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Chinese presidency: institutionalisation, constitutional ambiguities and the trajectories towards democratisation.

For a long period since the founding of the People's Republic of China, the presidency as a state institution has seldom been taken seriously. For a while, it was even nonexistent: following the purge of Liu Shaoqi at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, China did not have a president for many years. By the late 1990s, however, the presidency of China had acquired significant institutional powers and it has since become a very important national institution. This article examines the evolution of the presidency since the 1980s, with particular focus on the period following the early 1990s. I argue that with the formal powers now embedded in the presidency, China has taken a preliminary form of a one-Party presidential system. Further institutionalisation of this one-Party presidential system may provide conditions favourable for the gradual evolution of China towards a democratic system. However, in order to enable such incremental institutionalisations of the Office, important constitutional ambiguities need to be addressed through political craftsmanship.


A number of efforts were made to rationalise China's Party and state institutions following the 1978 Party Plenum. A pressing priority for the new leadership under Deng Xiaoping was the reinstalling and streamlining of the State Council, the capacity of which was vastly compromised as a result of the Cultural Revolution. Major Party arms were also reinstalled and top structures of the Party reformed. (1) The 12th Party Congress in 1982 marked the formal arrival of a new era: if during the period before the Party congress was focused on cleaning up the late-Mao period mess (boluan fanzheng), then this would be the era that the Party embarked with full energy on its new mission of economic reform and development. Later that year, a new Constitution was adopted by the National People's Congress (NPC). This Constitution reinstalled the presidency as a national institution. (2) The first president of China in some 20 years was elected by the NPC in June 1983.

The 1983 presidency, however, started off as a weak institution. By constitutional design, the Office was merely a figurehead role to perform symbolic functions. As the supreme power of the State is constitutionally embedded within the NPC, the president performed all his (3) functions "according to the decision of" the NPC and NPC Standing Committee. (4) These roles include promulgating laws, appointing the Premier and cabinet ministers, declaring national emergencies and declaring wars. In terms of foreign affairs, the president would receive visiting heads of state from abroad, and in accordance with the decisions of the NPC and NPC Standing Committee appoint and recall ambassadors, as well as approve and invalidate treaties.

Hence, by constitutional design, the presidency has very limited powers. And for the powers it does have, they are exercised in accordance with the decisions of the NPC and its Standing Committee. But in reality, of course, the NPC's decisions all come from the Party's leadership, especially the Politburo and its Standing Committee. The presidency was clearly being used as an honorary office to reward old-time servants of the Party and the state. (5) It was clear at that time that the most powerful men were not to take up the presidency. (6)

Things took a sharp turn after the 14th Party Congress in 1992, when the Party's ruling power was transferred from Deng to a new generation of leaders. At the NPC in March the following year (1993), Jiang Zemin, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), was elected state president. This resulted in the Party's top leader serving as head of state at the same time, an unprecedented situation since Mao gave up the presidency in 1959. Note that no changes were made to the Constitution regarding the presidency. In theory, this should have meant that the formal powers of the presidency remained unchanged. However, since the presidency was held by the most powerful person in China, the public perception of the Office changed dramatically. Internationally, it probably mattered even more: foreign leaders now knew that when they were meeting the president of China, they were speaking to the country's most powerful leader. No more would there be a confused situation as when a vice premier visiting the United States was supposed to be treated as the most powerful man in China. (7)

In hindsight, having the top Party leaders assume the top state positions marked a significant step in the development of national institutions, Party politics and Party-state relationships. In all the years since the Cultural Revolution, the call for political reform and institution-building had centred on the idea of "separating the Party and the state" (dangzheng fenkai). The notion was probably more effective in the management of the economy, such as in the state-owned enterprises and major banks. But it certainly failed to carve out a clear boundary between the Party and the government. (8) In the government, Party secretaries of every level from county are still directly involved in daily management and decision-making.

At the national level, top Party leaders in charge of state offices county-level up in fact helped enhance the power of the state bodies. In essence, state institutions gained significant muscle because they were now headed by powerful Party leaders. In general, the four major national institutions: the NPC, State Council, CPC Central Committee and presidency all acquired clearer institutional identity and stronger institutional strength because their leaders were designated the top leaders of the Party and the top four members of the Politburo Standing Committee. (9)

Jiang Zemin, the first Party leader since 1959 to also serve as president, served two terms between 1993 and 2003. In 2003, Hu Jintao, the Party's Secretary who succeeded Jiang, was elected as president, thereby completing the first leadership succession. Hu's tenure as president was slightly complicated during the first two years, when Jiang still held on to his top military position. Nevertheless, Hu's first term saw further consolidation of presidential power (discussed in the next section). In 2008, the selected successor to Hu Jintao as the Party leader, Xi Jinping, was elected as vice president. Xi's election was significant in two ways. First, it indicated that the Party planned to install him later as both the Party leader and the state president. This means the institutionalisation of the Party-state relationship with regard to the presidency was reinforced: the rule that the Party leader would concurrently serve as the president has now been established. Second, installing the successor to the Party leader as vice president affirmed the institutional significance of the vice presidency: that is, the vice president would be "the next president" of China. (10) This institutional feature will be discussed in the following section.


