How does the Chinese political system work?
August 14, 2010 8:42 PM   Subscribe

I'd like to know how the Chinese political system works.

I'd like to understand the Chinese political system a lot better than I do now. Movies, free online university courses and other free internet resources are best. Books can also work.

I'm mainly interested in this in order to contrast it against what I feel is an aging and failing American system. And also how China may be more efficient at developing industry and technology when compared with the American system. Now this may not actually be true, so I could be pointed to resources explaining that also. But I'd also like to avoid random strongly opinionated blogs. The more scientific and professional, the better.
posted by bindasj to Law & Government (22 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
 
Note that a great deal of the relative progress made in modern China is due to its abrupt transition from a genuinely Communist (or at least Maoist) state to a full-on, floodgates-open capitalist system occasioned by Deng Xiaoping's 1992 Southern tour. Part of the reason why it looks like they're moving amazingly fast now is because they were standing still just a couple of decades ago.
posted by XMLicious at 9:25 PM on August 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


Your question is so broad, it seems that you might benefit from learning a bit via Wikipedia, which has comprehensive pages on China's politics and economy. For example, when you say that China has efficient industry and technology, are you referring to China's state-run industries, which comprise most of the truly big Chinese businesses (particularly those using natural resources), or are you referring to modern, capitalist development, which owes a lot to multinational corporation, international import/export practices, and Deng Xiaoping as referred to above? Or are you referring to small businesses and the local political system (sometimes corrupt) which supports them? Or are you talking about the literal efficiency of business in China that is made possible by lax environmental regulations and exploitative working conditions?

Perhaps it might be helpful to give an example of the industries or names of businesses you thing are efficient under the Chinese system.
posted by acidic at 9:45 PM on August 14, 2010


...I also searched for some university courses about China, and the iTunes U search results for "China" seem to have a few gems in the top 25 (itunes link). Lots for APM's Marketplace, Wharton, etc.
posted by acidic at 9:51 PM on August 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


China may be more efficient at developing industry and technology when compared with the American system.

You might want to change your prism to: China has become more efficient at developing industry and technology than it used to be, by switching to a more American-like system.

Also keep in mind that "industry and technology" aren't the only things that matter. There are also, you know, human beings. The GPA per capita per year in the US is $46,000; in China, it's about $6,000. China is notorious for its human rights abuses. And then there's excess of men...
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:53 PM on August 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I meant GDP, not GPA, of course!
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:53 PM on August 14, 2010


It is really, really hard to figure out how politics in China work. Part of the problem is that how they officially work and how they actually work are very different things. China is not so hot on the rule of law, and an individual's de facto power has a lot more to do with their connections and allegiances than their job title. Even the people at the tippy top are constrained in what they can do, because low-level officials in far-flung provinces will often simply ignore their edicts unless they're backed with an immediate and credible threat of force.

It's the kind of thing you have to live in China to learn, but nobody will teach to you while you're there.
posted by zjacreman at 10:20 PM on August 14, 2010 [2 favorites]


I'm mainly interested in this in order to contrast it against what I feel is an aging and failing American system. And also how China may be more efficient at developing industry and technology when compared with the American system.

Well, I did take a course on Chinese history, which covered ~1000 B.C. to the 1940s, but went into a bit of the later stuff.

Basically, historically China was an empire run by a hereditary dynasty. What was interesting was how it was administered. There was a system of examinations that ran for thousands of years until it ended in 1905 or so. It worked pretty well, but was somewhat stagnant. The examination system didn't really reward creative thinking. But it kept society very stable.

---

Anyway, the biggest reason why China seems to "work better" is that they have a plan to follow. All they have to do is the things that the U.S. and Europe did in the past. Take building interstate highways, for example. That's something that was done by the Germans and then the U.S. We know it worked out. We had do things by trial and error and they just need to copy us.

It's important to understand that we're still far ahead of them in terms of individual quality of life. There are rich people in China, but their per-capita GDP is really low. It will take decades for them to overpass in pure GDP, and perhaps a century to overpass us in Per-capita GDP.

Remember that in the 1800s, the U.S. was in the same position as China is now. We were growing incredibly rapidly, and flooding Europe with exports. You shouldn't mistake economic conditions for good governance.

But China's response to the economic downturn was spot on. They applied Keynesian doctrines right away, and did a massive stimulus. The U.S, on the other hand dithered. So did the rest of the world.
posted by delmoi at 10:24 PM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


Thanks for the responses so far. This question was inspired by a conversation I had with my friend who majored in Chinese. So I'm trying to find more information / fact check / opinion check what he said.

