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Greenville Business Magazine

Myth Of China: Political Parties

Jan 01, 2017 06:04PM ● Published by Makayla Gay

By Xiaobo Hu

Director, Clemson University Center for China Studies


People in China paid much attention to the U.S. presidential election campaign, without necessarily knowing how the system works and in particular how American parties function. A Cornell-educated China expert—a senior political scientist—wrote recently to admit that he finally understood how parties work in American politics by reading an article on China’s pop media.

Similarly, perhaps, not many of us understand well how parties work in the Chinese politics. This column is not to provide a final answer to the question, but to offer some insights into the issue.

Different from the parties in the United States, the Chinese communist party consists of professional staff and members, all supposed to work with two principles: democratic centralism and collective leadership. Democratic centralism, first adopted by Lenin from British parliamentary practice, is referred to as “freedom of discussion, unity in action.” That is, guarantee and encouragement of intra-party policy discussions but requirement of support and loyalty after decisions are made. However, centralism is not dictatorship, yet an antithesis of it. In China, final decisions require consensus of the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo of the Party. That is, each of the nine members has the veto power.

Counter-intuitively, while China has become more and more capitalistic, the Party has continued to grow in membership in the past three decades. Although very different from its overwhelming role before the post-Mao economic reform decades ago, the Party is still able to expand its membership during the entire reform era.

Not only did the party membership continue to grow, but it grew significantly. In 1978, just on the eve of the economic reform, there were 37 million members of the Party. In 2011, the membership increased to 82.6 million, more than doubled in 35 years of market-oriented reform. China has undergone fundamental changes from an ideology-driven, communist country to a country sometimes labeled as the People’s Republic of Capitalism, a play on words for PRC, People’s Republic of China. During this era of reform, roughly from 1976 to 2008, 54.89 million people joined the Party, which comprises 72 percent of its current membership. Currently, it has 88.76 million members, making it the second largest political party in the world. When the communists took over China in 1949, the Party members took up less than 1 percent of the population then. In 2011, the Party members took up almost 6 percent of the entire population in China.

In China, the Party is “still a selective political elite consisting of” a small fraction of the population, and after thirty-plus years of economic reform, Party membership means less an ideological commitment than a privilege of access. Indeed, similar to the discussion in my column on China’s socialism, questions have been raised about whether the Chinese communist party is still communistic, given its (lack of) ideological commitment, party policies, and membership requirements.

Aside from this party, there are eight other “democratic” parties—“democratic” is the word used to refer to these parties overall and individually within China. The rise of their membership is also remarkable in the last three decades. The larger ones include China Democratic League with 274,000 members—an increase of 19 percent in the last four years alone; Jiusan Society with 159,083 members—membership doubled in the last decade; China Democratic National Construction Association with close to 140,000 members—an increase of 24 percent in the previous five years; and China Association for the Promotion of Democracy with more than 100,000 members. These non-communist parties in China have also grown tremendously in policy influence over China’s economic development.

Xiaobo Hu is the director of Clemson University Center for China Studies.

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