Has China's Institutionalization Failed?
By Yongnian Zheng

Has China's Institutionalization Failed?

Mar. 29, 2016  |     |  0 comments


Of late, “deinstitutionalization” or “failure of institutionalization” has become a new concept in the study of Chinese elite politics in Western academic and policy circles to describe the dramatic political changes within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) after its 18th National Congress in 2012. Despite the different interpretations of this concept, most of these interpretations commonly pertain to power concentration, power restructuring, the top-down approach, the anti-corruption drive, and also what has been increasingly articulated as the China model, as well as their associated changes. Meanwhile, how these changes will impact Chinese politics in the long term remains the main concern.

In order to understand why scholars would deem these changes as “deinstitutionalization” or “failure of institutionalization,” one must first understand the concept of “institutionalization,” i.e. the extent of the institutionalization of the intra-Party system since the reform era under the late Deng Xiaoping, because the so-called “failure of institutionalization” was apparently made in a comparative sense in relation to the intra-Party system before the 18th National Congress.

In the Western interpretation, the institutionalization of Chinese elite politics generally refers to the series of important political mechanisms initiated by Deng Xiaoping that includes term limits, age limits, the selection and appointment of leaders based on meritocracy, and collective leadership.

First, the imposition of term limits on top leadership positions is a key mechanism. In general, Chinese political leaders, including the general secretary of the CCP, the president of the state, the premier, and other key office holders (all Political Bureau Standing Committee members) are allowed to serve at most two terms (i.e. 10 years) in office. This system is no different from the presidential system of many Western countries. As such, term limits are effective in preventing Mao-style personal rule. When a person or a family has been in power ruling a country for decades, there is an inevitable tendency for the political system to yield to corruption and abuse of power, which society would never tolerate. One of the main contributing factors to the “color revolutions” in many countries is the long-term authoritarian rule of their leaders. In modern society today, people, particularly the young generation, do not wish to have a statesman holding on to power in the political arena for decades.

Second, the age limit is an equally important mechanism, providing China's aging cadres with a retirement system. In other types of political systems (i.e. democracy), a retirement system is deemed to apply solely to the civil service. However, in China's context, the retirement system is applicable to all Party and government officials, including political leaders, civil servants, representatives of the People’s Congress, and leaders of social organizations and all other important government and quasi-governmental organizations. Officials of different levels are subject to different age limits. Scholars and policy analysts in the West are however deeply concerned with the age limit of office holders in the Political Bureau Standing Committee. The current practice requires all members of the Political Bureau Standing Committee to retire if they are 68 years of age or older at the time of their term of office in the Party Congress.

The term and age limits in fact act as a rapid self-renewal mechanism within Chinese elite politics, and this reflects that the political system has efficiently maneuvered in between generations and amidst changing interests. In comparison to other political systems, China's political system has the framework conducive to the implementation of large-scale replacement of government officials. Every year, thousands of government officials retire from government service and they are replaced by the same number of younger officials. Despite the downsides of such large manpower turnover, it irrefutably reflects changing times of the world.


The term and age limits in fact act as a rapid self-renewal mechanism within Chinese elite politics, and this reflects that the political system has efficiently maneuvered in between generations and amidst changing interests.

Third, a meritocratic system that is deemed a ruthless mechanism. In most political systems, especially democracy, the legitimacy to govern depends on whether the party or individual can garner enough majority votes. China too has begun to implement an intra-Party voting system, which is important in assessing the popularity of a potential leader. However, there is a nomination process prior to the election of candidates to ensure that the potential candidates fulfill prerequisites of education, working experience (in different regions and at different levels of government), and other requirements. Unlike other political systems, it is impossible that a “dark horse” could emerge within Chinese politics. Even if there is indeed a so-called “dark horse”, he or she must have come from within the system and have satisfied the prerequisites at all levels. China’s meritocracy-based elite politics dates back thousands of years and the CCP today is increasingly inclined to adopt the quintessence of this long-standing meritocracy-based system in recruiting Party talents.