The conversation started when we started talking about how China has been able to quickly move into renewable energies and became a world leader in that technology. While the U.S. has been left behind. Causes being our political system which at times favors lobbyists and money over what is good for the country.

He claimed that the way the Communist party works in China is that there are a few main leaders who make their way to that position through intelligence and making good decisions rather than by votes. Sort of like our supreme court. The Communist party goes into schools and finds the best of the best and recruits them. The Communist party is run by the elite minds of the country. The government is divided into industry and the long term health of the country is looked after rather than short term profits. If someone gets out of line, they may be executed or at least removed from their position. The government officials make money by having their industries work well. The people at the very top want to maintain their positions of power and to do so they strive to make the people of China happy and of course other bad things happen such as censorship, jailings, executions etc.

Another random blurb in my mind is that the system will prevent a smaller more efficient company from getting squashed by a larger inefficient company.

So anything that restates these claims, expands upon them or counters them is very much welcome.
posted by bindasj at 10:24 PM on August 14, 2010


Regarding meritocracy, here's an extremely simplified account of how it works in China, by David Brooks.

Regarding renewable energy, it's not too surprising that in a one-party system there are fewer impediments to completing projects. It's true that in America there has been resistance to renewable energy, but that's because people have power in America, which as a principle has benefits that might outweigh the value of renewable energy.

As a counterpart to your friend's rather one-sided opinion, consider that the Sichuan earthquake is now believed to have been caused by stress from the Zipingpu Dam, one of countless hydro-electric projects built in an extremely earthquake-prone area in spite of loud warnings. Consider how a protracted political process, with ample opportunity for scientific study, might have prevented the construction of that dam.
posted by acidic at 10:51 PM on August 14, 2010 [3 favorites]


The conversation started when we started talking about how China has been able to quickly move into renewable energies and became a world leader in that technology. While the U.S. has been left behind.

When people spout this, you need to point out that in many cases, China is not wrestling with the difficulties of transitioning from one technology to another, whether technologically or politically.

It's glib to say that China is "ahead." If you're starting on third base, it doesn't mean you get credit for hitting a triple.
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 10:51 PM on August 14, 2010


That is... a really rose-tinted picture of how the Chinese system works.

The people who make it to the top lately seem to be competent technocrats, but there's nothing inherent in the system that makes it so. Competent technocracy is just the faction of the party that currently holds sway at the highest levels. There are other factions - I haven't been there for awhile, but the military (which is probably the biggest commercial venture in the world) and old hard-line Maoists come to mind.

The fact that leaders are insulated somewhat from democratic pressures means they can make unpopular decisions that meet long-term goals, like the recent closures of inefficient coal-burning factories and power plants. There is a constant tension, though, because without a legitimate political outlet for the people, rioting is an increasingly common response to unpopular decisions, and if the economy goes south it is generally expected by observers that the whole system will come tumbling down.

The reason the government relies on high-profile executions is because they have no other way of keeping people in line. It is a sign of weakness, not strength. "Heaven is high, and the Emperor is far away." Beijing has very little control over the regional operation of the country most of the time, and in this respect very little has changed since Imperial times.

If you look at Chinese news for awhile, you see a pattern emerge. The national government will focus on one topic, usually because of a news story too serious to suppress or ignore. Some bad apples will be found and very visibly punished. All of the other corrupt lower officials will keep their heads down long enough for whatever the situation of the day is to blow over, and Beijing will declare victory. When the Eye of Sauron moves on, the corruption picks right back up again.

I actually laughed a little at the suggestion that the system protects small companies. Most megacorporations in China are state run and the officers are politically connected (often military-affiliated). If a small company makes good in a market dominated by a megacorp, it's because their officers are as well or better connected, or their main customer IS the megacorp (which amounts to the same thing), and efficiency has little to do with it.

I'm sorry I don't have anything to cite, or references for you to read, as most of what I know about China I know from living there, working there, and talking to people.
posted by zjacreman at 10:52 PM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


The conversation started when we started talking about how China has been able to quickly move into renewable energies and became a world leader in that technology. While the U.S. has been left behind. Causes being our political system which at times favors lobbyists and money over what is good for the country.

