China: Intra-Party Democracy and the Permanent System of Party Representatives


Dr Baogang He

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a gigantic body, the largest political party in the world with a membership of 66 million, out of which there are about 45 million rank-and-file members with the remainder being party officials. At the sixteenth Party Congress, one major issue discussed was how to improve and reform the Party's leadership and rules of governance. This included discussion of improvements to existing election and monitoring institutions and of the protection and expansion of the right of Party members to access information and to participate in political processes.

Essential to intra-party democracy is the formation of the Permanent System of Party Representatives (PSPR). The PSPR was originally proposed by Deng Xiaoping in 1956. In 1988, the central Party organization approved 12 experimental sites for its introduction, including Jiaojiang and Shaoxing. Before the sixteenth Party Congress, seven out of twelve sites had stopped their experiments. However, in August 2002, the system was improved in Ya'an city. In 2003, more experiments were carried out in seventeen cities including Meishan and Zhigong in Sichuang, the Baoan district of Shengzhen, Huizhou city, Yangdong county in Guangzhou, Chengbei district in Nanning city, and Yichang city.

In the past, the Party Representative Congress was a consultative body, but now it has been deemed to be a decision-making institution and the final source of authority. Several initiatives were taken so that a Party Representative Congress can be held more frequently and more efficiently. In the past, a Party Congress was held every five years. Now a Local Party Congress will be held every year. In Ya'an, Party representatives hold quarterly meetings each year. The size of the constituency of each Party representative was also reduced so that one representative is able to make close contact with, and represent, about one hundred Party members; the standing committee and the alternate member system were abolished to make the Party Representative Congress a decision-making body. Ya'an has also set up a new institution for Party representatives called the 'Party Representative Liaison Office'.

In the past, Party elections were only a formality. However, in Ya'an city, Party representatives were competitively elected in 2003. Among the 5800 Party members, 736 (that is 12.7 per cent of Party membership) participated in running for election, 241 were decided as final candidates and 166 were elected as Party representatives in August 2003. During the election process, 17 Party leaders at the county level lost their positions.

In the PSPR, Party representatives are permanent positions for the period of the Party Congress. They are 'permanent' in the sense that Party representatives exercise their daily rights and powers. Party representatives are granted five basic rights the right to election; the right to discuss major policies; the right to evaluate Party leaders; the right to monitor proceedings; and the right to propose a motion. Ten or twenty permanent Party representatives can together put forward a motion in the Party Congress. The relevant Party or government organization must answer an inquiry made by any permanent Party representative within 3 to 6 months.

Of significance is the initiative for democratic evaluation within the Party. In 2003 in Ya'an city, in an annual Party Congress, all major leaders were evaluated by Party representatives, 40 per cent of whom had to be ordinary members. Crucially, if any leader does not gain a confidence vote of over 70 per cent, a dismissal process will begin automatically against him/her. In Jiaojiang city in Zhejiang, however, the Party organization stopped the evaluation practice in 1991 because the Party secretary lost face when he received far fewer confidence votes than his colleagues. It, nevertheless, reintroduced the evaluation process in 2003.

There are, however, some problems with the PSPR. First, it has resulted in a bureaucratic expansion of the Party, illustrated by the fact that in Ya'an five staff members were added to serve Party representatives. Additionally, there is a representatives' monitoring committee that checks the party secretary and the disciplinary committee. Secondly, there is uncertainty about the relationship between the Party Representative Congress and the People's Congress. In taking over the role of People's Congress, the Party Representative Congress will be held first, followed by the People's Congress which is supposed to endorse the decisions made by the Party Representative Congress.

WATCHPOINT: The experiments with the PSPR for the most part escape the attention of the media and Western scholars. This is because maintaining a low public profile is characteristic of China's approach towards its political experiments in developing intra-party democracy. While the CCP cannot afford to miss the historical opportunity of regenerating the Party via intra-party democracy, Western observers and China watchers need to think all the possibilities for the future of the CCP rather than holding an outdated model of the collapse of the communist party in Eastern Europe.


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