China’s political system is currently undergoing a dramatic structural transformation, the most pronounced element of which is the Communist Party of China’s (CCP) expansive new reach into nearly all domains of Chinese society. As CCP leader Xi Jinping declared at the 19th Party Congress in 2017, “Party, government, military, civilian and academic; east, west, south, north, center, the Party leads everything.”1
For most of the post-Mao era, the organization and functions of the CCP remained largely a side concern for the foreign business community and policymakers, or the focus of a few specialized academics and political-military analysts. Indeed, there was a credible case to be made that until quite recently, the CCP was still evolving to accommodate China’s increasingly market-led and globalized economy. Capitalism, not communism, seemed to be its modus operandi.2
Since Xi Jinping’s ascension to power at the 18th Party Congress in 2012, however, this trajectory has clearly evolved, and if we want to understand the future of the People’s Republic of China, it’s imperative that we understand how the CCP operates, how it’s mobilized and communicates, and perhaps most importantly, what its objectives are.
In my testimony today, I will explore several key challenges confronting China’s political system in the wake of these developments. In particular, I’d like to highlight the following points:
- The CCP has directly subsumed a number of key governing and administrative functions previously the domain of the State Council (i.e. “the government”). This began with the slow, yet deliberate, marginalization of the State Council beginning in 2013, but reached its near-term crescendo on March 21, 2018, when the CCP Central Committee released its “Program for the Deepening Reform of Party and Government Organs.”3 The massive restructuring represents the most significant overhaul of China’s political system since 1982, formally transferring vast amounts of administrative responsibilities from the government to the Party apparatus.
- This increase in the CCP’s formal administrative authority at the expense of the State Council was accompanied by the acute erosion of institutional norms that gave China’s political system stability and a degree of predictability (with some notable exceptions). Most noteworthy is CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping’s systematic dismantling of the “collective leadership” system erected, albeit imperfectly, by Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s and 1990s to prevent the return of a strongman leader like Mao Zedong.
- Xi Jinping intends to remain in power for life, as is normal for authoritarian systems with weak or non-existent rules governing leadership succession. Yet the longer he remains in office, the more the institutions and machinery of governance will adjust to his leadership style and his personality, thus threatening the durability of the CCP’s governing capacity.
- Xi’s centralization of power and the reassertion of Party authority has led to an increase of elite dissent, yet the likelihood of organized opposition to Xi, even within the upper echelons of the Party, faces significant “collective action” barriers, and is therefore unlikely to coalesce. Thus, we should not mistake an uptick in “grumbling” for actual resistance.
- By virtue of its history, culture, ideology, and organizational structure, the CCP makes decisions behind closed doors and prioritizes political and security concerns above all other considerations. As a result, if China continues on its current trajectory, the Party’s direct role in policy formulation and implementation will make China’s governance more opaque, volatile, and error-prone.
- Despite an outward appearance of stability, China’s political system is becoming increasingly rigid, restrictive, and thus brittle. At a time when the country faces myriad new and complex challenges – a slowing economy, a looming demographic crisis, a significant deterioration in U.S.-China relations, tensions on the Korean Peninsula, to name just a few – Xi’s transformation of the political system has left the country potentially unable to deal with these future dilemmas.4
Watch the full hearing here.
Read the full testimony.
- 习近平在中国共产党第十九次全国代表大会上的报告, cpc.people.com.cn/n1/2017/1028/c64094-29613660- 5.html. ↩
- Elisabeth Rosenthal, “China’s Communists Try to Decide What They Stand For,” The New York Times, May 1, 2002. ↩
- 中共中央印发《深化党和国家机构改革方案》www.gov.cn/zhengce/2018-03/21/... ↩
- See Katie Stallard-Blanchette and Jude Blanchette, "Old CCP tactics present new dangers to China’s development," East Asia Forum, October 20, 2018. www.eastasiaforum.org/2018/10/... ↩
More from CNAS
Opportunities and Challenges for Trade Policy in the Digital Economy
This hearing addresses digital trade, and I will focus my testimony on the national-security problems in this area posed by China – specifically, concerns about China’s open a...
By David Feith
Taking on China and Russia
Today Washington has chosen, perhaps by default, to compete with—and if necessary, confront—both Russia and China simultaneously and indefinitely....
By Richard Fontaine
Crafting Transatlantic Responses to BRI, with Lisa Curtis, Jacob Stokes, Josh Fitt, Carisa Nietsche, and Nicholas Lokker
Nine years after the launch of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s flagship global infrastructure investment program is at a critical juncture. While many countries were ini...
By Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Jim Townsend, Lisa Curtis, Carisa Nietsche, Joshua Fitt & Nicholas Lokker
To defeat autocracy, weaponize transparency
Democracies have a significant advantage in weaponizing transparency at scale to highlight autocratic activities that break international norms or inflict damage on local econ...
By Ryan Fedasiuk & Garrett Berntsen