Right, but at the same time they've become the world's largest producer of things like solar panels and wind turbines, they've also become the world leader in CO2 production from coal plants, which they keep building. Most of those solar panels are for export: it's just another product to build and export, which is much of the basis for their economy.

It's a lucrative to make that stuff, because governments around the world subsidize the installation of panels, which you have to buy from somewhere. I'm not really sure if China is a leader in terms of % of electricity generated by renewables. They do have a lot of hydro power, though.

The other thing is that China doesn't have a free press. So Chinese people have a very positive view of their country, because they don't hear a lot of the criticism that we hear of our government in the U.S.
posted by delmoi at 11:02 PM on August 14, 2010 [1 favorite]


He claimed that the way the Communist party works in China is that there are a few main leaders who make their way to that position through intelligence and making good decisions rather than by votes.

I think that the way people would be rising is by proficiently and successfully playing the political game and any good, intelligent decisions for the country as a whole are secondary to that.

I would expect that one thing the Chinese government will be good at is autocratically controlling an immense bureaucracy, probably with better and firmer control methods than any in the West, but I'm not sure they'd know what to do with that ability on their own. The reason they're enthusiastically developing green technology is basically because the West and probably Japan have told them how important it is and they've got twenty-twenty hindsight on the environmental disasters that happened in the West and in the Soviet Union. That may not necessarily translate into being able to deal with any novel problems well.

On the other hand, a possible parallel that occurs to me is with autocratic Imperial Germany, which did excellently developing industry and technology, despite producing a society that cultivated things like Kafka's The Trial, until they picked a fight they couldn't win.

A source of information not mentioned yet is the books and fragments of books available through Google Books. Most of what you will find there will probably apply more to the pre-capitalist era but still might be enlightening.
posted by XMLicious at 12:21 AM on August 15, 2010


The conversation started when we started talking about how China has been able to quickly move into renewable energies and became a world leader in that technology. While the U.S. has been left behind.

Ditto on rose colored glasses here.

I'd do some research into the actual numbers your friend is pulling- usually when I hear "China is a world leader in XYZ", it's mostly actually about "We produce the most XYZ" which isn't hard when a) you have 1/5th the world's population and b) your country specializes in manufacturing for the rest of the world. China is big on coal plants and has been making a lot of moves with regards to oil as well - if they're tossing up wind plants, it's not for the environment as much as it is for a need for more energy.

Likewise, the apparent speed at which projects (dams, roads, housing) are built isn't coming from efficiency, it's coming from a lack of enforcing regulations. That last quake killed magnitudes more people than it should have, because none of the buildings were up to code - the contractors sold the building materials and replaced them with cheaper materials for a profit, then turned and paid off the inspectors. (Friends who visited the site of the Olympics, just 2 months later, said things were already falling apart...)

If you read up on America's history, especially before industries were regulated or we had labor laws, you'd be amazed at how fast things got done as well (rail road track laid out, cotton production, cities built, etc.), but all of it came at costs of worker exploitation, safety, and lack of regulation of any form.

"Faster, Better, Cheaper, pick two" applies to government projects as much as business.
posted by yeloson at 12:27 AM on August 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


I'm mainly interested in this in order to contrast it against what I feel is an aging and failing American system. And also how China may be more efficient at developing industry and technology when compared with the American system.

You might be interested to read about the backgrounds of the Chinese leadership.

Hu Jintao: Graduated from the specialty of hub hydropower stations of the Department of Water Conservancy Engineering of Tsinghua University. With a university education. Engineer.
Wu Bangguo: Graduated from the Department of Radio and Electronics of Tsinghua University, majoring in electronic vacuum devices. With a university education. Engineer.
Wen Jiabao: Graduated from the Beijing Institute of Geology, majoring in geological structure. With a postgraduate education. Engineer.
Jia Qinglin: Graduated from the Department of Electric Power of Hebei Engineering College, majoring in electric motor and appliance design and manufacturing, with a university education. Senior engineer.
Li Changchun: Graduated from the Department of Electric Machinery of Harbin Institute of Technology, majoring in industrial enterprise automation. With a university education. Engineer.
Xi Jinping: Graduated from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences of Tsinghua University, majoring in Marxist theory and ideological education. With an on-the-job postgraduate education. Doctor of Laws (LLD).
Li Keqiang: Graduated from the School of Economics of Peking University, majoring in economics. With on-the-job postgraduate education. Doctor of Economics.
He Guoqiang: Graduated from Inorganic Chemical Engineering Department, Beijing Institute of Chemical Engineering, majoring in inorganic engineering. With a university education. Senior engineer.
Zhou Yongkang: Graduated from the Exploration Department, Beijing Petroleum Institute, majoring in geophysical exploration. With a university education. Senior engineer with a rank equivalent to professor.

