Case Study of the People's Republic of China

Comparative Political Parties and Electoral Systems

Fall 2022, Lawrence Wang

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1. Government Overview
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) has a party-dominated authoritarian government, in which the Chinese Communisty Party (CCP) exercises exclusive political leadership. The National People’s Congress (NPC) is the highest legislative body of the PRC, operating as a unicameral legislature that reviews legislations and elects the President of the PRC. The National People’s Congress meets for about two weeks annually to review major political agenda, whereas the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) is the permanent legislative body that decides on most national legislation. Aside from the annual session of the NPC, a NPC session can convene with the Standing Committee’s decision or with a petition from one-fifth of the NPC delegates. (ref. 1)
The current governing party is the Chinese Communist Party, with Xi Jinping as General Secretary of the party and the President of the state. The NPC is headed by Li Zhanshu, who serves as the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the NPC and is the third-ranking member of the Politburo Standing Committee of the CCP.
2. Electoral System
In the thirteenth NPC, which lasts from 2018 to 2023, there are 2980 total deputies. Of which there are 742 women and 438 representing ethnicities other than Han Chinese. (ref. 2) Deputies of the NPC are elected to five-year terms via multi-tiered indirect elections. Citizens directly elect deputies to the People’s Congresses at the lowest level, be it municipal districts, counties, or townships. Deputies to the NPC and the People’s Congresses of provincial or city level are elected by the People’s Congresses at the next lower level. (ref. 3)
Candidates can be recommended by political parties, mass organizations, or a minimum of 10 citizens in direct or 10 deputies in indirect elections. Election committees, appointed by the standing committee of the People’s Congress at the corresponding level, and a small group of voters participate in a primary process that narrows down the number of candidates to 130 to 200 percent of the number of deputies in direct election, and 120 to 150 percent in indirect elections. (ref. 4)
The electoral system can be best described as combined approval voting, where voters do not choose between candidates, rather vote yes, no, or abstain for each candidate. Voters, or deputies for higher levels of People’s Congresses, are allowed to vote yes on as many seats as available in the district. They are also allowed to write in additional candidates.
For local elections for the lowest level of People’s Congresses, district magnitude varies from one to three members per district. The size of districts also differs from several hundred voters in townships to several thousands in counties. This largely reflects the administrative division in China, and is less attuned to the district sizes being proportional to population divided by seats.
3. Seat Allocation
According to the allocation formula first put in place in 2010, there are 35 electoral districts for the National People’s Congress: 31 representing the mainland province-level units (including provinces, autonomous regions, and directly government municipalities), and one each for Hong Kong, Macao, Taiwan, and the People’s Liberation Army. (ref. 5) Seats for province-level units are split into three categories: population-based proportional allocation, fixed amount allocation (similar to the US Senate), and other allocations. Other allocations include diversity seats allocated to minorities and reserved seats for incoming or prominent leaders, such as leaders of minor political parties and mass organizations or public figures. Nominees for reserved seats would be decided on by CCP leadership and referred to various provinces for elections, which tend to be birthplaces or places of employment.
For the twelfth NPC, 2,000 seats were allocated based on the population of province-level units, with one delegate for roughly 670,000 people. In addition, eight seats were allocated to each province. Other allocations are decided by the Standing Committee of the NPC in an opaque manner.
Hong Kong and Macao have been allocated 36 and 12 seats respectively since they were transferred back to China. Delegates from those cities are elected via ad-hoc electoral colleges. (ref. 6) Taiwan has been allocated 13 seats historically, which are decided by ad-hoc consultative election meetings formed by representatives of Taiwanese ancestry. The military has been allocated 265 seats generally, which is the most of all electoral units. The military’s seats are elected by the servicemember congresses of various branches of the PLA.
Around 12% of all delegates in the NPC are required to be ethnic minorities. This roughly translates to 360 seats. Each of the 55 ethnic minorities are required to have at least one seat, with the distribution of quota seats among provinces proportional to the minority population. There is a quota of 35 seats for citizens who returned to China after giving up long term residency in foreign countries. The allocation rules also have guidelines for encouraging an “appropriate” number of women and frontline personnel, such as farmers or factory workers.
