People’s Republic of China

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People’s Republic of China

Type of Government

The People’s Republic of China is a communist state, jointly led by the Communist Party of China (CPC), the Central People’s Government (CPG), and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). The CPC, which has direct control over most of the central government, operates through a series of committees containing party leaders, government officials and representatives of special-interest groups.

The central government is divided into executive, judicial, and legislative branches. The executive branch is led by the president, who serves as head of state, and the premier, who serves as head of government, assisted by vice premiers and an executive cabinet. The unicameral legislature has nearly three thousand members who are chosen from slates prepared by the Communist Party. The judicial branch contains a Supreme People’s Court, regional and local courts, and military courts. Within the army, most of the power resides in the Central Military Commission.


Archaeological evidence indicates that China was occupied early in human history. The Xia Dynasty, the first recorded culture in China, existed from the twenty-first to the sixteenth century BC. It began as hunter-gatherer tribes and developed into agricultural communities.

During the Shang Dynasty (1700–1027 BC) and the Chou Dynasty (1027–220 BC), small bands of warlords grouped together and developed centralized bureaucratic structures. The Shang and Chou were threatened by raiding nomads from the West and North—during the following centuries such invasions would play major roles in the rise and fall of Chinese governments.

During the Spring and Autumn period (722–481 BC), the central authority disintegrated into regional kingdoms. Their rivalry was mirrored by competition among myriad philosophies, creating what was known as the Hundred Schools of Thought, which included Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism. While the humanist political theories of the philosopher known as Confucius (551–479 BC) and his student Meng-tzu (c. 371–c. 289 BC) infiltrated the structure of local bureaucracies, Taoism—a search for harmony, usually through nature—spread throughout the rural communities.

By the end of the fifth century BC, seven kingdoms remained. The most powerful was the Kingdom of Qin, led by Ch’in Shi Huang Ti (259–210 BC). Because of their superior armed forces, the Qin conquered the other six kingdoms by 221 BC and achieved the first unification of China. Ch’in focused on developing an administrative structure that would enable a relatively small central government to administer to a large population. He also fostered the concept of Legalism, which argued that laws were to be obeyed out of fear, not respect.

During the Qin years the various military walls built during previous dynasties were joined into a three-thousand-mile-long wall, a precursor of the Great Wall of China completed centuries later. Soon after the death of Shi Huang-Tih, the dynasty collapsed under pressure from rebel groups.

The Han Dynasty emerged in 206 BC and instituted massive governmental and cultural reforms, bringing about China’s first dynastic renaissance. For example, it instituted a Confucian civil service that recruited from the populace and became a fixture of Chinese bureaucracy, lasting until the twentieth century. Agriculture and commerce flourished as well, leading to foreign trade. The Han captured large portions of western China to establish the Silk Road—the trade route that carried Chinese silk to Rome. The Han Dynasty is considered one of the greatest in Chinese history. Today the nation’s largest ethnic group calls itself the Han out of reverence for that period.

As would become a pattern during centuries of imperial rule, the Han bureaucracy became dysfunctional through corruption, ineffective leaders who obtained rank through favoritism and family ties, and increasing dissatisfaction among the populace. In AD 220, after more than four hundred years of unified rule, China fragmented into civil war that lasted until the rise of the militaristic Sui Dynasty in 581. It played a transitional role similar to that of the Qin, for the Sui subdued rival powers but also became mired in internal conflict. The Sui fell to the Tang Dynasty, which would establish the second renaissance of imperial China.

The Tang invested heavily in culture, leading to the growth of a new elite. The artistic community flourished, producing lasting works of art, literature, and philosophy that continue to influence Chinese intellectuals. In addition, the Tang initiated massive programs to strengthen the nation’s infrastructure. After three hundred years, however, central authority deteriorated, and dissatisfaction among the populace led to uprisings. The nation again lapsed into a period of upheaval, which is often called the Five Dynasties and Ten Kingdoms Period: Between 907 and 960 five distinct dynasties developed in the North, and at least ten kingdoms rose in the South.

When the Sung Dynasty came into power, it did not follow the example of earlier dynasties, which had vested significant administrative power in regional governors. Instead, the Sung strengthened central power through palace appointments. The next three hundred years were a time of cultural advancement and growth—the population is believed to have doubled to more than 100 million. The government had poor relations with foreign states, however, and faced continual pressure from nomadic groups in the northern and western regions. In 1279 Mongolian forces invaded and established the Yuan Dynasty. It lasted less than a hundred years, but was more open to foreign interaction than the Sung had been. Increased contact with Europe, Korea, and Central Asia led to cultural exchange, making the Yuan Dynasty an important time for the development of Chinese art and science.

The overextended Mongolian empire eventually became ineffective, leading to peasant revolts and economic strain. Zhu Yuanzhang (1328–1398), a former Buddhist monk turned military leader, conquered the last Mongolian emperor and founded the Ming Dynasty in 1368.

