News | Political Parties / Election Analyses - China Elections, Consultations, and National Congresses

Political scientist Fang Ning on the process, form, and substance of the Chinese political system


Pedestrians in Beijing strolling on a hutong, or narrow alleyway, decorated in anticipation of the upcoming Twentieth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, October 2022. Photo: IMAGO/Roman Balandin/TASS

The Twentieth National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC), a major political gathering held every five years, is set to commence this Sunday in Beijing. While Party Congresses are regarded as major, indeed historical political events in China itself, Western assessments tend to confirm negative opinions of the CPC and China’s political system as a whole. These negative perceptions seem to be rooted in the inherent tendency to compare everything in China with Western political systems, and thus with Western party congresses. Yet, if one compares CPC congresses with party congresses in Europe, which have a completely different function, the comparison tends to purely negative.

Fang Ning is a Chinese political scientist, editor of China’s Political System (Springer, 2020), and the former director of the Institute of Political Science at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS).

To actually learn anything about the substance of political processes in China, it makes little sense to compare a Party Congress of a state party in a party-state with Western political parties, but rather to look closer at the self-understanding of these processes. How are Party Congresses prepared, and by whom? Who attends, and who decides who attends? What function do they have in the country’s wider political ecosystem?

In order to develop a more complete picture of the state of play in the Communist Party and the country as a whole, Jan Turowski and Sun Wei of the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Beijing Office spoke with political scientist Fang Ning about the history and present of CPC Congresses in terms of their practical organization, the ideological and political issues at stake, and, finally, their significance for modern China’s historical development.

JT: You are known for coining the term tiered electoral system” to describe how elections work in Chinese politics. In Mark Leonard’s book What Does China Think, you are cited as using the analogy of a restaurant, arguing that democracy in the West is like a fixed menu-restaurant where customers can select the identity of their chef, but have no say in what dishes he chooses to cook for them. Chinese democracy, on the other hand, always involves the same chef the Communist Party but the policy dishes which are served up can be chosen a la carte’.” With that in mind, can you tell us more about the specifics of these tiered elections? For example, how were the delegates to the Twentieth National Congress elected?

This image of a chef and menu is perhaps a bit exaggerated, but it nicely shows Westerners what the Chinese mean when they talk about their democracy. To answer the question, however, I think we first need to take a more principled look at the issue of democracy itself.

In 1990, CPC General Secretary Jiang Zemin gave the first guiding speech on building democracy in China, which formed the foundation for the past 30 years of discussions. He mentioned two forms of democratic process: elections and consultations. These two forms are of course not mutually exclusive, and one finds elements of each in both Chinese and Western democracy. Over time, China became more and more consultative, and the election process became less and less pronounced as a result. In the West, on the other hand, democracy seems discursively and even normatively to be more and more reduced to the mere process of elections.

Democracy is a question of the generation and allocation of power, that is, how power is generated and in whose hands it is held. In a democracy one must be elected, meaning you get empowered by and through the process of elections. China does not have such a system, but it has a substitute mechanism, which I call “tiered election”.

What is a tiered election? In the Liberal Democratic Party and the Democratic Party in Japan, and the Republican Party and the Democratic Party in the United States, they put forward candidates for parliament, prime minister, and president who are elected by the party, as in the case of the primaries in the US general election, which are elected by extensive grassroots elections.

In China, the CPC’s delegates to party congresses such as the Twentieth National Congress are also mainly elected by grassroots and local party organizations. However, these elections are held at different levels. In general, recommendations come from grassroots party organizations and elections are organized by grassroots and local party committees.

For example, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) has to recommend party representatives for the Twentieth National Congress, and first, the grassroots party committees submit their recommendations to the Party Committee of CASS on the basis of consultation with party members. Next, the CASS Party Committee will hold an assembly to elect candidates to the authoritative agency of the upper level under the direct leadership of the central government for the Twentieth National Congress. The third level is the party congress organized by the working committee of this upper-level agency to hold the final election of Party delegates to the Twentieth National Congress.