In this article, institutionalisation refers to the evolution and consolidation of the rules and norms that govern the roles, functions and powers of an office, as well as its relations to other offices and institutions in the political system. With the evolution of roles, functions and power, an office gains a stronger and more clearly defined institutional identity. This article argues that the roles, functions and powers of the presidency have evolved in the last 30 years, and in many aspects have institutionalised as formal or informal rules and norms. A major institutional arrangement that was gradually consolidated after 1993 is combining the posts of the president and the general secretary of the Party, and alongside the Chairman of the Central Military Commission (CMC). This has resulted in the president acquiring several formal powers. First, the fact that the president is the top leader of the Party implies that he holds the political powers vital for legislation, governance and law enforcement. Second, within the Party-state power structure, the president holds several important portfolios, especially the military, foreign affairs and national security. Third, the public legitimacy intrinsic in the role of head of state strengthens both the power of the institution and the office holder vis-a-vis other top leaders within the Party.

To be sure, many powers alluded to the president are not explicitly prescribed in the Constitution. But such institutional arrangements have now been clearly established as accepted norms. As long as the current one-Party political structure continues, the possibility for such arrangements to be disrupted in the coming years is remote. Furthermore, future measures may be implemented to codify such arrangements (see below). Hence, the current power arrangements of the presidency can at least be characterised as having achieved "soft institutionalisation".

Public Legitimacy

As head of state, the president personifies the state and the nation. The protocol power of the head of state in both domestic and international politics gives the president unique advantages in claiming public legitimacy. Domestically, the president has the authority to speak directly to the people and harness public support for him. Internationally, the president has monopoly over "state affairs" such as representing China on the global stage and dealing with other state leaders on China's behalf. Performing such protocol roles therefore helps legitimate the power of the Office and its holder. The president can rely on support from the public and international leaders to bolster his power--that is, a leader of "the people" wields power that is more legitimate than the power of a party leader or even a militarily powerful person.

A case in point is when Hu Jintao became president in March 2003. At that time, Jiang Zemin still retained the chairmanship of the CMC, thus engendering ambiguity within the Party as to who commanded higher authority. As president, Hu Jintao could mobilise support from the people directly, therefore increasing his influence within the Party vis-a-vis Jiang. During the outbreak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) epidemic, for example, Hu Jintao (with the assistance of Wen Jiabao) was able to take prompt action that directly appealed to the general public. Hu made a visit to Guangzhou, where the repercussions of the SARS epidemic outbreak were most serious. Hu made a surprise appearance in the crowded city centre to show solidarity with the people at a difficult time. This and other actions earned him a high level of popularity, enabling him to consolidate power within the Party and government rapidly. Also, in late April that year, a People's Liberation Army Navy submarine was involved in a fatal accident that killed all the crew members. Hu Jintao managed the crisis by positioning himself (at least as far as the public was concerned) as the president of the state instead of vice chairman of the CMC to assume a more powerful posture than Jiang Zemin. (11)


The president, by virtue of being the Party's general secretary, has the single most effective control over the Party's power institutions, such as the Politburo and Central Committee. At the helm of the most powerful position within the Party, the president has the ultimate control over the state legislative, administrative and judicial powers. In terms of executive powers, his power within the Party allows him to control the foreign affairs, and military and security portfolios. (12)

According to the Constitution, the president exercises some power over foreign affairs circumscribed by only diplomatic protocols, such as conducting "state affairs" (guoshi huodong), which generally refers to making state visits to foreign countries and receiving foreign visitors. Though the president has presiding power over the appointment of China's ambassadors and envoys to other countries, the appointments are however dictated by the National People's Congress, according to the Constitution. (13) The Constitution does not specify the institution in which the power of foreign policymaking resides. Foreign policy-making, however, represents an important dimension of executive power. In the Chinese power configuration, the Politburo Standing Committee (PBSC) serves as the top executive body holding the greatest power with regard to foreign affairs. Major decisions in foreign affairs must adhere closely to the consensus built in PBSC decisions. However, within the PBSC, the president (Party secretary) controls the foreign affairs portfolio, hence playing a pivotal role in shaping PBSC decisions. More importantly, the Party and state organise foreign policy-making processes around a leading small group (LSG) of foreign affairs. (14) In fact, the LSG has become the unique institution through which various aspects of the Party-state's executive powers are organised. (15) While the Foreign Ministry and other agencies (16) are the policy implementers in China's foreign affairs establishment, the Foreign Affairs LSG is the decision-making body. (17) It virtually serves as a "Foreign Affairs Council" of similar capacity to which major bureaucratic branches will send representatives and supply information, and from which these branches request and receive directives. It also relays issues that it deems to be worthy of attention and subsequent decision-making from the PBSC.

