in 1953, Mr Xi studied chemical engineering at Tsinghua University before joining the Communist Party in 1974. He worked in Hebei, Fujian and Zhejiang provinces, before being named Shanghai party chief in 2007 and tasked with cleaning up a corruption scandal.

He has a reputation for straight-talking, telling officials in 2004: 'Rein in your spouses, children, relatives, friends and staff, and vow not to use power for personal gain.'
To many inside China, Mr Xi is less famous than his wife, folk singer Peng Liyuan. Their daughter is reportedly studying at Harvard.

Little is known about his personal life, beyond a liking for basketball and, according to a leaked US diplomatic cable, Hollywood war movies, possibly acquired during a brief stay in Iowa when he was a young man.

Li Keqiang

Li Keqiang's career has seen him rise from manual labourer on a rural commune to provincial party chief and now a leader-in-waiting.

He has a reputation for caring about China's less well-off, perhaps a result of a modest upbringing.
He is close to President Hu Jintao, who he worked with in the party's youth league, and is expected to take over from Wen Jiabao as premier.

His easy-going manner and consensual style has prompted some to question whether he is dogged enough to tackle the strong vested interests which dominate much of China's economy.

Born in 1955 in Anhui Province, Mr Li reportedly rejected his father's offer of a local party career, enrolling instead at Beijing's prestigious Peking University to study law.Mr Li was chosen as deputy party secretary for Henan Province in 1998, and became China's youngest provincial governor a year later.

But his tenure in the rural and heavily-populated province was marked by a series of setbacks, including the spread of HIV through contaminated blood, which could have ended his ambitions.

He did a better job reviving Henan's economy, and then impressed many by his work in Liaoning, an industrial province hit hard by reforms to state-owned industry.

Wang Qishan

Wang Qishan is well known to Western leaders, a key figure in discussions about the global economy and China's economic links with the US.

Henry Paulson, the former US treasury secretary, described him as 'decisive and inquisitive', and someone with a 'wicked sense of humour'.
He is often compared to his political mentor, former premier Zhu Rongji, because both men are seen as dynamic and ready to challenge the status quo. Both even share the same nickname, 'fire brigade chief', because of their crisis management.

Those characteristics have led supporters to suggest Mr Wang would make a better premier than the favourite for the job, Li Keqiang.
Mr Wang is a 'princeling', the son of a top official, and he is married to Yao Minshan, daughter of former vice-premier Yao Yilin.
Born in Qingdao, Shandong, he studied history at Northwest University then worked as a researcher.
He joined the party relatively late, at age 35, and worked as a banker before being made mayor of Beijing in 2004.

He took over at the height of the SARS crisis and was credited for a no-nonsense approach, enforcing a quarantine and working with the World Health Organisation, rather than trying to downplay the epidemic.

Li Yuanchao

Li Yuanchao heads the communist party's organisation department, the body that assesses members' performances and decides which jobs they get.

Such a crucial role has helped former heads of the department - including Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping - go on to hold the highest office.
Mr Li is seen to straddle the two main factions within the party. He is a 'princeling' whose father was mayor of Shanghai. But he is also widely considered to be a protege of Hu Jintao, whose support base is in the party's youth league.

A mathematics graduate from Fudan University, Mr Li went on to earn a master's degree in economics from Beijing University and a doctorate of law from the Central Party School. He also attended leadership training at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.

Before taking charge of the organisation department, he was party chief in his native Jiangsu province. He was both praised and criticised for his handling of an algae bloom on Lake Tai, where factory pollution threatened drinking water supplies for millions of people.

In Jiangsu, he tried to make officials responsive to the public, setting up a system to allow them to evaluate local leaders

Zhang Dejiang

Zhang Dejiang was chosen by China's leaders for their toughest assignment of 2012, taking over as party chief of Chongqing after the fall of Bo Xilai.

It cemented his reputation as a trouble-shooter who could be relied on to manage a crisis, and suggested he was set for the very top. While many of China's new leaders have dealings with the West, Mr Zhang is an expert on China's oldest ally, North Korea, and even spent two years studying economics in Pyongyang.

Mr Zhang, son of a PLA major-general, started his party career on the North Korean border, before being moved to Zhejiang and then working as party secretary in Guangdong between 2002 and 2007. His term of office was not free from controversy. When a deadly form of pneumonia - severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) - broke out in the province in 2002, the government was slow to respond.

