As the meeting of the 20th party congress of the Chinese Communist Party approaches, there is renewed interest on the party’s control over the country to the extent that the observation becomes valid that too often China is conflated with CCP, bolstering the authoritarian regime at the expense of a country.

The word, “China,” was likely first used during the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) to refer to the central states of the Yellow River valley, according to China watcher Jimmy Chien, writing on the American defense website, DefenseOne.  During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE), it came to describe the civilization at large and the nation-state, however, was not called China, but took the name of whichever dynasty was in power at the time, he says, adding that though the dynasties are gone, this tradition endures.

In 1949, when control of the traditional territory of “China” passed to the People’s Republic of China, a state ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. “As understood by Chinese people, the PRC is the political power that controls the civilizational territories of China. Many Chinese-language speakers pronounce PRC in such a way that it denotes the Communist Party and not the country, according to Chien.  

The party has for long worked toward erasing the distinction country and party. Current leader Xi Jinping, even more than his predecessors, “has striven to condition the people of China to view themselves not as members of the ancient Chinese civilization, but as cogs in the CCP machine”.

That is easier said than done. For, of the 1.4 billion people in the PRC, just 95 million, or 6.7 per cent, are CCP members. “The Chinese people have a long history of independent thoughts and actions, far removed from centralized authority. Most identify with their locale—village, city, or province—rather than the state at large. As the Yuan Dynasty proverb goes, ‘Heaven is high and the emperor is far away’.” 

Thien analyses Xi’s policy of blurring the distinction between the two: “But Xi’s quest is abetted by the widespread use, in English-language commentary, of “China” to mean the PRC. Positive news brings pride to the Chinese people, while the CCP takes all the credit. And negative news invokes a sense of attack on the civilization at large. This is one of Xi’s most successful tactics: rallying the Chinese people against foreign attacks on China. By understanding the differences and correctly using the terms ‘PRC’, ‘CCP’, ‘China’, and ‘Chinese’, the United States can help the Chinese people defend their cultural and historical identity from sublimation into CCP’s manufactured reality.”

At the ground level, it was easier for the CCP to become as important as the country, if not more, because right from the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Communist Party closely oversaw every aspect of life in the country. The Party is deeply entwined with all aspects of the government. The government, the military, society and schools, north, south, east and west – the party leads them all, top quote a Chinese analyst who quoted a line written into the Communist Party of China’s charter in 2017, reflecting President Xi Jinping’s philosophy that the party should lead in all spheres: not just in politics, but also in the economy and social life.

The CCP is entrenched in the Chinese government, broadly in three forms. One, all senior government officials and the leaders of state enterprises, schools, hospitals and social groups, such as the worker unions, are appointed by the party and senior positions have to be held by party members. Two, committees elected by the party oversee all government departments, state enterprises and public institutes. The committees exist on all levels, including at the grass-roots level such as in rural villages. Finally, the party puts great emphasis on promoting and controlling ideology. This is done through media, education, “self-reflection” sessions in government units, and requiring all officials to adhere to the party’s decisions.

Significantly, unlike western democracies, the CCP has rejected the idea of the separation of powers of the state and the party and China’s national legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC), is unlike western parliaments. Strangely, “lthough the NPC is the highest political body according to the constitution and has to endorse key appointments to the government as well as the government budget, it reports to the party”. The NPC has also served as a vehicle for the party to codify its will into laws to be implemented by the government.

It was in the era of Deng Xiaoping that reforms were initiated to rebuild the nation after Mao Zedong’s cultural revolution.

An analyst has said that “Deng mentioned ‘the separation of the party and the state’ numerous times during his meetings with party cadres and foreign VIPs in 1986, although these mainly referred to administrative reforms to make governance more efficient and Deng warned against Western notions of the separation of powers”. Yet, Deng is quoted as saying that “the purpose of such reforms was to ‘strengthen the leadership of the party’, not to weaken it.

But these reforms were aborted about two years after they started, after the Tiananmen  crackdown of 1989 which effectively ended the country’s liberal movement. Today, “party committees continue to supervise and make decisions across government units, while the State Council’s role is largely limited to economic policies”.

Between 2012 and 2017, Xi Jinping introduced sweeping institutional reforms “to integrate the party and the state and form a highly centralised, top-down governing system”. Xi chairs “eight party commissions that outrank other party apparatus and government departments”. They cover the core areas: state security, internet security, military-civilian technology transfer, diplomacy, finance and economy, military reform and national audit. Xi also merged many government departments into the party apparatus, in a move that further blurred the line between the party and the state.

News Desk

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