As the Party leader who commands and controls the foreign policy portfolio within the Party as well as the Foreign Affairs LSG, the president possesses indisputable power in foreign policy-making. (18) It is important to emphasise the president's authority in protocols. In the past, the highest authority in foreign affairs and for protocols was in the hands of two different persons. In the early years, adhering to the protocols of foreign affairs such as making state visits and receiving state dignitaries was probably deemed too physically demanding for top leaders. The most notable case was, of course, Mao Zedong, who clearly disliked spending time with foreign visitors. (19) Mao was not interested in visiting foreign countries, and travelled abroad only once in his lifetime. Deng Xiaoping, during his tenure in the mid-1980s, probably felt he was getting too old to fulfil the diplomatic protocols relating to foreign visits. (20) However, beginning from Jiang Zemin's time, with the growing importance of foreign affairs (e.g., Sino-US relations) to China's domestic development and national interests, and with the rising importance of China in global affairs, the authority over protocols relating to foreign affairs had increasingly become indistinguishable from real power. The authority on protocol enables the president to claim monopoly power in executing functions in foreign affairs, such as attending G-20 meetings and ratifying deals with the US and Russian presidents.

That the president, as the "first hand" of the Party-state takes foreign affairs under his charge, has been accepted as diyibashou guan waishi (a rule of power separation, or division of labour, among national institutions).


By Constitution, China's ultimate military power resides in the CMC. Unlike in the case of foreign affairs, the Constitution does not grant the president any formal role in military power, neither nominal nor symbolic. (21) But throughout the history of the People's Republic of China, it is evident that as a rule, the most powerful leader of the Party holds the military power, as in the cases of Mao Zedong, Hua Guofeng and Deng Xiaoping (or oftentimes, the person with military power was taken as the most powerful man). Since Jiang Zemin's first term as president (1993-1998) of the state, it has been institutionalised that the general secretary of the Party and the president hold the military power.22 As a result, the president now has legitimate control of the military.

Military power lies in the CMC, which besides the president, consists of a small circle of uniformed military officials. It can be argued that the president's control over the military is through the commission. Thus, garnering the loyalty and support of these uniformed men is extremely crucial. This is no different from the US system. For instance, the US president is the Commander-in-Chief of the nation's armed forces, but he has to rely on the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as the Ministry of Defence for military operations. The debate over whether or not the president has firm control over the military should focus on whether civilian control over the military has been established as a norm in China, which then depends on further institutionalisation of the presidency and the civilian-military relationship. (23)

In addition to his direct control over the CMC, the president also allegedly heads the National Security LSG. This LSG seems to overlap with the Foreign Affairs LSG, and shares the general office with the latter (the Central Committee Foreign Affairs Office is also known as Zhonggong zhongyang waishi bangongshi). (24) This appears to be an institution that attempts to integrate foreign affairs and military and defence policies, while highlighting the importance of the president in these two power spheres of the state.


Besides the formalisation of presidential powers, the last two decades also saw the institutionalisation of other aspects of the presidency. In terms of election, the Party's Central Committee procedurally provides the candidates to the first session of the new NPC. Every five years, the Party holds a congress, electing a new Politburo, PBSC and general secretary. The general secretary will then be nominated as a candidate for the presidency at the NPC full session held the following spring. This is no different from the party politics of other countries, except that in electoral democracies there is more than one party involved in supplying candidates.

Succession in the presidency is institutionalised along with the institutionalisation of elite politics within the Party. The succession of the presidency is now managed together with the succession of Party powers. Since 1998, it has become standard practice that during the president's second term, the heir apparent of the Party leader should concurrently serve as vice president (VP). (25) In his role as vice president, the chosen successor to the Party leader, as part of the grooming process, is given a wide range of tasks so that he acquires the necessary competence for his future job as both president and general secretary. This institutional arrangement has been recognised by foreign counterparts as well. When Hu Jintao was serving as VP, the US invited him for a visit, and the US' objective was clearly to prepare an important working relationship with the man they knew would become president. (26) After 2009, Xi Jinping served as vice president, poised to succeed Hu Jintao as president in 2013. Consequently, Xi's visits abroad were treated with special importance by his hosts. (27)