As party boss, Mr Zhang was heavily criticised. His tough stance towards protesters and journalists was also unpopular.
He is not known to be a reformer, and opposed allowing businessmen to join the party.

Mr Zhang was appointed vice-premier in 2008, with responsibilities including energy, telecommunications and transportation

Liu Yandong

Liu Yandong is the only woman in China's 24-strong politburo. She also has a chance, though it may be slight, to be the first woman promoted to the politburo's all-powerful standing committee.

Born in Jiangsu, she is the epitome of the well-connected 'princeling'. Her father was a vice-minister of agriculture said to have introduced former president Jiang Zemin's foster father into the communist party.

Ms Liu studied at Tsinghua University, like current President Hu Jintao, and she worked for him as his deputy in the party's youth league. She later earned a masters degree in sociology from Renmin University of China.
Her husband of more than 40 years, Yang Yuanxing, is also a 'princeling' and runs his own technology company. The couple have one daughter who is in her late 30s and believed to be working in Hong Kong.

According to a leaked US cable, Mr Yang once told diplomats that his wife speaks good English and is keen on photography, but did not have time for the hobby. She has a reputation for being quiet but hardworking and efficient. She has spoken of the need to bridge cultural misunderstandings, recently encouraging foreign scientists to work with Chinese experts.

Liu Yunshan

Liu Yunshan, 55, is head of the party's propaganda department, the body which strictly controls the country's media and polices the internet.

He worked in Inner Mongolia for almost 30 years from 1968, after being sent there as a young man to work in a commune. He later became a Xinhua news agency reporter, public relations specialist, and finally deputy party secretary.

Born in Xinzhou, Shanxi, he joined the party in 1971 and was a graduate of the Party School. He worked with President Hu Jintao at the party youth league and is seen as a close ally. Mr Liu's son, Liu Lefei, is a prominent private equity investor.

If promoted to the standing committee, Mr Liu would almost certainly take over the propaganda portfolio. He is likely to maintain China's heavy-handed media censorship and intolerance of criticism, a system which sees thousands of people police internet content.

Mr Liu has expressed concern over the growing numbers of Chinese using online forums to criticise the government.
'It is impossible to control (the spread of information on the internet),' he said recently.

'I think internet users should exchange information freely, but they should follow certain rules.'

Yu Zhengsheng

Yu Zhengsheng is party chief of Shanghai, China's largest city.

A 'princeling' with close ties to both former president Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, he also has links to the late Deng Xiaoping's family.
Unusually, his political career survived his brother's defection to the US in the 1980s, possibly thanks to the backing of Deng's son.

Mr Yu's father was briefly married to Jiang Qing, who later became notorious as Madam Mao. Mr Yu graduated from the Military Engineering Institute in Harbin, specialising in ballistic missiles, and worked in electronic engineering for almost two decades until the mid-1980s.
He later worked as mayor and party chief of the eastern city of Qingdao and was credited with helping launch two of China's best-known brands overseas - Tsingtao beer and Haier appliances.

Mr Yu prefers to travel in a simple car without a motorcade, and surrounds himself with few officials and bodyguards, it was revealed in leaked diplomatic cables from 2007.

Mr Yu has talked about tensions between urban development and the environment.

'China has achieved great economic success, albeit with many resulting problems, such as the widening income gap and the more strained human relationships,' he said.

Wang Yang

Wang Yang is seen as the flag bearer for a new generation of reformers.

'To solve the problem of vested interest groups holding up reform, we must first perform surgery on the party and the government,' he told the National People's Congress in 2012. Mr Wang first gained his liberal reputation as party chief in Chongqing. More recently he won praise for his handling of a land dispute in Wukan, a village in Guangdong province, where he has been party chief since 2007.

With the world's attention on Wukan, Mr Wang sent a group of senior officials to negotiate. A truce was brokered, and elections held to replace the local officials.

Born in Suzhou, Mr Wang is the son of a labourer. He worked in a food processing factory in the 1970s, before studying political economics at the Central Party School. He joined the party's youth league while President Hu was in charge, and eventually earned political administration degree.

In Guangdong, Mr Wang is known among local leaders for meeting regularly with local businessmen and entrepreneurs, for a more enlightened attitude towards redevelopment, and for promoting the idea of happiness as a measure of progress, rather than GDP growth.

Zhang Gaoli

Zhang Gaoli is party chief of Tianjin, a large and wealthy city east of Beijing.

