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Society & Culture

The Collective Presidential System with Chinese Characteristics

Jul 16, 2012
  • Hu Angang

    Director, Tsinghua National Research Center
Adopted in most countries across the world, the presidential system has long been hailed as a democratic system for modern countries. Elected directly or indirectly through nationwide campaigning, the president stands as the head of state when dealing with foreign countries and takes charge of formulation of foreign policies. Domestically, the president acts as the chief of government, and decides on domestic policies. Although subject to the congress, the president takes up responsibilities and makes decisions as an independent individual. In this sense, the president alone determines the future and fate of a country. What will weigh here are the political experience, wisdom and decision-making abilities of the president. A president proved to be competent and fruitful in duty performance will get re-elected, while one who is just so so in ability or errs in decision-making will simply ‘walk off.’ A president both comes onto the stage and steps down due to democratic elections. Also, the fundamental policies of the country following the presidential system are usually uncertain and unstable because they change with guys following each other into the presidency.
In China, however, it is a different story. Here, a collective leadership system has been created through joint efforts of a new and modern political party and country, namely, the multi-member Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China, which works under the mechanism of collective leadership. According to the Constitution of the Communist Party of China, the member on the Standing Committee, the General Secretary, and Secretary of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, and the Chairman of the Central Military Commission shall be decided upon through democratic election by the Party’s National Congress and its Central Committee respectively. On the government side, it is prescribed in the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China that all state leaders including the President and the Vice-President, the Chairman of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress, the Premier, the Vice-premiers, and the Chairman of the Military Commission of the Central Government shall all be democratically elected by the National People’s Congress. Plus the Secretary of the Central Commission of Politics and Law and the Politburo Standing Committee member in charge of publicity, there are nine members on the Politburo Standing Committee to represent the country’s top eight leading bodies and exercise joint leadership over Party, government and military affairs. Forming a core of collective leadership featuring clear division of work, cooperation and coordination, this mechanism can be figuratively defined as the ‘collective presidential system’ with Chinese characteristics.
This system was first crafted by Mao Zedong in 1956 at the 11th Assembly of 8th National Congress of the Communist Party of China. By 1959, the Politburo Standing Committee came to be composed of seven members representing the country’s five leading organs, namely, the Party Central Committee, the National People’s Congress, the State Council, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, and the Central Military Commission. Later, and after the 1st Plenary Session of the Party’s 11th Congress in 1966, in particular, the Politburo Standing Committee lost its position as a leading nucleus. At the 12th Party Congress in 1982, Deng Xiaoping rebuilt the Politburo Standing Committee and established it as the Party’s leading nucleus, with six members to represent the country’s six leading organs, namely, the Party Central Committee, the National People’s Congress, the State Council, the Central Military Commission, the Central Discipline Inspection Commission, and the Central Advisory Commission. Jiang Zemin tried to further strengthen the system of collective leadership at the 14th Party Congress in 1992, enlarging the number of Politburo Standing Committee members from six to seven to represent the country’s six leading organs, namely, the Party Central Committee, the National People’s Congress, the State Council, the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, the Central Military Commission, and the Central Discipline Inspection Commission. At the 16th Party Congress in 2002, Hu Jintao perfected the system of collective central leadership, adding two more members into the Politburo Standing Committee so that all of the country’s eight leading organs could be represented. This led to the completion of the “collective leadership system with Chinese characteristics”, a system so different from the presidential system, the two-house system, and the tripartite system widely adopted by various countries in government administration today. 