This is a bottom-up, hierarchical election process. It can be said that the recommendations and elections involved all levels of party organizations and members of the Communist Party. This is what I call a tiered election.

SW: Is there a quota for how many people are allocated to Party Congress delegations by the party committees?

The numerical distribution of delegates is based mainly on the number of party organizations and the number of party members, but also taking into account factors such as the number of delegates from previous Party Congresses. For example, there were only five or six Party delegates from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences who could eventually attend the Twentieth Congress.

SW: And is there a candidate list?

Not necessarily. In general, it is a bottom-up, tiered, differential election with no prior list, but the list recommended on the grassroots level is usually reviewed and approved by the higher party organization before it is finally put up for election.

SW: Now that Party committees have been established within private enterprises in China, are there any delegates from private enterprises?

How many delegates are sent to the Party Congress from private companies is generally decided by the provinces. The provinces work out their distribution key of delegates, such as whether ordinary Party members should attend, model workers, men and women, age, etc. There will definitely be Party representatives for private entrepreneurs.[1]

In short, there is an electoral mechanism, but it must go through a process of recommendation, vetting, and approval or ratification from above. This is known as “democratic centralism” in the Communist Party’s political system and in the system of internal party democracy, which is “democratic” from the bottom up and “centralized” from the top down.

I would point out that although such an election is not a competitive election in the Western style, there is a mechanism for elimination. In practice, if a candidate has a bad reputation and is not well-perceived, he will be defeated in a narrow election. This happens from time to time.

SW: So, in theory, anyone can be recommended and voted for?

Yes, you can even vote for yourself at the very beginning of the recommendation process. From a political science point of view, the electoral process in China and in the CPC is essentially a tiered election. Becoming a delegate to the Party Congress, becoming a middle or senior cadre, or becoming a recommended candidate for the Central Committee are all determined by election, but in a tiered manner.

The stratified electoral system in Chinese democracy must also be viewed in the context of China and the Communist Party’s cadre personnel system as a whole. China’s administrative system has five levels of administration: central government, provinces (autonomous regions and municipalities directly under the central government), cities (district cities), counties (cities), and townships. Chinese cadres can be roughly divided into these five broad levels, which are generally divided into the national level, provincial and ministerial levels, departmental and bureau levels, county and divisional levels, and section levels.

All cadres in China rise through the ranks in this system. For each level, there is a process of recommendation or election and voting. In other words, each cadre is selected and promoted by “consulting” the cadres at their own level and at the next level, and they can only be promoted if they have a certain level of support. This is called the “popular base” in China.

A more standard practice is to have a “consultation” among the cadres at this level and the next, i.e. a mechanism similar to the Western “referendum”, where people “score” and “draw votes” in accordance with the “popular base”. This is a quasi-election by Western standards, and if a certain number of votes is not reached, the candidate is eliminated.

In the past, there was a period of “voting” in which the result was determined by the number of votes, with the winner being the person with the most votes. After the Eighteenth National Congress of the Communist Party of China, the “vote” system is generally no longer used, but it is still “vote-based”, and in general, at least half of the votes are required to be elected or to move on to the next round of competition, while those who do not have half the votes are generally not considered.

In short, in China there is no Western-style competitive election or ballot system. However, China does have an electoral system, which is a tiered electoral system.

SW: Why did China adopt a tiered system instead of universal suffrage?

As to why there is a need for stratification, I think there are considerations in terms of preventing populism.

I once went to Hebei Province to conduct a survey of grassroots organizations. There were two county party secretaries. The first secretary said that “we must listen to public opinion”, that is to say, we must conduct write-in surveys. He promoted the idea that the broadest range of people and opinions must be taken into account. The second county secretary, on the other hand, was firmly against it, saying that people are not interested in long-term and strategic goals and that extensive public opinion consultation would end up giving opportunities to cadres who can talk and put on a show, while cadres who worked hard in a down-to-earth, quiet manner would never get more votes. For example, the head of the local tax authority would never be promoted based on a voting process, because people hate him for asking them for money.