4. Party System
The party system in the PRC is non-competitive. The CCP heads a coalition with eight other minor parties called the United Front. The following are the eight parties that participate in the political system and accept the leading role of the CCP. These are also the only political parties that are allowed to exist:
  • China Zhi Gong Party
  • Chinese Peasants' and Workers' Democratic Party
  • China Democratic League
  • Jiusan Society
  • China National Democratic Construction Association
  • China Association for Promoting Democracy
  • Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League
  • Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang
  • While the Chinese government does not exercise total control over the lives of citizens, the CCP exercises total control over the party and electoral system. The CCP claims the “leading role” in the political process and decides which parties are allowed to exist (the nine parties in the United Front are the only ones with seats in the NPC beside independents). Thus, the party system might be best characterized as totalitarian.
    The eight minor parties play an advisory role rather than an oppositional role. (ref. 7) Within the political system, there are no organized opposition movements. Kuomintang, or the Chinese Nationalist Party, is the most prominent party in exile. It led the Republic of China in the mainland until the end of World War II, at which point it was defeated by the Communists in a civil war. Kuomintang is now active in Taiwanese politics.
    To calculate the effective number of parties, we plug in 9 as the number of parties. The breakdown of seats in the 2018-2023 NPC is as followed:
  • CCP: 70.13%
  • Jiusan Society: 2.11%
  • China Zhi Gong Party: 1.28%
  • Chinese Peasants' and Workers' Democratic Party: 1.81%
  • China Democratic League: 1.91%
  • China National Democratic Construction Association: 1.91%
  • China Association for Promoting Democracy: 1.95%
  • Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League: 0.44%
  • Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang: 1.48%
  • Using Laakso and Taagerpera’s formula, the effective number of parties turns out to be 1/0.494 = 2.02. The number of relevant parties is less than this calculation, which might be due to the fact that there are 470 independent members in the NPC, while in practice, they are also aligned to the CCP and the United Front.
    Because the NPC does not publish the vote share of each party, it is not possible to calculate proportionality using the Gallagher formula.
    5. Party Structure
    The CCP is the sole governing party of China. It won 2090 of 2980 seats in the NPC in the 2018 election and holds 118 of 175 seats in the Standing Committee of the NPC.
    The CCP operates with a very clear organization, with one General Secretary at the top and layers of power until party committees in neighborhoods and workplaces. From top to bottom, the power structure at the national level pans out like the following:
  • the General Secretary of the Central Committee
  • the Politburo Standing Committee
  • the Central Committee Politburo
  • the Central Committee
  • the National Congress of the CCP
  • The National Congress elects the Central Committee, the Central Committee elects the Politburo and the General Secretary.
    The CCP National Congress convenes every five years. In the time that it is not in session, authority over party affairs is transferred to the Central Committee, and then to the Politburo, and then to the Politburo Standing Committee, as none of the three aforementioned organizations have a standing component. The full Politburo generally meets monthly, while its Standing Committee meets weekly.
    The Central Committee usually consists of national leaders, party department leaders, State Council leaders, NPC leaders, leaders at the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People's Procuratorate, military leaders, provincial-level unit leaders, some municipal-level unit leaders, some mass organization leaders, as well as some state-owned enterprise leaders. Politburo Standing Committee members usually include the General Secretary (concurrently the President of the state and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission), the Premier of the State Council, the Chairman of the NPCSC, the Chairman of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the Secretary of the Central Secretariat (responsible for party operations), the Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, and a vice premier. Currently, these posts are held by Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, Li Zhanshu, Wang Yang, Wang Huning, Zhao Leji, and Han Zheng, respectively.
    Despite the nominal election process, the Politburo and its Standing Committee are understood to name their own successors through deliberations with current and retired members. Party posts at all levels are managed from the Party Central through the Organization Department of the CCP, which staffs all levels of government and state-owned enterprises. This means that the elections that occur in the local party congresses do not have validity or decision making power of their own. Before Xi became General Secretary, the political process was “rule by consensus” among national leaders. But since Xi’s ascension, one-man rule has become more pronounced. As a result, the party is both centralized and undemocratic.