The Ming controlled China for more than three hundred years, a relatively prosperous time for the populace. They greatly expanded the educational and civil-service systems, and philosophy and art flourished—it was an era when earlier traditions in the arts were restored and perfected. Like previous dynasties, the Ming faced repeated Mongolian incursions as well as conflict with Japan over the Korean peninsula. Both economically and militarily taxed, they were unable to mount effective resistance to the Manchurian armies that established the Qing Dynasty in 1644.

Through military campaigns into Mongolia and Tibet, the Qing managed to pacify China’s greatest threats, gaining complete control of the region; however, a strong resistance movement based on Han nationalism surfaced during the Qing, and the government faced continual threats of popular rebellion.

Chinese culture changed significantly with the arrival of western traders in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Britain’s main export to China was opium from India, and the drug had a devastating effect on society. When the Qing government tried to restrict opium sales in 1839, the British sent in troops, initiating the first Opium War, a three-year conflict in which the British dominated the Qing and, in the 1844 Treaty of Nanjing, gained control of the Hong Kong territory and unfettered rights to the opium trade.

Political leader Sun Yat-sen (1866–1925) formed the Tongmeng Hui, a revolutionary, republican organization built on three complementary goals: overthrowing the Qing dynasty; installing a parliamentary democratic system; and using socialism to end class struggles and promote popular welfare. The revolution began in October 1911 in Wuchang and spread throughout the country, gathering followers in each province. The Qing abdicated the throne in 1912, and the Kuomintang (National People’s Party) government took control. They renamed the country the Republic of China (ROC).

The ROC government suffered from internal struggles—some politicians wanted to establish a more authoritarian regime while others were pushing for democratic reform. KMT leaders Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975) joined forces with the newly formed Communist Party of China (CPC) to take control of Beijing.

The KMT and the CPC eventually diverged in their plans for China, however. Mao Tse-tung (1893–1976) became the de facto head of the CPC, traveling the country and gathering a peasant militia to his cause. By 1928 the CPC army numbered more than ten thousand. Tensions between the KMT and the CPC turned into civil war. The KMT had the initial advantage. In 1934 the communists and their families, who numbered more than one hundred thousand, were forced to retreat some eight thousand miles from the South to avoid the pursuing KMT forces. The Long March, as it came to be called, lasted more than a year and significantly enhanced Mao’s reputation among the populace. It also turned public opinion against the KMT.

During World War II the KMT developed strong ties with the U.S. government. Although the United States gave financial aid to the nationalist government, it was unwilling to commit to another military conflict. The KMT tried to regain popular favor through a series of reforms, but the tide of the civil war was turning: The KMT lost repeated engagements with the People’s Liberation Army.

The communists captured Beijing in 1949 without significant resistance, and the remaining KMT forces fled to Taiwan, where Chiang Kai-shek declared the establishment of the new ROC government. The People’s Republic of China was officially established in Beijing under control of the Communist Party of China.

Government Structure

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) is divided into twenty-three provinces, five autonomous regions, and four municipalities. Voters in local districts elect the members of the local People’s Congresses, choosing from nominees selected by the Communist Party. The local People’s Congresses then elect members to serve in the provincial People’s Congresses, who then elect the members of the National People’s Congress (NPC).

The unicameral NPC is the highest political body in the government, containing 2,979 members who are elected for five-year terms. Approximately 70 percent to 75 percent of its members represent the Communist Party of China; the remaining seats are distributed among ethnic minorities, special-interest groups, the military, and minority parties. The tiered system of elections makes it unlikely that anyone would become a member of the NPC without the Communist Party’s approval.

The NPC has the power to amend the constitution, enact laws, and elect the president and chairman of the Central Military Commission. Members of the NPC select one hundred fifty members to serve on its Standing Committee, which has the authority to enact or modify legislation between annual sessions of the NPC.

The head of the executive branch is the president, who is elected by the NPC for a maximum of two terms of five years and serves as chief of state and commander of the People’s Liberation Army. The president makes government appointments, attends to foreign affairs, and addresses the public on behalf of the government. The president’s chief deputy is the vice president, who is first in line for presidential succession.

The premier, who is generally a high-ranking member of the CPC, is the head of government and the State Council, which also contains four vice premiers and a number of state counselors and government ministers who oversee the executive departments. Members of the State Council are elected by the NPC for a maximum of two terms of five years. The State Council executes the daily functions of government.

The judicial branch consists of the Supreme People’s Court, which has original and appellate jurisdiction over all of the lower courts. The court’s two hundred judges are appointed by the NPC, with approval and consultation of the president, and may also be removed by NPC mandate. The courts are not independent of partisan politics and generally follow the directives of the Communist Party.