In my opinion, both county party secretaries have a point, and this is perhaps the paradox of electoral democracy itself. In other words, tiered elections may, to a certain extent, remedy the flaws of competitive elections, the ballot system.

I think at the current stage of China’s development, there are still advantages to the tiered electoral system. It must be acknowledged that elections are necessary in democratic politics. In universal suffrage, only people’s impressions of candidates matter, but it is hard to say whether these impressions are correct or not. On the other hand, of course, if there are no elections at all, it’s easy to operate “under the table” — recommendations and promotions become non-transparent, and there is a lack of feedback. Obviously, there is a contradiction here.

Generally speaking, I think that people in the tiered election system have to act relatively more responsibly and refrain from pushing candidates or issues indiscriminately. For example, if I, as a CASS director, were to push my vice-president towards a specific delegate, I would really have to consider whether it is appropriate for the development of the whole institution, because I am a cadre and have a responsibility for the institute. So, the broader opinion of my colleagues always needs to be taken in consideration, but it is still less competitive. By having our own cadres at this level elect the cadres at the next level, we can also avoid the “war of words”, the claptrap of campaign propaganda and the confrontation that comes with elections.

JT: What is the general content and message of the Party Congress? How is it generated and what role does the Congress play in conveying that message or long-term vision to the general population?

I would say that there is a basic consensus concerning the strategic direction of development and substantive goals in China. There might be different opinions about state-owned enterprises, more market or less market, more environmental regulation or less, how to implement welfare policies, and so on, but the goal is clear.

The CPC functions as a constitutive dual interface in this process: on the one hand, it generates the basic consensus while at the same time taking it up from society, repeatedly condensing and articulating it anew, and communicating it into the country. On the other hand, it translates this basic consensus into concrete policy goals and conveys it to organizations, enterprises, and state authorities.

JT: What exactly is the specific function of the Party Congress in this broader political and communicative process?

Well, the Party Congress is officially the will of the state and the will of the people. The Congress opens with the report to the Congress delivered by the General Secretary, currently Xi Jinping. The delivery of the report to the Party Congress generally takes several hours and could be understood as a kind of constitution for the next five years.

There is an established process around how the report is developed and how the basic consensus is formulated. Specifically, with regard to the topics and the resolutions of the report, there is first a process of solicitation followed by extensive research. Central agencies are involved in the coordination of these surveys and research, such as the General Office of the State Council and the General Office of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, and the research for the report generally starts just after the Chinese New Year of the previous year. For example, before the Nineteenth National Party Congress in 2017, Liu Qibao [Vice-Chair of the Thirteenth Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference and member of the Eighteenth Politburo] came to the CASS in November 2016 to assign research tasks, and that’s how my research report came about.

All departments, all provinces and cities, autonomous regions, municipalities, ministries, various mass organizations, the legally permitted political parties, and universities and institutions like the CASS all have to conduct research. This research must be conducted through multiple channels, meaning that for any major issue or topic, five to ten work units, institutes, or think tanks work on the same issue and must do so separately to maintain their respective independence.

JT: Can you place the Twentieth Congress in historical perspective? In its long history, the Communist Party has had crucial congresses where fundamental shifts were decided, and others which essentially confirmed the established course. As the CPC as an organization has changed greatly, how did congresses change alongside the party?

The historical relevance of the various congresses differ in two ways: firstly, the selection of the leadership, and secondly in terms of themes and issues.

Some congresses are historically important in terms of whether there is a generational change of party leaders, such as the Eighteenth Congress. There are congresses where there are changes of Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee, but not a change of the General Secretary. Since Deng Xiaoping, a practice has basically developed for leaders to serve for two terms, or ten years. There will be no change of the General Secretary this year, and I believe the Twentieth National Congress will give an explanation as to why this is the case.