Born in Fujian, he graduated from Xiamen University after studying statistics and economics. He spent the early part of his career working in the oil industry, before becoming an official in the southern province of Guangdong in the mid-1980s.

His career took off from 1998 as party boss of the southern boomtown of Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong.

While overseeing the city's development, he also established close ties with former President Jiang Zemin and his supporters, a relationship which helped ensure Mr Zhang's promotion to governor of the province of Shandong in 2002.

Mr Zhang has been a low-profile leader in Tianjin, and little is known about his views or personal life.

Meng Jianzhu

Meng Jianzhu is currently Minister of Public Security - an important position that oversees domestic law enforcement.

Some see him as a candidate to take over as the country's overall internal security chief. But Mr Meng owes his position to former President Jiang Zemin and his 'Shanghai gang', and it is not clear whether he has enough support in the current leadership to win promotion.

Mr Meng was born in Suzhou, Jiangsu and joined the Communist Party in 1971. He studied industrial systems engineering at Shanghai's Mechanical Engineering Institute.

He was one of Shanghai's deputy mayors from 1993, then the city's deputy party chief until 2001, and then party chief in Jiangxi province until 2007. In his current role, overseeing the country's police, Mr Meng is often quoted on national security issues.

He reportedly told county-level police officers at a training session to be 'rational, easy-going, civilized and proper' in carrying out their duties.
But he also told them to recognise the 'heavy and difficult task of maintaining stability'.

Hu Chunhua

Hu Chunhua, party chief of Inner Mongolia, is one of China's youngest senior leaders and widely seen as a rising star.

He is known as 'Little Hu' because of his close ties to President Hu Jintao, even though the two are not related. If he were to win a seat on the standing committee, Mr Hu would be its youngest member at 49. It would also mark him out as the strongest candidate to succeed Xi Jinping as China's overall leader in 2022.

Mr Hu comes from a humble background, born into a Hubei farming family. But after excelling in exams he earned a place at Peking University. His political career started in Tibet in the party youth league - President Hu's power base. The young Mr Hu ended up working for 23 years in Tibet, where Chinese rule often sparks ethnic tension.

Mr Hu moved to Inner Mongolia in 2009, and won praise for his handling of protests by ethnic Mongols unhappy about coal mining destroying grazing pastures.

'In the development process, it is necessary that safeguarding the interests of the masses must be the fundamental starting point,' he said. 'If people's interests are not protected properly, then development cannot be sustainable.'

BBC News - China's congress: Front-runners for power


See the link for their photos to link the faces.
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The Chairman
Apr 17, 2009
China's ruling Communist Party is about to hold an important congress and usher in sweeping leadership changes which could have a profound impact on the country's future direction.

With China now the world's second largest economy and an increasingly important global player, the changes will be closely watched around the world.

What are the main issues at this year's meeting?

What is the party congress?

The congress is held every five years and is a platform to announce party policies and personnel changes in the party leadership.

More than 2,200 delegates from across China will gather in Beijing for the congress, which opens on 8 November.

The congress will be a well-choreographed display of power and unity, but the proceedings will mostly take place behind closed doors.

Most, if not all, of the outcomes will have been settled among top leaders before the congress gets under way.

It is not clear how long the meeting will go on for. But recent congresses have typically lasted seven days.

Why is it important?

This year's congress is particularly important because it will endorse a once-in-a-decade leadership succession.

The party sets strict age limits for its leaders and seven out of the nine current members of the all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee - the party's ruling body - are expected to step down. They include President Hu Jintao, who is head of the party and China's head of state, and Premier Wen Jiabao, who is like a prime minister in charge of the government.

Immediately after the Congress ends, a new leadership will be unveiled to waiting journalists, and walk out in order of seniority.

The new leadership, the make-up of which has been determined in advance, will rule China for the next 10 years.

Who will China's new leaders be?

Vice-President Xi Jinping is expected to replace Hu Jintao as the party's general secretary after the congress, and become state president early next year.

The National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) will convene on 8 November in Beijing
He is one of the select group of "princelings" - top party officials who are descended from former party grandees.

Vice-Premier Li Keqiang, a close ally of Mr Hu, is tipped to replace Wen Jiabao as premier.

There has been a lot of speculation as to who the other Politburo Standing Committee members will be, and its final line-up will be closely watched for hints as to China's future direction.

It has been widely reported that the Standing Committee will shrink from nine members to seven, in an effort to streamline decision-making.

