Before reading this post, we would strongly recommend reading our article about the history of the Communist Party of China so as to have the proper historic context needed to meaningfully understand the current role of the Communist Party of China and, of course, its structure.
Right from the beginning, it makes sense to point out how unusual China’s post-1978 status quo is. In other words, let’s just say things were fairly straightforward under the rule of Mao Zedong with respect to the Communist Party of China. Standard Marxist-Leninist ideology applied to a predominantly rural population, in other words. Standard but excessively zealous, which led not just to a deterioration of China’s relationship with the USSR after Stalin’s death but also to measures which might have sounded “uplifting” from an ideological perspective but were hardly entrenched in the realities of China, with our most loyal readers most likely already knowing the two most (in)famous ones: the Great Leap Forward of 1958 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966.
The former, for example, may have sounded great on paper because the Great Leap Forward revolved around setting overly-ambitious output goals which would have China surpass the United Kingdom (a nation which was multiple orders of magnitude more productive at that point in time). In reality, people across multiple levels of the administration just lied about outputs (for reasons which range from fear to an excessive desire to please their superiors), leading to disastrous export decisions (China exporting considerably more than it should have) which brought about the famine with the highest numbers of casualties in documented history. The same way, the Cultural Revolution’s unrealistic expectations (a complete “out with the old, in with the new” reset which revolved around ideas such as forcing intellectuals to learn from illiterate farmers, for example) ended up doing a lot more harm than good. As strange as it may seem, however, things were fairly straightforward (even if wrong!) under the rule of Mao Zedong… in other words, more or less what one would have expected by a country run by the Communist Party of China.
As of 1978, China embarked on a remarkably different journey under Deng Xiaoping and a most unusual balance was reached: on the one hand, China was moving toward a status quo which revolved more and more around embracing capitalist frameworks such as market dynamics but on the other hand, the political grip of the Communist Party of China on the nation was as great as ever.
Ideological cognitive dissonance at its finest.
Needless to say, members of the Communist Party of China found and still find themselves in a bit of an ideological predicament. What do you do when certain actions that contradict your fundamental ideology on quite a few levels generate overwhelmingly positive results? Do you revert to ideological “purity” at the risk of jeopardizing your country’s economic growth trajectory or do you maintain the current course, knowing that you’re moving away from the principles your party was initially governed by?
Tensions without a doubt exist at various levels of China’s political life but, in light of the way the Communist Party of China functions, there are hardly fireworks. Why? Simply because, moving on to the structure of the CPC, we are definitely dealing with a monolithic entity which places little importance on democratic frameworks.
To put it differently, power flows from the top to the bottom of the CPC. In other words, whenever there is political will at the very top of the organization to push things in a certain direction (as was the case with Mao Zedong’s vision as well as Deng Xiaoping’s vision), the rest of the party will figure out a politically acceptable way to follow suit. For this reason, from Mao Zedong to today’s leader Xi Jinping, all of China’s paramount leaders have tried to contribute to the CPC’s ideological framework by adding their own philosophies to the mix.
So, how do things work when it comes to the CPC specifically?
As with many other communist parties throughout history, a large number of delegates (approximately 2,000 in China’s case) gathers once every five years for the National Party Congress so as to elect the so-called Central Committee (which will consist of roughly 200 members) through a plenary session. The Central Committee will meet on a yearly basis and gets to choose a Political Bureau (also known as the Politburo, a term some of you might have come across throughout various China-related articles) which consists of just 20 to 25 highly influential members, the elite of the CPC if you will. Of these 20-25 individuals, 6 to 9 of the most powerful political figures represent the Political Bureau’s Standing Committee.
While these 6-9 individuals can be considered the most influential politicians in China, the #1 most influential political figure in the Communist Party of China (formally speaking) is the so-called general secretary of the CPC Secretariat, the entity which deals with the various administrative tasks of the CPC. The general idea is that the political system of China, monolithic as it may be, is quite complex and this is why “paramount leaders” tend to take on many roles within the Chinese system at the same time.
From having mechanisms in place to exert influence across all administrative dimensions of China to having a commission through which internal party-related “wrongdoings” are punished and to even having its own publications such as Renmin Ribao (“People’s Daily” for English speakers), there are few places in China shielded from the reach of the CPC. As such, as a rather blunt conclusion to this article, one cannot “get” China without understanding the Communist Party of China.