There is institutionalisation in vice presidency too. In the 1980s, vice presidency, similar to the presidency, was conferred as an honorary prize for old-time loyalty to the Party. The vice presidents who served between 1982 and 1998 did not carry much political weight. (28) Today the constitutional provisions of the vice presidency remain minimal and unclear. However, in actual arrangements, the Office has acquired important clout. The VP holds a few important portfolios, both within the Party and the state. In the Party, the VP is normally ranked as member of the PBSC. As such, he presides over the daily work of the Party, by leading the Party's Central Secretariat (Zhonggong zhongyang shujichu). He is also given the nomenklatura portfolio, to enable him to build a strong support base among cadres, especially the younger ones. In this capacity, he also serves as the president of the Central Party School. Meanwhile, in terms of state powers, the VP supports the president in foreign policy-making. The VP serves as the deputy director of the Foreign Affairs LSG. Within the foreign policy arena, the president personally takes charge of the most important bilateral relationships, such as the Sino-US relationship. The VP normally takes charge of several less pressing portfolios. In the case of Xi Jinping, soon after becoming VP, he was assigned to oversee the Beijing Olympics, a task that would hone his foreign affairs prowess. Also, when he was the VP, Xi appeared to have taken charge of foreign affairs related to Asian and developing countries, such as Mongolia, Southeast Asia and Latin America. (29) Between 2011 and 2012, when China's disputes vis-a-vis other claimants over the South China Sea escalated, a central leadership small group was reputedly formed to coordinate China's policy responses, with Xi Jinping presiding as the head. (30) Furthermore, while the president personally leads Taiwan affairs, the VP would lead Hong Kong and Macao affairs. All these arrangements have given the VP substantial powers, and are intended to prepare the VP for taking up the presidency in a few years' time.


Several hypotheses might explain why such changes have occurred to the presidency. From a democratisation perspective, the Party is probably in the process of crafting a one-party presidential system, in which a distinct presidency may prepare for future processes of democratisation. That is, with the installation of a presidential system, electoral reforms can be introduced to the presidency in the future, guiding the Chinese political system on the path of democracy. Indeed, building "socialist democracy" has been enshrined as a lofty goal of the Party in building Chinese "political civilisation". Deng Xiaoping did, for example, reckon that China would be able to hold universal elections (puxuan) in the mid-21st century. (31) If indeed the Party has a formal electoral democracy in mind for its "political civilisation" project, then the institutionalisation of the state presidency could be considered part of this process towards ultimate democracy.

The second one can be called a "state-building" hypothesis. In line with the rising demand for good governance, the CPC is building state capacities by enhancing state institutions. (32) Seen in this perspective, the evolution of state institutions, such as the State Council, the NPC and institutions in the judicial branch all reflect the Party's conscious effort in state-building. It may be tempting to argue then that the Party has also enhanced the presidency as a state institution, in order to provide better governance. Entrenching the president with formal power in conducting foreign affairs, for example, does seem to make the political system more efficient in foreign policymaking and implementation.

Both these hypotheses, however, can be easily rejected on several grounds. Most importantly, despite recent developments in the presidency, its institutional characteristics are still far from definite. As I discuss more thoroughly in the next section, the formal powers of the presidency exist largely because of the personal power of the holder of the office: the president is powerful not because of his designation as president, but because he is the general secretary of the Party. If the Party has indeed intended to develop the presidency into a strong state institution, then many accompanying institutional changes would have already taken place. For example, some of the staff supporting the president from the CCP Central Committee Office (Zhonggong zhongyang bangongting) would have been transformed into a state office. Also, the Party's LSG for Foreign Affairs would have also been replaced by a state or national leadership group for foreign affairs. But as of today, there is no sign that such institutional changes will take place.

The third is a "legitimisation" hypothesis. In order to increase the Party's legitimacy, it sees that the Party installs its most powerful person to be the state president. Domestically, Chinese people are gradually making a distinction between the Party and the state; therefore, for the Party leader to assume the "identity" as the nation's leader, he needs to officially take up the role of president (guojia zhuxi). Internationally, for the country's most powerful person to engage in diplomatic activities, he or she should also assume a formal role as a state leader.