How are new leaders selected?

In theory, the party congress elects members of the Central Committee, who in turn elect the politburo, including its Standing Committee, China's top decision-making body.

But in practice, the process has always been top-down rather than bottom-up, and the congress is really a rubber stamp for top leaders' decisions.

Under Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, the paramount leaders named their own successors.

Now that the era of political strongmen is over, the selection of new leaders has become a murky process of intrigue and horse trading among various party factions and interest groups.

Though Li Keqiang was believed to be Hu Jintao's favourite candidate, Xi Jinping emerged on top because he was acceptable to all party factions.

What difference will the new leaders make?

Advocates of reform are calling on the new leadership to carry out urgent reforms to prevent economic and social problems from evolving into a crisis that could loosen the Communist Party's grip on power.

In particular, they warn that, without incremental political reform, the unchecked powers of the state risk suffocating growth and exacerbating popular discontent.

It was recently reported that Mr Xi, the leader-in-waiting, hinted that he has heard the calls for him to take a bolder path.

But any more daring reform could face opposition from powerful interest groups, including party factions that chose the new leaders in the first place.

What happens to leaders who retire?

Retired Chinese leaders often continue to wield great influence from behind the scenes.

After Jiang Zemin stepped down as party leader in 2002, he remained as head of the Central Military Commission for two years, setting a precedent some say Hu Jintao may now seek to repeat.

Even party elders without official posts can stay active, especially in the lead-up to leadership successions.

Both Jiang and his rival Li Ruihuan, a former leader close to Hu Jintao, have reportedly made public appearances in a bid to boost their own factions.

With party elders still holding sway, new leaders can be quite constrained when they first take office.

Do we really know what's happening, or is it educated guesswork?

China started opening to the world in 1978, and observers now know vastly more about its people and society than ever before.

But China's political system remains opaque and secretive.

For example, just weeks before the congress, Xi Jinping was not heard from for two weeks, sparking a flurry of online rumours which Beijing's official silence only served to fan.

One insight we will get into the party's latest thinking will be Hu Jintao's much-anticipated "political report", to be delivered on 8 November.

Chinese political speeches are usually full of jargon and hard to decipher. But observers will pore over the report for new watchwords which may serve as indicators of China's future direction.

BBC News - Q&A: China's new leaders


The Chairman
Apr 17, 2009
How China is ruled: Communist Party

Communist Party

The Chinese Communist Party's more than 80m-strong membership makes it the biggest political party in the world. Its tight organisation and ruthlessness help explain why it is also still in power.

The party oversees and influences many aspects of people's lives - what they learn at school and watch on TV, even the number of children they are allowed.

It is made up largely of government officials, army officers, farmers, model workers and employees of state-owned companies.

It is unrepresentative of China as a whole. Only a quarter of its members are women, for example. It is also obsessive about control, regularly showing itself capable of great brutality in suppressing dissent or any challenge to its authority.

Joining the party brings significant privileges. Members get access to better information, and many jobs are only open to members. Most significantly in China, where personal relationships are often more important than ability, members get to network with decision-makers influencing their careers, lives or businesses.

Pyramid structure

To join, applicants need the backing of existing members and to undergo exhaustive checks and examination by their local party branch. They then face a year's probation, again involving assessments and training.

The party has a pyramid structure resting on millions of local-level party organisations across the country and reaching all the way up to the highest decision-making bodies in Beijing.

In theory, the top of the pyramid is the National Party Congress, which is convened once every five years and brings together more than 2,000 delegates from party organisations across the country.

The congress' main function is to "elect" a central committee of about 200 full members and 150 lower-ranking or "alternate" members", though in fact almost all of these people are approved in advance.

In turn, the central committee's main job is to elect a new politburo and its smaller, standing committee, where real decision-making powers lie.


Every significant decision affecting China's 1.3bn people is first discussed and approved by a handful of people - almost all men - on the party's political bureau (politburo), the nexus of all power in China.

The 24-member Politburo is elected by the party's central committee. But real power lies with its smaller standing committee, which works as a kind of inner cabinet and groups together the country's most influential leaders.

How the standing committee operates is secret. But its meetings are thought to be regular and frequent, often characterised by blunt speaking and disagreement.

Senior leaders speak first and then sum up, giving their views extra weight. The emphasis is always on reaching a consensus, but if no consensus is reached, the majority holds sway.