The Central Committee of the CPC appoints the Politburo, a council of some nineteen to twenty-five members, as its leadership. The Politburo then selects nine members to serve on the Politburo Standing Committee, which is considered the most powerful group in the PRC. The highest-ranking member of the Standing Committee is the general secretary, who is usually the president of the nation as well. The Politburo and its Standing Committee are responsible for translating the party agenda into legislation and executive action.

The People’s Liberation Army reports directly to the Central Military Commission, a group of military leaders responsible for determining military policy. The commission exerts considerable influence over governmental policy but is subordinate to the Politburo and the National People’s Congress.

Political Parties and Factions

The Communist Party of China dominates politics in the country, effectively making it a single-party state; however, the government allows opposition parties to remain active and to receive a controlled proportion of representation in the National People’s Congress. The platform of the CPC, which was formed in 1921, is based on “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” as developed by Premier Teng Hsiao-p’ing (1904–1997). It mixes private and state management of the economy.

The Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang (RCCK), founded in 1948 by members who defected from the nationalist-led KMT, and the Chinese Democratic League (CDL), formed in 1941, are minority parties that cooperate closely with the CPC-led government. The RCCK, which took part in setting up the first PRC government after separation from the ROC, is the largest minority party. The CDL is a special-interest party that represents the education industry and promotes free-market reforms.

The Chinese Democracy Party (CDP) is an illegal political organization formed in 1989 by pro-democracy supporters. When it was outlawed by the CPC, many of the party’s leaders fled to the United States. The PRC is reportedly holding some members of the CDP on charges of attempting to overthrow the government. The CDP advocates a peaceful transition to a multiparty democracy and the release of all prisoners who were jailed for advocating democratic reform.

Major Events

After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, a rift developed between government and party leadership concerning the transition to socialism. While some believed in gradual reform through a series of modest advancement plans, Mao and other revolutionary leaders wanted to accelerate the nation’s development with more aggressive social and economic policies.

In 1958 Mao initiated the Great Leap Forward, an ambitious series of educational and economic reforms intended to achieve ten years of cultural evolution in a five-year span. The intention was to develop agriculture and industry at the same time. However, so much labor was siphoned from agriculture to steel making and construction that food shortages became widespread. Thousands starved. The failure of the Great Leap deepened the rift between political factions. The central government began to assume more power while Mao and the revolutionary arm of the CPC were increasingly isolated.

In 1966 Mao launched the Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution, in which his newly formed student army, the Red Guards, detained, arrested, and executed thousands of opposition political figures, social activists, and others believed to oppose the revolutionary platform. The Cultural Revolution was intended to purge capitalist and antisocialist sentiment from the country but led to near anarchy as minor political cliques competed for power.

Mao accompanied his paramilitary operations with reeducation programs—aimed at ridding the country of old habits and old ideas—to create new literature, theater, academic materials, and art to support revolutionary ideals and the fundamentals of socialism. He even instituted a dress code. By 1969 the militant phase of the revolution had ended, and Mao had regained control of the party and the PRC government.

As the nation recovered from the revolution, a new political leadership guided by Premier Chou En-lai (1898–1976) began to steer the country toward a more conservative, socialist agenda. Along with Vice Premier Teng, Chou and his faction helped to end most of the programs initiated during the Cultural Revolution and to free many of the prisoners and exiles captured by the Red Guards.

Chou and Mao both died in 1976, after which members of Mao’s radical faction attempted to regain control of the government. Teng’s clique succeeded in winning popular and governmental support and was able to disarm the revolutionary faction. As part of Teng’s conciliatory political strategy, the administration celebrated Mao as a national hero whose policies were corrupted by power-hungry advisers. Blame for the Cultural Revolution was therefore shifted onto Mao’s closest allies, known as the Gang of Four, which included Mao’s fourth wife, Jiang Qing (1914–1991). The Gang of Four were arrested and sentenced to death. Jiang’s sentence was eventually commuted, but she remained in prison until she committed suicide in 1991.

Twenty-First Century

Market-oriented economic reforms in the 1980s and 1990s helped to strengthen China’s economy and to make China a major competitor in international markets. China’s greatest challenges in this century will include coping with overpopulation and loss of natural resources. China suffers from severe pollution, coupled with rapid deforestation.

China faces numerous issues in foreign affairs, including the continuing disagreement over the sovereignty of Taiwan. While the government considers Taiwan to be a part of the PRC, the Taiwanese government functions largely as an independent nation. The PRC has threatened to use military force against the island nation if Taiwanese leaders officially declare independence.

China’s relationships with some members of the United Nations are strained because of unresolved human-rights issues. Human-rights organizations believe that China regularly holds hundreds of political prisoners and engages in human-rights abuses to control the populace.

Fairbank, John King, and Merle Goldman. China: A New History. 2nd ed. Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2006.

Meisner, Maurice. Mao’s China and After: A History of the People’s Republic. 3rd ed. New York: The Free Press, 1999.

Yang Zhong. Local Government and Politics in China: Challenges from Below. Armonk: M. E. Sharpe, 2003.