Yet another is a "power re-centralisation" hypothesis. It sees the Party combining the state's figurehead institution with the Party's top office in an effort to enhance the central state's power vis-a-vis the provinces, enhance the Party's power vis-a-vis the state institutions, and most importantly, enhance the top leader's power vis-a-vis other colleagues in the Politburo and the Central Committee. A strong Party centre that combines both Party power and a firm control over state institutions can serve the first two purposes of consolidating the state's power vis-a-vis the provinces and state institutions, while a general secretary assuming the presidency serves the third purpose of augmenting power vis-a-vis other colleagues. For this, there is a need to look in retrospect at Deng Xiaoping's evolving thoughts since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Having been purged (dadao) twice during the 1960s and 1970s, Deng emerged from the Cultural Revolution with strong objections against power concentration, especially in the hands of one single leader like Mao. In the early 1980s, his main efforts in reorganising the Party's institutions were focused on creating a healthy dispersion of power within the Party leadership. He discarded the post of Central Committee chairmanship and instead emphasised "collective leadership" of the Politburo. The person that was the "leader" of the Party assumed the post of "general secretary", instead of "chairman" (zhuxi) to avoid the connotation of a paramount leader. (33)

In the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen incident, and the fall of the Soviet Communist Party, however, Deng Xiaoping felt the urgency to install a strong leadership in the Party centre before he could finally retire. In 1989, after establishing Jiang Zemin as the Party secretary, Deng wanted to ensure Jiang became a strong leader for the Party. Hence he transferred the chairmanship of the CMC to Jiang later that year. As the Party prepared for the 14th Congress in 1992, Deng approved the retirement of Yang Shangkun, an old revolutionary, from the Politburo, and if Yang continued to remain in office, he would overshadow Jiang and the new leadership. At the NPC in the beginning of the following year, Jiang was elected as the state president. (34) The evolution of the state presidency has since followed this logic: the Party's general secretary assumes a number of important formal powers and he exercises several of these powers in the capacity of state president.


Hence, the "legitimisation" hypothesis and "power recentralisation" hypothesis sound more plausible in explaining the evolution of the presidency, and can also be seen as the Party's two approaches to the presidency as a political institution. However, despite impressive progress made in the institutionalisation of the presidency, ambiguities in this office still loom extraordinarily large. The most pressing challenge is, of course, the lack of a clear definition of its constitutional power: although the president commands impressive executive and legislative powers, such powers largely come from his position within the Party. The constitutional base of the presidency is still virtually missing.

Party Powers or State Powers?

It is true that since Jiang Zemin's era, the President has held important powers. That the president derives and enjoys most of his powers by virtue of his top leadership position in the Party poses a great problem. In fact, he is sworn into presidency simply because he is the top leader of the Party. Without his claim to power within the Party, the president has very limited power at his disposal.

The president's formal powers still lack a constitutional base. This may be partially due to the fact that the Chinese state was first crafted as a parliamentary system, with the constitution ascribing sovereignty and supreme power to the NPC. The cabinet (the State Council) was designed as the executive branch of the state. This was of course half-heartedly established as a facade to Party-supremacy. Since Jiang Zemin's time, on the one hand, major powers continue to stay within the Party, and with the rising challenges in governance, the Party has little choice but to continuously enhance the Party's role in providing governance. At the same time, the presidency is acquiring greater relevance as a state office, and it is becoming evident that China is evolving towards a system where major executive powers are in the hands of the president with the State Council assuming less dominant authority in areas such as managing social and economic affairs. (35) But the constitutional impasse regarding the weak provision of the presidency has to be solved, with a more explicit definition of presidential powers.

Does the President Have an Office?

The presidency as an institution needs a supporting bureaucracy. At the minimum, there should be an office for the president to provide day-to-day administrative support. In the US, the White House Chief of Staff serves such a role. Other supporting arms of the presidential office should include a national security council and national economic council, to say the least. But none of these seems to exist in China's presidency. In fact, each of China's other three national institutions has a chief of staff or general office. The State Council has a General Office (Guowuyuan bangongting), within which an office supporting the premier exists along with one supporting each of the vice premiers. The State Council also has a secretariat, which is headed by the secretary general (mishuzhang). Both the NPC and CPC CC have a bangongting (General Office) as well.

The presidency, however, does not have a bangongting or General Office. Presidential staff support comes from the Party's bangongting. Within the Party's bangongting, an office is exclusively designated to support the president. Each of the PBSC members has a supporting office, named after each individual PBSC member. But such an office is a Party institution, not a state one. Although in practice the president now enjoys a wide spectrum of powers, the staff support to these powers is provided through Party institutions. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the PLA's headquarters, of course, provide indispensible support to the president in foreign and military affairs, respectively. But these functions may be more appropriately categorised as bureaucratic and policy processes instead of provision of staff support. Many of these supports are provided through Party institutions: the Central Committee's Foreign Affairs Office (Zhonggong zhongyang waishi bangongshi) offered support in foreign affairs, and the (Party's) Central Military Committee's General Office (Zhongyang junwei bangongting) as well as the PLA's various general departments gave support in military affairs.