Once a decision has been made, all members are bound by it. Although policy disagreements and factional fighting are widely believed to take place in private, it is extremely rare for these to break into the public domain.

When they do - as happened in 1989 when the leadership battled over how to deal with the Tiananmen protests - it is a sign of an all-out power struggle.

Members of the standing committee also share out the posts of party general-secretary, premier, chairman of the National People's Congress, and head of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission.

The full politburo also tends to include party secretaries from big municipalities like Beijing and Shanghai, and from important provinces like Guangdong.

National People's Congress

Under China's 1982 constitution, the most powerful organ of state is meant to be the National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament. In truth, it is little more than a rubber stamp for party decisions.

The congress is made up of nearly 3,000 delegates elected by China's provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and the armed forces. Delegates hold office for five years, and the full congress is convened for one session each year.

This sporadic and unwieldy nature means that real influence lies within a standing committee of about 150 members elected from congress delegates. It meets every couple of months.

In theory, the congress has the power to change the constitution and make laws. But it is not, and is not meant to be, an independent body in the Western sense of a parliament.

NPC meetings are more about spectacle than power
For a start, about 70% of its delegates - and almost all its senior figures - are also party members. Their loyalty is to the party first, the NPC second.

What actually tends to happen, therefore, is that the party drafts most new legislation and passes it to the NPC for "consideration".

The NPC has shown some signs of growing independence. In a notable incident in 1999, it delayed passing a law bringing in an unpopular fuel tax. It has also been given greater leeway drafting laws in areas like human rights.

The congress also "elects" the country's highest leaders, including the state president and vice-president, the chairman of the government's own Military Affairs Commission and the president of the Supreme People's Court.

But again, these elections are very different from the Western ideal.

Courts and prosecutors

China's laws reflect a complicated mix of party priorities, a Soviet-inspired system set up after 1949, and a raft of new legislation passed since 1979 to haul the country's modernising economy into line with those of major foreign investors like the US and Europe.

But the party still comes first. Laws are seen as a way to manage the economy and people's lives, rarely to protect them from the state or enshrine individual rights.

Law-making is also complicated. The National People's Congress is responsible for drafting laws covering areas like human rights and taxation. But in other areas, the State Council and local governments can legislate too. Even once laws have been passed there is no guarantee they will always be respected.

Often provincial governments and state-owned enterprises view court decisions as something to be negotiated, not obeyed. And for the party and state, the 'rule of law' is not allowed to undermine its own interests. The party investigates its errant members first, rather than hand them straight over to the courts.

Both main legal organs answer to the National People's Congress. The Supreme People's Procuratorate is the highest legal supervisory body, charged with safeguarding the constitution, laws and people's rights.

Discipline Commission

Party members suspected of corruption, bad management or breaking with the party line are liable to be hauled before discipline inspection commissions, set up to deal with internal party discipline and to monitor abuses.

When ousted leader Bo Xilai's case rocked China in 2012, it was the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection which sealed his fate.

As economic reforms have gathered pace, corruption has become probably the single most damaging issue for the party's standing.

As a result, there have been consistent campaigns to root out corrupt officials and give maximum media coverage to a few, high-profile punishments.

For example, China's railways minister Liu Zhijun was forced to quit in 2011 under investigation for allegedly embezzling more than 800m yuan (£75m; $121m).

More often, powerful party members are able to protect themselves, their families and proteges from any enquiries or public criticism. And because it is the party which investigates the party - it is not prepared to tolerate outsiders monitoring its members' behaviour - the commissions are always prone to interference from higher up.

Discipline inspection commissions do have privileged access to information about people. Their control over networks of informers and personal files makes them particularly feared.

Military Affairs Commission

China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has always defended the party as much as national borders.

During the early years of communist rule, most of the country's leaders owed their positions to their military success during the civil war, and links between them and the PLA remained very close.

But as this generation died off and reforms were introduced to make the armed forces more professional, the relationship has shifted subtly.

Party leaders know they are lost without the army's support, as became clear during crises like the 1989 Tiananmen protests. At the same time, senior military leaders realise they need the leadership's backing if far-reaching plans to modernise the armed forces are to be paid for.

The party's control over the armed forces and their nuclear arsenal is institutionalised through the Central Military Affairs Commission. The 12-man commission has the final say on all decisions relating to the PLA, including senior appointments, troop deployments and arms spending. Almost all the members are senior generals, but the top job has always been held by the party's most senior leaders.