The fourth mechanism is what the Chinese have termed as “collective leadership” or “intra-Party democracy”, which primarily refers to the collective political leadership of the Political Bureau Standing Committee. This system is characterized by internal pluralism evident in the exercise of checks and balances even within the highest leadership organ of the CCP. The Political Bureau Standing Committee, as the highest decision-making body, is often regarded as the symbol of authority. Some Chinese scholars have called it a “collective presidential system” which makes major decisions collectively. However, each of the Political Bureau members, for long periods of time in office, possesses almost equal authority, and is responsible for the decision-making of and has the final say in his respective field.

Today, scholars and policy analysts in the West are concerned about three aspects of CCP politics. First, will past systems continue to survive and develop? Second, will power transfer within the CCP be a smooth transition? As observed, transfer of power has been the thorniest problem faced by the CCP leadership that has not been effectively tackled during the Mao and Deng eras, thus leading to fierce power struggles and political instability. With Deng’s institutionalization of elite politics put in place, there is a better handling of issues pertaining to transfer of power in the Party leadership in the post-Deng era as manifested in the peaceful handover from Jiang Zemin to Hu Jintao and also from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping. Following the myriad changes introduced in the 18th Party Congress, it remains to be seen whether a smooth and stable power transfer continues to be attainable. As the 19th Party Congress in 2017 draws near, the West is increasingly concerned about the stability of China's top political leadership. Third, will the “intra-Party democracy” that began during the Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao periods continue to endure? If there are indeed changes, how will the new system work? Is it possible to return to the Mao era that was characterized by personal dictatorship and power centralization?

While it is understandable why the concerns raised in the West have gained currency, there is however no empirical basis for the “deinstitutionalization” and “failure of institutionalization” rhetoric. While the 18th Party Congress has brought about momentous changes that have led to uncertainties about the Chinese political future, underlying these changes are in fact concerted efforts towards reinforcing further institutionalization of Chinese politics—certainly not what China observers in the West construe as “deinstitutionalization” and “failure of institutionalization. ” “Institutionalization” is an intricate and convoluted process—on the one hand, some systems, inherently resistant to institutionalization, need to be tweaked or adjusted for effective implementation; on the other hand, certain systems require further institutionalization in order to function effectively. We can gain a better understanding of China's political institutionalization from the following aspects.

First, the institutionalization of term limits will be further strengthened. Since the post-Deng period, China has adopted the “three-in-one” system, whereby the same individual assumes the positions of general secretary of the CCP, the president of the state, and the chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). The rationale behind the system of power concentration is that China is a big nation and it is hard to imagine how it could possibly implement large-scale campaigns such as the anti-corruption drive and various reforms of far-reaching impacts without the “three-in-one” system. Judging from the experiences of other countries (including Vietnam), China is likely to move towards oligarchy if it does not take the path of centralization of power. The current State Constitution circumscribes the term of the state president to two consecutive five-year terms. Although the term limits for the other key positions (all important positions held by the Political Bureau Standing Committee members) have not been expressly stipulated, the tenure is limited to two terms as in the past. The restriction of term limits can only be changed through the amendment of the State Constitution, which will cause profound changes in all other aspects. It is believed that the term limit system brings about political renewal and stability, and will therefore remain and be further institutionalized.

Second, whether there will be changes to the age limit remains to be seen. There are no hard and fast rules to the current limits on age. The age limit was introduced during the Jiang Zemin period in consideration of the trend of a younger senior leadership and also for political convenience. If this system continues, it will be regarded as being institutionalized. However, if there are changes made to the age limit, it will also be difficult to attribute the reason to “failure of institutionalization.” We cannot eliminate the possibility of an increasingly younger political leadership; neither can we completely rule out the possibility of removing “age discrimination.” In fact, in view of the existing term limits, changes will likely be made to the practice of “age discrimination” in the future.