Constraints on Further Institutionalisation

Combining the Party post of general secretary and the presidency indeed contributes to a stronger presidency, and dispenses greater legitimacy to the leader of the Party to proclaim as leader of the nation. However, the presidency's institutional powers remain shaky, and the gradual process of institutionalisation could suffer a turnabout if constitutional provisions are not in place to recognise legitimacy of the formal power of the presidency. For example, in the lead-up to the 15th Party Congress in 1997, it was rumoured that Li Peng wanted to take over the presidency from Jiang Zemin. As Li approached the end of his second term as premier, taking up the presidency would enable him to stay in the PBSC for another term. Li's tussle for presidency was solved by the retirement of Qiao Shi at the Party Congress, allowing Li to take over as the Chairman of the National People's Congress the following March. However, five years later, towards the opening of the 16th Party Congress in 2002, the Japanese newspapers reported that Li Peng would become the president while Jiang Zeming stayed on as the chairman of the CMC after the Congress. (36) Had a Li Peng presidency been materialised at either of these two junctures, the norm of combining the most powerful Party office with the presidency would have been revoked.

This only shows that state institutions are still at the mercy of Party politics and the predicament also applies to the supporting institutions of the presidency. For the president to exercise authority in the implementation of foreign and defence policies, a US-style National Security Council of similar capacity should be in place to provide staff and intelligence support and policy advice, among others. Under the current institutional structure, the supports are provided by an eclectic mix of institutional players, including the Party's Central Office, the PLA, the Foreign Ministry and many others. In 2009, Jiang Zemin attempted to introduce an agency akin to the National Security Council into the Party-state structure. The functions of the agency will mirror that of the US. The agency will have exclusively appointed staff instead of sharing manpower with the central office or other bodies. The primary role of the agency would be to support the president-cum-general secretary. If this plan was materialised, the Presidency would gain more muscle among the state and Party institutions. But Jiang Zemin's rivals, or other members of the Politburo Standing Committee, who were generally wary of Jiang's personal power ambitions, chose to veto the plan. Eventually, a watered down version survived as the National Security LSG, which in fact has overlapping functions with the Foreign Affairs LSG. (37) That Party institutions, in this case the Politburo Standing Committee, still dominate China's politics, and implies that strengthening the presidency will remain a difficult task for some time to come.


In its current form, the process in which a Chinese president is chosen carries some symbolic characteristics of democracy. The president is recommended by the Party, and then elected by the People's Congress. Three possible paths exist for this system to become more democratic. The first, and most straightforward change, is to establish a national election for the president. As the Party still commands a high level of political control, and will reject any possibility of rapid democratisation, this option may seem out of the question for the next decade at least. A second and likely possibility is through democratisation of the National People's Congress. Once a free and competitive election of the People's Congress is established, China's political system would be one large step closer to democracy. If the People's Congress was democratically elected, with the Party still holding the power to nominate the presidential candidate, the president elected by the People's Congress would bear more democratic legitimacy.

A third and even highly likely possibility is that the Party establishes intraparty election to determine who the presidential candidate should be. This is tantamount to a "primary election" for a candidate within the Party. By determining a candidate through an internal democratic process, the Party then formally recommends him or her for election by the National People's Congress. Of course, the second and third trajectories can take place simultaneously: with the Party's implementation of an internal electoral process, election to the National People's Congress, or to provincialor city-level People's Congresses, would also become more democratic and competitive. This is probably the path that China's political system will take in advancing democracy over the next 10 to 15 years.

At the time of writing, the Chinese Party-state had just produced its new president. The Party's sole candidate to the Presidency was selected by the Party's Congress in the fall of 2012, and the election of the president took place at the National People's Congress in March 2013. The succession manifested a new trend: the outgoing top leader retired from all his posts, including the chairmanship of the CMC. This gave the incoming leader an edge in that he was able to assume the full spectrum of presidential power within four to five months. This certainly marked a step forward in the institutionalisation of the Presidency.

In any case, the formal presidency power attained since the early 1990s will continue to be held by the new president, and the relationship between the presidency as a state institution and the Party's governing institutions (the Central Committee, the Politburo and the PBSC) will be expected to remain in its current structure. In the short to medium term, the Party will probably give priority to building governance in various institutions, such as its fiscal, regulatory and welfare institutions. With the Party's pressing immediate needs to instil governance, such as maintaining economic growth and employment, curbing environmental pollution and providing social security, it will delay in addressing the institutional ambiguities of the presidency as identified in this article. While Taiwan and Korea are bona fide cases of a democratic presidential system which emerged from their one-party authoritarian political rule that defines China's system today, it remains to be seen whether that will take place in China as it ultimately depends on the process of democratisation in China.