The chairmanship was held by Mao Zedong and then Deng Xiaoping, who stayed in the job after he had resigned from all other positions, suggesting to some analysts that this is the real source of power in China.

The commission also controls the paramilitary People's Armed Police, who have the politically sensitive role of guarding key government buildings, including the main leadership compound of Zhongnanhai in Beijing.

Armed forces

Thirty years ago, soldiers in China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) spent as much time on "political work" and reading party speeches as military training.

Reforms introduced since the 1980s have made the armed forces much more professional. They have shed one million men in a bid to concentrate on quality not quantity. Emphasis is being put on better training, better weapons and better pay.

Nevertheless, the military's position as defender of the party means it will never be de-linked from politics. Officers and men still have to declare their loyalty to party principles, study its teachings and read leaders' important pronouncements.

PLA officers are also party members, and there is a separate party machine inside the military to make sure rank and file stay in line with party thinking.

In keeping with its more professional role, the PLA has lost influence over non-military affairs. It was forced to give up a vast business empire and is no longer has a seat on the politburo's standing committee.

Some analysts think PLA generals are happy with this, so long as they retain influence over the areas which really matter to the military - specifically the Taiwan issue and relations with America.

Party elders

Senior leaders sometimes retain great influence over decisions and appointments long after they officially step down from power.

The most prominent example was Deng Xiaoping, who remained paramount leader even when his only remaining official post was chairman of the China Bridge Association.

Former President Jiang Zemin is thought to have been closely consulted over the 2012 leadership changes, and outgoing leader Hu Jintao is being closely watched to see how he plans his retirement.

Part of the reason the elders wield such influence is because of the patron-protege nature of Chinese politics.

Retirement does not mean losing your say

Leaders take care to manoeuvre their own supporters into the top ranks of the party and government bureaucracy.

This gives them sway over the new generation, even if that influence wanes as the new leaders gain more experience.

It is not simply about power for power's sake. In China, retiring leaders know that the verdict on their achievements can easily be reversed. They also have to look out for their children, whose wealth and success becomes vulnerable to attack if their own standing declines.

As compensation, elders get a privileged and pampered retirement. They are guaranteed elite bodyguards, special housing, secretaries and drivers, as well as access to restricted documents and information.

State Council

The State Council is the cabinet which oversees China's vast government machine.

It sits at the top of a complex bureaucracy of ministries and commissions and is responsible for making sure party policy gets implemented from the national to the local level.

In theory it answers to the National People's Congress, but more often the State Council submits legislation and measures which the NPC then approves.

The State Council's most important roles are to draft and manage the national economic plan and the state budget, giving it decision-making powers over almost every aspect of people's lives. It is also responsible for law and order.

The full council meets once a month, but the more influential standing committee comes together more often, sometimes twice a week.

This committee is made up of the country's premier, four vice-premiers, state councillors and the secretary-general.

Provinces and townships

China is governed as 22 provinces, five "autonomous" regions, four municipalities - considered so important they are under central government control (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing) - and two special administrative regions.

The people in charge of these bodies - a group of about 7,000 senior party and government leaders - are all appointed by the party's organisation department.

Although many are powerful individuals - the governor of Sichuan province rules over 85 million people - their ability to deviate from the party line is limited because they know their next career move would be at stake.

Power and decisions flow down from the top level to an intermediate level of counties and cities, and finally to the local-level townships. At each level the party and government structures sit side by side, with the party's representative always the more powerful. Thus a province's party general-secretary takes precedence over its governor.

Each level has its own local People's Congress which elects its own government for periods of three or five years.

These local governments have been given limited leeway to adopt local regulations in keeping with their situation.

BBC News - How China is ruled: Provinces and townships


The Chairman
Apr 17, 2009
Interesting tid bits about governance in China

Tiao and kuai

Under a system known as tiao and kuai, different levels of the bureaucracy only have to abide by directives issued by higher-ranking bodies

A ministry cannot rule over a province because they are the same rank

Provinces do have to comply with orders from the State Premier, who out-ranks them

Functions of the council

Responsible for implementing party policy

Manages the state budget

Also oversees law and order

Full council meets once a month

Western criticisms of China's Legal System

Courts not independent

Torture used to get confessions

Arbitrary detention without charge

Some prisoners sent to "re-education centres"
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The Chairman
Apr 17, 2009
This BBC education of China is gratefully acknowledged.

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