Why has China created and developed this collective leadership system? The answer is to be found both in the political logics about the evolution of the ruling history of the Communist Party of China and in the logic about the governance of a country meeting every basic condition of a super country. First of all, China is a super  country in population, with population size 1.6 times the US population plus the total population of the 27 European Union countries. Secondly, China is a super country in size. For its vast land territory which is much bigger than the European and almost the same as the US continent, China suffers from big development gaps between its urban and rural areas and between its different regions, gaps wider than ever seen in European or US history. In the third place, China is a super country in governance, with five levels of governments, two more than in the United States. It is difficult to coordinate these governments, and even more difficult to administer them. And lastly, the Communist Party of China is a super ruling party. With more than 80 million members, close supervision and tight control are absolutely necessary. Given the situation, the bipartisan system, the tripartite system, the presidential system and the two-house system installed in most countries are really too simplistic, too limited and too defective for application in China. Some of them were brought into China and tried out by various regimes after the 1911 Revolution. One after another, however, they ended in failure, with none proving to be a solution for ‘a land of total disunity,’ a phrase used by Dr Sun Yat-sen. to describe China’s situation in those days. During the course of building a new China, the Communist Party of China tried every effort to find a model fit for the country’s national conditions and development stage. Through constant exploration, experiment and adjustment, it finally ‘crossed the river by feeling the stones’ and put up the current collective leadership system for a ‘super state apparatus’ as we see today. 
As a super country, China must have a super state apparatus. This is not only a subjective selection, but also an objective mandate. Neither is China the only case in the world. In the first half of the 20th century, two world wars broke out from the European continent. The wars facilitated the birth of the European Union, although at great costs. They also brought into place the super state apparatus, which, superior than the so-called tripartite system, the bipartisan system, the multi-party system, the presidential system, and the federal system, has come to adopt at least six major organs including the Council of the European Union, the European Council, the European Commission, the European Parliament, the Court of Justice, and the European Central Bank. The European Union is neither a country nor a federal system. A union composed of 27 sovereign states, it is more like a confederacy of great binding power and compelling force. As the supreme decision-making body of the European Union, the European Council resembles the ‘collective presidential system’ . However, its presidency is rotated, with each president staying in office for half a year and soon handing over power to a newcomer. This will affect their decision-making and executing capacities, as best evidenced by the current eurozone crisis. 
A most important feature of the “collective leadership system with Chinese characteristics” lies in the word ‘collective,’ which means that it is composed of a group of members instead of a single president, consists of a large number of organs instead of just one, relies on the wisdom of a team instead of any individual, and opts for collective instead of personal decision-making. As the head of the central leading team, the General Secretary plays the role of a guide and a leader. With such a system it will be possible to pool the wisdom of the whole leading team. Where there is a pool of wisdom, there is a way, as the Chinese saying goes. This has been proved by what China has achieved so far.
Through case study of the Politburo Standing Committee of the 16th and the 17th Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, I have found the following five major mechanisms operating in the ‘collective leadership system with Chinese characteristics”:
The mechanism of collective appraisal of candidates, and collective withdrawal and succession of membership, which both terminates the tradition of individual succession of power seen in China’s history and prevents selection of politicians totally through election as practiced abroad
The mechanism of collective coordination and distribution of responsibilities, which is an effective firewall against indecision, buck-passing and opposition in the decision-making process
The mechanism of collective study, which leads to common view through sharing of decision-making wisdom and expertise
The mechanism of collective inspection and investigation, which gives the members a solid ground to speak, to propose and to decide
The mechanism of collective decision-making, which avoids decision by any individual on major issues and allows timely correction of mistakes
Standing at the core of these five mechanisms is the mechanism of collective decision-making. Viewed from the theory and practice of decision-making, the collective leadership system has its advantages in terms of information sharing and correct decision-making thanks to its democratic nature.
In a super society with a population of more than 1.3 billion born into 56 ethnic groups inhabiting more than 2,800 counties in over 30 provincial administration regions, high-quality and effective governance is of key importance.
Just as Deng Xiaoping put it in 1990: ‘The key issue in China is that the Communist Party has a good political bureau, and a good politburo standing committee, in particular. So long as nothing goes wrong at this link, China will remain as stable as Mount Tai,’ a conclusion that has proved true all through China’s development over the past 20 years.  
Hu Angang is the director of Institute for Contemporary China Studies and economics professor at Tsinghua University


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