On the other hand, western leadership tends to have qualifications more along the lines of (I'm getting these from Wikipedia):

Bill Clinton: Georgetown University, B.S. in Foreign Service, Yale Law School J.D.
Al Gore, Harvard University B.A. in Government
George W Bush: Yale University B.A. in history
Dick Cheney: University of Wyoming M.A in political science.
Barack Obama: Columbia University B.A. in political science, international relations.
Joe Biden: University of Delaware B.A. in history and political science, Syracuse University College of Law J.D.
Tony Blair: Oxford B.A. in Jurisprudence
Gordon Brown: Edinburgh M.A. in History, PhD "The Labour Party and Political Change in Scotland 1918–29".
David Cameron: Oxford B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics

Perhaps part of the difference in industry and technology between the west and China comes from political leaders with different priorities and expertise.
posted by Mike1024 at 3:28 AM on August 15, 2010 [5 favorites]


Mike, come now: the higher education of the Chinese autocracy is even less connected to their rise to power than here in the west. The fact some are engineers is really neither here not there compared to their class, ethnicity, parents, etc.

Likewise decisions of government and policy are just as likely to be rooted in a host of cultural and otherwise environmental factors. Any link there would be quite overstated, I feel.
posted by smoke at 4:12 AM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Don't forget Obama's Harvard law degree!
posted by Jaltcoh at 6:44 AM on August 15, 2010


This page suggests a ton of books that are germane to your question.
posted by contessa at 8:59 AM on August 15, 2010


For those backgrounds Mike1024 mentions you'd be interested in Joel Andreas' Rise of the Red Engineers.
Two well-known Western scholars of Chinese governance are Kenneth Lieberthal and Tony Saich, who both have several publications relevant to your question.
A recent publication which caused a stir was Richard McGregor's The Party: The Secret World of China's Communist Rulers which I'vee not read myself yet but had everyone talking about the 'red machine' network described at the linked review.
posted by Abiezer at 12:51 PM on August 15, 2010 [2 favorites]


Mike, come now: the higher education of the Chinese autocracy is even less connected to their rise to power than here in the west. The fact some are engineers is really neither here not there compared to their class, ethnicity, parents, etc.

The point is, people with technical backgrounds might be better suited to actually running a country then lawyers. Especially without that pesky "rule of law" to get in the way.
posted by delmoi at 3:47 PM on August 15, 2010 [1 favorite]


Since it was addressed above:

Per capita GDP is a poor metric without considering the exchange rates (which many say are not natural at this point) and purchasing power parity. I'm going downstairs to buy my breakfast from a restaurant for 50 cents now. Later I'll get in a cab for $1.25 for the first 3 KM. Try that in the US. See my point?

To answer the question: perhaps you can look at the planning and execution for the Olympics/Expo vs. the widely criticized performance the US had in preparing its exhibition. Look at the training programs for the athletes as well. One is a systematic effort to harvest talent from a young age with the goal of winning the games, the other is based on personal drives and sponsorship by families and possibly corporations.

Biggest difference is that they can pick a path for 10 or 20 years and it won't be derailed by changes in the leadership every four years, threats to cut its budget from a congress or other competing factors including public displeasure. This can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. Since populations can be rather short-sighted there can be a strong argument made for this type of decision making. If they pick the right path, they can better executive the plan. The speed at which they were able to build the subways and infrastructure for the Olympics was amazing. People were displaced, but the decision was made and it got done no matter what.
posted by chinabound at 4:17 PM on August 15, 2010


Another thing that occurred to me while reading the recent Apple Peel story is that something I've seen discussed before is that a massive advantage exists for many Chinese companies because copyright, trademark, and patent laws are so rarely enforced. Can't remember where but a journalist described visiting a factory that exclusively used pirated software and they were basically proud of it and meticulous about it, as though it would simply have been a waste of money to use licensed copies.

Whether or not you agree with copyright law that's a substantial amount of dollars / euros / yen / yuan and a substantial percentage of GDP that Chinese companies can plough back into their operations and other investments that competitors in many countries cannot.
posted by XMLicious at 2:34 AM on August 16, 2010


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