(1) Among the first efforts was the rationalisation of the organisational structure of the State Council, by bringing Zhao Ziyang to serve as the Premier (replacing Hua Guofeng) while removing several deputy premiers who concurrently held Party positions. At the same time, the office of General Secretary of the Party was reinstalled, with Hu Yaobang serving, and the Secretariat of the Central Committee was reinstalled to serve as the Chief of Staff for top leadership. See Deng Xiaoping, "Dang he guojia lindao zhidu de gaige" (Reforming Party and State Leadership Institutions), in Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping, vol. 2, 18 Aug. 1980.

(2) The Presidency had been formally abolished with the Constitution of 1975, but in fact China had been without a President since 1966, when the then President Liu Shaoqi was deprived of his political and personal rights.

(3) As all presidents of China have thus far been male, in this article I refer to the president as he or him.

(4) Article Two, Chapter Three of China's Constitution.

(5) The Office was first occupied by Li Xiannian, and five years later by Yang Shangkun.

(6) Throughout the 1980s, the most powerful men in Chinese politics were probably: Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun of the old generation, as well as Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang of the younger, later generation.

(7) That was the case with Deng Xiaoping's visit to the United States in 1979. At that time, his formal title was the Vice Premier. Hua Guofeng was the nominally paramount leader of China.

(8) The separation between the Party and the management in firms (state-owned enterprises), for example, made significant headway.

(9) For example, the National People's Congress, under the leadership of Qiao Shi, had developed a much stronger institutional identity in legislation, interest aggregation and holding the State Council accountable.

(10) Hu Jintao, as the anointed successor to Jiang Zemin, became the vice president in 1998, five years before he succeeded Jiang as president. Xi Jinping also became vice president five years before he was scheduled to take over from Hu. The vice presidency may be therefore assumed by a different person other than the anointed successor during the first five-year term of the incumbent president, as in the cases of Rong Yiren (vice president 1993-1998) and Zeng Qinghong (vice president 2003-2008). This rule will be tested during the first term of Xi Jinping as president (2013-2018).

(11) For details on these episodes and how to interpret them, see, among others, Zhiyue Bo, China's Elite Politics: Political Transition and Power Balancing (Singapore: World Scientific Press, 2007); Hairen Zong, Aimei de quanli jiaojie (Ambigous Transition) (New York: Mirror Books, 2003); and Zhengxu Wang, "Hu Jintao's Power Consolidation: Groups, Institutions, and Power Balance in China's Elite Politics", Issues and Studies 42, no. 4 (2006).

(12) These powers are presented below as state powers, but they are still inseparable from Party powers. The author addresses this issue in the last section of this article.

(13) In practice, of course, such appointments are only rubber-stamped by the NPC from the decision passed over by the Party. See the "Political Appointment" section of this article.

(14) Evan S. Medeiros and M. Taylor Fravel, "China's New Diplomacy", Foreign Affairs 82, no. 6 (2003); David M. Lampton, "China's Foreign and National Security Policymaking Process: Is It Changing, and Does It Matter? Era of Reform", in The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy in the Era of Reform, ed. David M. Lampton (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001), pp. 16-9; Lu Ning, "The Central Leadership, Supraministry Coordinating Bodies, State Council Ministries, and Party Departments", in The Making of Chinese Foreign and Security Policy in the Era of Reform, ed. David M. Lampton (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001); and Kenneth Lieberthal and Michel Oksenberg, Policymaking in China: Leaders, Structures, and Processes (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1988).

(15) Alice Miller, "The CCP Central Committee's Leading Small Groups", China Leadership Monitor 26 (2008), at <> [accessed 12 June 2013].

(16) Other agencies include the PLA's chief of staff and other suppliers of foreign intelligence, as well as other agencies that deal with foreign affairs, such as the Party's Liaison Department, the State Council's Office of Foreign Affairs (waishiban), as well as the international departments in various ministries. For the composition of departments and other LSGs, see Alice Miller, "The CCP Central Committee's Leading Small Groups," China Leadership Monitor 26 (2008).

(17) Hongyi Lai, "External Policymaking under Hu Jintao", Issues and Studies 41, no. 3 (2005); and Miller, "The CCP Central Committee's Leading Small Groups".

(18) Relating to this is the fact that Taiwan affairs, given their inseparable entanglement with foreign affairs, also come under the domain of Presidential power--the President leads the Taiwan Affairs LSG; see Miller, "The CCP Central Committee's Leading Small Groups".

(19) For this reason, Zhou Enlai suggested at a meeting during the 1970 Lushan Conference, which saw the disputes about whether China should continue to have the Presidency, that the chairman (president) could delegate (shouquan) some of the protocol roles to a different person.

(20) In 1985 when he met Ceausescu of Romania, Deng said he was getting old and had already completed his foreign travel obligations, but was willing to make an exception if the Soviet Union was ready to improve its relations with China.

