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Government, Politics and Legal Systems for Expats in China

Author: Jim Newham
Submitted: August 2013

Government and Politics

Despite economic reforms that have continued since 1978, the People’s Republic of China remains an authoritarian one-party state, run by largely corrupt Chinese Communist Party (CCP) officials. Though still understandably cowed by the memory of the massacre of dissidents in Tiananmen Square in 1989, the Chinese people are showing more and more signs of discontent. The Communist Party cannot retain its monopoly of power forever.

The senior executive body in China is the Politburo; its 24 members are elected by the CCP Central Committee. Within the Politburo is a secretive nine-member standing committee, which is the real seat of power. The most powerful person in China is the General Secretary of the CCP, currently Xi Jingping, otherwise known as China’s Paramount Leader. He, the premier, and the other leaders of the CCP are all members of the standing committee of the Politburo. The standing committee thrash out policy and executive decisions among themselves, and as long as they come to a consensus or agree in majority, the policy is made.

The legislative of the People’s Republic is the National People’s Congress (NPC). There are nearly 3,000 NPC members, though the entire congress only meets once a year. On paper, this is China’s equivalent to a parliament, as it is officially responsible for creating laws and modifying the Constitution. However, the NPC is effectively run by its standing committee, which contains about 150 members and meets every two months or so. In practice, even the standing committee of the NPC has little power and usually rubber-stamps the Politburo’s and State Council’s decisions. This is starting to change; for example, the NPC has moved to delay Politburo decisions that it deemed unpopular, such as the proposed fuel tax increases in 1999.

The State Council is the Chinese equivalent of a Cabinet. It is responsible for implementing party policy that has been almost exclusively decided by the Politburo. The NPC then debates the State Council’s actions, though it normally approves them without demur. The main responsibilities of the State Council are to manage the economy and draw up the budget, and maintain law and order. Like the Politburo and NPC, the State Council has a standing committee which meets more frequently (around twice a week) and has more influence over the decisions that are taken. China’s premier, currently Li Keqiang, heads the standing committee of the State Council.

Connections (guanxi in Mandarin) are of paramount importance in Chinese politics. Being a Communist Party member and keeping favour with influential members is essential for those who want to progress. Joining the party involves obtaining backing from existing members and rigorous checks into the candidate’s beliefs and general suitability. Only the most senior (and well-connected) members of the party can be elected to the Politburo.

Though things have certainly improved since Mao Zedong's bloodthirsty totalitarian state, political parties are still banned in China and dissent is treated with repression. The scrambling of unapproved websites (dubbed the Great Firewall of China) is a modern attempt to keep ordinary Chinese people in the dark. Brutal treatment is especially meted out to Uyghurs in Xinjiang and to Tibetans in Tibet, Qinghai and Sichuan. The progress enjoyed by many other inhabitants of the country is little felt in these areas.


Legal Systems

The Chinese legal system falls into the civil law category, that is, it is based on a legal code in the form of the constitution. However, the rule of law does not apply in China. There are laws in China, of course – what people are supposed to do – and some of them are quite liberal. But the laws are often superseded by policies – what people actually do, particularly those in authority. It is still too often the case that how you are treated on any occasion depends on an individual’s whim.

Nevertheless, there has been some progress in this area. For example, judges have started to tackle wrongful convictions, and there are plans for torture and official abuse to be regarded as criminal offences. In addition, the death penalty is being imposed less frequently; consequently the number of executions has fallen from 12,000 in 2002 to around 3,000 in 2012. (This is still around four times the total number of executions in the rest of the world put together.) Though the public ability to show disagreement with the authorities is growing, outright dissidents are seen as a threat to stability and can still expect rough treatment such as being put under house arrest.

The judiciary is divided into the Supreme People’s Court, and the local people’s courts, which are on three different levels. The Supreme People’s Court is the court of last appeal for all of Mainland China, that is, all of the PRC except Hong Kong and Macau. However, judges and other officials are appointed by the CCP and hence the judiciary lacks neutrality. Those who feel they have been wrong by Communist party members are unlikely to find any recourse to justice even at Supreme Court level.




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