The other question of a congress’s historical relevance is how it determines the direction of strategic development and defines the most important tasks and challenges. This question can only be answered retrospectively.

An important marker of a political system is its ability to institutionalize development structures and implement policies. Of course, there can be many criteria for a system to be good or bad. Deng Xiaoping’s three criteria — whether it is conducive to the development of the productive forces of a socialist society, whether it is conducive to strengthening the comprehensive national power of a socialist country, and whether it is conducive to improving the living standards of the people — are valid, but not comprehensive. For example, how can we judge whether opening up or closing down is the better solution in the current pandemic? We will see and judge when the pandemic is over.

It is difficult to decide whether to focus on the long-term interests of the people or the immediate interests of the people. So, each Party Congress determines concretely the policy priorities for at least the next five years. Each Party Congress has to unify ideas, and once everyone agrees on them, they have to be implemented. As I said before, what is written in the Party Congress report is agreed in principle beforehand, while controversial things are not written in the report.

SW: So, what exactly the Party will discuss at the Twentieth Party Congress actually reflects the Party’s ranking of primary and secondary issues in society at the moment. Can you comment on the differences and priorities of previous General Secretaries Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin in terms of the Party’s development?

This is a very big question. All political issues and questions in China are related to industrialization. We generally believe that China has had four industrializations. The first industrialization came with the Westernization Movement in the late nineteenth century. But when British and French forces occupied Beijing and burned down Yuanmingyuan Park, followed by Japan defeating China in the Sino-Japanese War, this first industrialization was buried.

The second industrialization occurred under the Republic of China, from 1928 to 1937, but the country was fragmented and controlled by rival warlords. The third was after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, from 1949 to 1978. These three decades surely had their achievements, but the problems were even greater, as the Cultural Revolution almost pushed the country to the end of its rope.

China’s fourth industrialisation effort began with the reform and opening up in 1978, and this time it was successful, with China leaping from a backward agricultural country to become a major industrialized country and now the world’s second-largest economy, achieving great leaps and bounds.

In terms of party congresses, I would like to emphasise the role of the Twelfth and Fifteenth National Congresses of the Communist Party of China in the historical period of reform and opening up as particularly important. The Twelfth Congress set the general line of reform and opening up, and China’s reform and opening up entered a period of comprehensive development.

The Fifteenth Party Congress was a crucial moment in the reform and opening-up process, and the main issue faced was the reform of state-owned enterprises, which was the most difficult, if not very dangerous, time for China’s reform and opening-up. Between 1997 and 1998, more than 10 million workers were laid off from state-owned enterprises, including collective enterprises. It was the most dangerous time for the country, although there were no waves on the surface.

Jiang Zemin was remarkable in that he was confident enough to smoothly navigate this dangerous period. Of course, it was really hard and unfair to the people who were laid off. We owe much gratitude to the people who endured this sacrifice. Deng Xiaoping broke the confines of thought and showed the way, but what Deng Xiaoping said he could see was actually done by Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. The 20-odd years from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao was a golden period of reform and opening up that carried forward and achieved great development for the country. The Communist Party and the Chinese people will always remember the historical achievements of the older generation.

The CPC has proposed 100 years of development and modernization — only in 2050 will we be able to discuss whether the primary stage of socialism has come to an end. Mao Zedong took the lead in the primary stage of socialism, but his understanding was not clear. Deng Xiaoping understood that we could not mess around and that the primary stage of socialism had to be carried out on the path of industrialization. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao took the lead and made great achievements in the leapfrog development of China’s industrialization and modernization.

The period from the Eighteenth to the Twentieth National Congress and beyond is the final and most critical period for the success of China’s industrialization and modernization. Looking ahead to the Twentieth CPC National Congress and the second “100-year goal”, the Twentieth Congress has a long way to go.

[1] Entrepreneur delegates participated in the Congress for the first time in 2002, at the Sixteenth Congress. They increased in number from seven to 27 at the Nineteenth Congress in 2017.