(21) In fact, the Constitution does contain provisions that the president can declare wars and issue national mobilisation orders.

(22) Deng Xiaoping made this clear when he handed over the CMC chairmanship to Jiang Zemin. He stated that Jiang, being also qualified as general secretary of the Party, was qualified as chairman of the CMC.

(23) For civilian-military relationship, see Ellis Joffe, "The Chinese Army in Domestic Politics: Factors and Phases", in Civil-military Relations in China, ed. Li Nan (New York: Routledge, 2006).

(24) Miller, "The CCP Central Committee's Leading Small Groups".

(25) Regarding vice presidency in the first term of the incumbent president, see footnote 12.

(26) For Hu Jintao's "apprenticeship" as vice president, see Richard Ewing, "Hu Jintao: The Making of a Chinese General Secretary", The China Quarterly 173 (2003): 17-34.

(27) For Xi Jinping's role as the heir apparent, see Alice Miller, "The Case of Xi Jinping and the Mysterious Succession", China Leadership Monitor 30 (2009); Yongnian Zheng and Gang Chen, "Xi Jinping's Rise and Political Implications", China: An International Journal 7, no. 1 (2009).

(28) Wu Lanfu (vice president from 1983 to 1988) was an old-time revolutionary from the Mongol ethnic group. His appointment was intended to show the Party's willingness to recognise and reward the contribution of the various ethnic groups to the Party's cause. Wang Zhen (vice president from 1988 to 1993) was an old-time revolutionary who provided important protection to Deng Xiaoping's family during the Cultural Revolution. Rong Yiren (vice president from 1993 to 1998) was a capitalist, chosen as vice president at a time when the Party wanted to show its commitment to a major round of economic reforms leading the country towards a market economy.

(29) Alice Miller, "The Work System of the New Hu Leadership", China Leadership Monitor no. 24 (2008); Miller, "The Case of Xi Jinping and the Mysterious Succession"; and Zheng and Chen, "Xi Jinping's Rise and Political Implications".

(30) Elizabeth Economy, "China's Not-So-Beautiful Neighborhood", Council on Foreign Relations Blog, 30 Nov. 2012, at < soc-twitter-at-blogs-china8217s_notsobeautiful_neig-113012> [14 Dec. 2012].

(31) The comment was made on 16 April 1987, when Deng Xiaoping received the Drafting Committee of the Basic Law of Hong Kong Special Administrative Zone. See text in Deng Xiaoping's Selected Works, Volume 3.

(32) Dali Yang, Remaking the Chinese Leviathan: Market Transition and the Politics of Governance in China (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2004).

(33) This can be established by examining Deng's comments made on various occasions in the early 1980s, most notably, in the address he delivered to the expanded meeting of the Politburo on 18 August 1981. This address entitled, "Reforming the Leadership Institutions of the Party and State", is available in volume two of his Selected Works.

(34) For Deng Xiaoping's line of thought regarding the top leadership as he neared final retirement, see his comments on 31 May, 16 June, 4 September and 12 November in 1989, all available in volume three of his Selected Works. In particular, his address on 16 June 1989 explicitly established the idea of the "core" of the Party's central leadership (lingdao hexin).

(35) Analysing why a parliamentary constitutional system had evolved in the direction of a presidential system would make an excellent research topic. One attributing factor could be the increasing complexity of governance that demands a division of labour, and this implies that the State Council is responsible for domestic and civilian governance, while the president takes up the foreign and defence portfolios, resulting in a stronger president than in a parliamentary system.

(36), "Rimei chuan Li Peng jiangren Zhonggong guojia zhuxi" (Japanese Media Reports that Li Peng will Serve as China's President", 11 Feb. 2002, at < 200202110108.shtml> [12 Dec. 2012].

(37) Reputedly, Jiang Zemin planned to stay on as the chairman of the National Security Council that he proposed to install beyond 2002, as he later did with his role as the chairman of the Central Military Commission. His colleagues in the Politburo Standing Committee did not want him to retain such great power after retiring as general secretary. For details on the entire episode, see Zhongwei Zhang and Jiewei Yi, 2009: Zhongguo benmingnian (2009: China's Animal Year) (Hong Kong: Mirror Books, 2009).

Wang Zhengxu ( is Associate Professor in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies and Deputy Director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham. He obtained his PhD in Political Science and Education from the University of Michigan. He does research on the political attitudes and behaviours of Chinese and East Asian citizens, and on comparative studies of democratisation.
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Title Annotation:PART TWO
Author:Wang, Zhengxu
Publication:China: An International Journal
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:9CHIN
Date:Aug 1, 2013
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