Third, “intra-Party democracy” in the collective leadership has undergone significant changes since the 18th Party Congress. These changes however were made in order to achieve greater institutionalization. Before the 18th Party Congress, the authority of the Political Bureau Standing Committee was too diffused because each member was solely responsible for his or her respective area and enjoyed the largest power and rights of speech in his or her respective field. As a result, the internal “division of labor” of the Political Bureau Standing Committee tended to take a dispersed development path, and thus effective coordination was virtually non-existent. Ironically, the so-called “collective presidency” was often relegated to the situation of a seemingly non-existent president, the system of collective decision-making led to the scenario of no decision being made, and what was known as collective responsibility led to the case of no claims of responsibility. This system was similar to the top-level “feudal system”, culminating in the scenario of the “Zhou Yongkang” case.

This resulted in factional rivalry, or “oligarchy” in political science speak. The cases of Ling Jihua, as well as Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong in the military were similar examples. The formation of “factions and cliques” within the Party had instead stymied the proper exercise of authority at the top leadership with excessive checks and balances. This phenomenon had thrived during the Hu Jintao period, whose ambitious plan for implementation of reforms was stalled due to multiple hindrances and opposing forces. The impact of “factions and cliques” was far more severe as it had directly imperiled the survival of the ruling party. This threat was far more lethal than the threat brought about by their corrupt practices.



While it is understandable why the concerns raised in the West have gained currency, there is however no empirical basis for the 'deinstitutionalization' and 'failure of institutionalization' rhetoric.

The political situation changed after the 18th Party Congress, mainly because several leading institutions, such as the Central Comprehensive Deepening Reform Leading Group, the National Security Council, the Central Leading Group for Internet Security and Information, and the Leading Group for National Defense and Military Reform of the Central Military Commission, were established. This is the so-called power concentration, which is, however, a response to the power diffusion that was adopted earlier. Xi Jinping helms as the chair and Li Keqiang the co-chair of these leading groups except the Central Leading Group for Military Reform. Other Political Bureau Standing Committee members are assigned to different groups to prevent the return of the “feudal system” of the past. This has greatly enhanced the coordination between the different groups. Also, unlike the past, these leading small groups have formalized their operation and management. In the past, the leading small groups operated as informal, closed-book mechanisms, offering little information and detail to the public. Today, these leading small groups have made strides towards greater transparency in policy processes. The efforts to formalize the operations should thus be perceived as “greater institutionalization” instead of “deinstitutionalization.”

Fourth, the ruling party’s capability in party-building has greatly improved, as manifested not only in the anti-corruption campaign, but also in various aspects of system-building. Despite the progress made in “intra-Party democracy” prior to the 18th Party Congress, this should not be an alibi for corruption to have the legitimate grounds to fester within the Party. If “factions and cliques” resort to checks and balances in the name of exercising “intra-Party democracy”, this could threaten the survival of the CCP. Such mutual constraints and feuds between different factions would ultimately result in the loss of the capability to fight against corruption. The notion that “senior officers are above the law”—i.e. that Political Bureau Standing Committee members who commit mistakes will not be punished—was pervasive before the 18th Party Congress. This has completely changed since the 18th Party Congress. More importantly, the CCP advocates the core of the moral system of Party discipline and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection as the leading anti-corruption system which is premised on the “rule of law.”

Fifth, the ruling party has greater capability to take action. The Third and Fourth Plenary Sessions of the 18th Party Congress, in alignment with the top leadership’s directives, rolled out a total of 500 comprehensive reform plans. The Fifth Plenary Session has drafted a blueprint that maps the government’s main economic and development initiatives for 2016–2020, and has also initiated massive military reform. Hence, it is said that there are no political parties in the world today, except the CCP, which are proactive and have the capability to mobilize actions.

The above discussion corroborates the evidence of China's concerted efforts towards greater institutionalization. Certainly, these changes do not imply that China has completed its process of political institutionalization. The CCP is the only ruling party and governing body in China, and hence has a pivotal role in the country’s reform and development. The institutionalization of the Party's politics thus determines its survival and development. There is still room for the institutionalization of intra-Party democracy, power transfer and succession, political exit, the recruitment system, etc. Nevertheless, these cannot be accomplished at one stroke, but through a process of constant trial and error. With clear direction and objectives, the strong political will of the leadership, and concrete action plans, institutionalization will ultimately be realized.


(Translated by Wen Xin Lim)



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