    Each administrative level from province-level units to municipal districts have their local congresses, which nominally elect the leadership committees for their respective level. All government officials concurrently hold party posts. For instance, the Premier of the State Council is concurrently the Secretary of the State Council Party Branch, and the mayor of a city would be a vice secretary of the city’s party committee. This guarantees the party’s control over the state.
    As the CCP exercises exclusive control over Chinese politics, it has to appeal to the general population. As the Three Represents theory of the then-General Secretary of the CCP Jiang Zemin states, the party must always represent “the fundamental interests of the overwhelming majority of the Chinese people.” As such, it would be hard to slot the part on a right-left dimension. While the Party does not appeal to any interest group more than others, it endorses several official subsidiary organizations of interests, such as the All-China Students' Federation, the Communist Youth League of China, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions, and the All-China Women’s Federation.
    Although the Party is founded on communist ideology, it governs in accordance with “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which has adopted many facets of capitalism. Although traditionally communist parties are to the left of the political spectrum, the CCP might be better characterized as occupying the center-right with its emphasis on nationalism and patriotism as well as its attitude against social liberalization. The Party’s policy and ideological emphasis have oscillated as the populace has evolved: for instance, as the wealth gap widens, the “let some people get rich first” ideology of Deng Xiaoping transitioned into the “common prosperity” ideology of Xi Jinping. (ref. 8)
    To join the CCP, applicants have to submit essays, go through a pledging process, and be approved. In 2014, only 2 million members were admitted out of 22 million applicants. (ref. 9) The competitiveness results from the fact that party membership opens up career opportunities. Party members are required to pay a membership fee via a percentage of their income. (ref. 10) The constitution and rules of the party are accessible online, however, a lot of the inner workings of the party remain opaque, such as the decision making process and reasons for personnel assignment. (ref. 11)
    6. Electoral Analysis
    The next important election to be held will be the Presidential election scheduled for the fourteenth NPC in 2023. As Xi Jinping’s third term as General Secretary of the CCP is renewed at the twentieth National Congress of the CCP in October 2022, he is expected to win the presidency for a third time. (ref. 12) Historically, the President is also the General Secretary of the Party and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission. As the role of the President is mostly ceremonial and acts in accordance with directions from the NPCSC, which is controlled by the Party, real power is contained in the General Secretary and Chairman titles. Historically, presidents did not always have the other two posts. For instance, in the period that Deng Xiaoping led China, he did so with only the Chairman of the Central Military Commission title, while the presidents during that era were sidelined. However, since the 1990s, it has been the norm that the President holds all three positions concurrently.
    There was a two-term limit on the presidency in the original constitution of the PRC. This limit was removed in 2018 as Xi solidified his power and eyed a third term1. The vote percentage for the President has hovered between 97 to 99 percent in the past, but the last election in 2018 was the first time when the presidential candidate won 100 percent of the NPC’s approval. As Xi has eradicated dissent, it’s highly likely that he will win with 100 percent in the next election. In fact, election results for many other offices during the 2018 NPC were at 100 percent, signaling a shift toward more totalitarian politics with less room for dissent. (ref. 13)
    Xi Jinping, source: BBC
    Li Keqiang, source: Britannica
    CCP Emblem, source: Wikipedia
    NPC Seats, source: Wikipedia
    Chinese Ballot, source: Daily Kos


    1. The State Council of the People's Republic of China
    2. Inter Parliamentary Union Database for the National People's Congress
    3. China's Electoral System
    4. Electoral Law of the National People’s Congress and Local People’s Congresses of the People’s Republic of China
    5. Explainer: How Seats in China’s National People’s Congress Are Allocated
    6. NPC Amends Governing Law of Local People's Congresses & Governments, Tightens Rules for NPC Elections in Hong Kong & Macao
    7. China: Nipped In The Bud - Human Rights Watch
    8. Warning of Income Gap, Xi Tells China’s Tycoons to Share Wealth - The New York Times
    9. Membership in the Communist Party of China: Who is Being Admitted and How? - JSTOR
    10. Loyalty drive by China’s Communist Party tells 88 million members to pay fees in person - South China Morning Post
    11. Constitution of the Communist Party of China - Xinhua
    12. The big reveal: Xi set to introduce China's next standing committee - Reuters
    13. List of voting results of the National People's Congress of China