China’s “Two Sessions” and the return of one-man rule

In this essay, I try to demystify the recently concluded “Two Sessions” in China by giving a brief historical context, as the country slides back into the peril of one-leader-centered politics, reminiscent of a bygone era.

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With the conclusion of the first annual session of the 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) of China on March 13, Xi Jinping has secured a norm-breaking third term as President of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in a “unanimous” vote, just five months after he was “re-elected” as the General Secretary of the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) for the third time in a row. The NPC, which is elected for a term of five years, is a largely ceremonial unicameral national legislature of China and “the highest organ of state power” as per the PRC’s Constitution. It also happens to be the largest law-making body in the world on paper.

Since the foundation of the People’s Republic under the leadership of Mao Zedong in October 1949, mainland China has been under the sole rule of the CCP. The deputies (members) of the NPC, elected from the thirty-five electoral units of China, usually won’t go against CCP-endorsed policies, but rather merely rubber-stamp them.While this has been the case for long, there are eight “legally-sanctioned” minor parties in China, on paper, that exists by playing second fiddle to the CCP without posing any serious challenge to its unrestricted authority.

These parties are given a voice to raise their concerns and suggestions through the so-called Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), a national-level political advisory body that meets once in a year parallelly during the annual session of the NPC. About 60.8 per cent of the total membership of CPPCC belongs to non-CCP parties, along with representation from various sectors of the society and the economy, specialised professions and social groups.

Together, these two annual meetings – the NPC and the CPPCC – are referred to as the “Two Sessions” or Lianghui in the Chinese language. This year, it took place between March 4 and 13, with 2977 deputies attending the NPC session and 2,172 members attending the CPPCC session from all over China.

 A brief history

The NPC and the CPPCC are rubber stamp bodies that simply pass the laws or approve the policies that have been already decided upon by the CCP. While the NPC dates back to 1954, when the first Constitution of China was promulgated, the CPPCC traces its origins back to the foundation of the PRC in 1949 when the CCP invited all friendly political parties to engage in discussions on the road to the proclamation of the new CCP-led People’s Republic in Beijing by replacing the nationalist Kuomintang party-led Republic of China at a time when its victory in the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949) was almost certain.

The first CPPCC of 1949 served effectively as the Constituent Assembly of China for drafting and framing the PRCs first Constitution. The meeting approved the “Common Programme”, which was akin to an interim Constitution and Mao Zedong was chosen as Chairman of the Central People’s Government. The PRC was proclaimed soon after the end of the conference in October 1949.

In the following years, the first permanent Constitution of the PRC was drafted. Exactly five years after the passage of the “Common Programme”, in 1954, the first NPC was convened, which unanimously approved the new Constitution. This was the PRC’s first Constitution since its founding. Later, in 1975 and 1978, two intervening versions of the Constitution were promulgated and the current Constitution came into effect in 1982. However, despite these four Constitutions and other political mechanisms of visible separation of power, the CCP had kept the whole of China, except the island of Taiwan, under its control without any opposition for the last seven-and-a-half decades.

Xi Jinping and his coterie of loyalists in the party-state apparatus who were appointed through last year’s 20th Party Congress and the recently concluded annual session of the NPC, represents the fifth generation in the line of succession of Chinese political leadership since Mao Zedong. China has seen the worst of authoritarianism under the Mao era (1949-1976), whose disastrous policies and initiatives such as the Great Leap Forward (1958-62) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) led to the death of more than 65 million Chinese people – either by forced famines, imprisonment or execution.

Following Mao’s death in 1976, his close aide and designated successor Hua Guofeng followed the policy of “Two Whatevers” (liang ge fanxi), which basically meant “whatever policy decisions Mao made and whatever instructions Mao gave” and rejected all calls for reforms. But a breakthrough occurred two years later during the third plenary session of the eleventh CCP Central Committee held in December 1978, when reform-minded Deng Xiaoping emerged as China’s new paramount leader.

Deng, often regarded as the “Architect of Modern China”’, denounced Mao’s hardline policies and set China on a new course of far-reaching economic reforms, even though he has ruthlessly quelled democratic upheavals during his tenure such as the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.

Moving away from Deng’s “collective leadership” approach

Having seen the worst face of complete centralisation of power in the hands of one leader, Deng initiated key changes in China’s governance system such as the setting of a two-term limit for higher state officials, including the President, Vice-President, and the Premier of the State Council. He never held any post other than chairing two key bodies of power – the Central Military Commission and the now-defunct Central Advisory Commission that existed between 1982 and 1992. Even though the position of CCP General Secretary, the de facto leader of China, has no term limits, there were orderly transitions of power every ten years between 1992 and 2018, in the two generations of leadership (Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao) that followed Deng Xiaoping.

In 2018, when Xi Jinping was re-elected as China’s leader, he removed the term limits for Presidency that were put in place during the Deng era, thereby allowing him to rule for life. He then forced senior leaders into early retirement and incorporated his eponymous ideology, called the Xi Jinping Thought, to the party and state Constitutions, the first leader since Mao to have such an honour while in office. During President Xi’s first two terms, there existed a bare minimum balance of power between the party and the state as Premier Li Keqiang represented a rival faction within the CCP (the Tuanpai or the Youth League Faction).

Xi and his coterie of loyalists’ blur party-state thin line

While the NPC have traditionally tried to maintain an internal balance of power in a way to accommodate the interests of different political factions, now the Xi Jinping faction is the only active faction with exercisable power in the party-state apparatus. The thin line between the Party and the government has been blurred, reminiscent of the pre-1976 era. Xi and his “yes-men” in key positions of the CCP’s Politburo Standing Committee and the PRC’s State Council have completely abandoned the “collective leadership” model pioneered by Deng Xiaoping and all the rival factions within the Party have been sidelined.

Xi has now consolidated his position as the most powerful leader the PRC has seen since Mao, with a firmer grip of control on the party, the government and the military. But, unlike the pre-1976 era, Xi Jinping is leading a more powerful China, which is the second largest economy in the world with a rapidly modernising military. Moreover, China’s humungous industrial base forms the core of global manufacturing and supply chains.

As widely expected, Li Qiang, a long-term ally of Xi Jinping and the former party chief of Shanghai who oversaw the controversial “zero-Covid” policy, was appointed as China’s new Premier in place of Li Keqiang at the recently concluded NPC. With other loyalists such as the new Vice President Han Zheng in the State Council and two other allies being appointed to head the NPC and the CPPCC, Xi Jinping has effectively removed all the rival centres of power within China’s party-state apparatus.

Xi Jinping’s previous two terms were characterised by fueling hyper-nationalism at home and upping the ante on regional disputes and engaging in a global strategic competition with the United States. This is expected to be continued, while some experts believe that the new Premier Li Qiang, having a pro-business image, can exert a moderating influence on Xi, who had placed stricter controls on industries and businesses, during his second term in particular. However, the extent of such an influence remains to be seen.

During the closing session of the 14th NPC, Xi emphasised security as “the bedrock of development, while stability is a pre-requisite for prosperity” and called for building the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) into a “Great Wall of Steel” that safeguards national security, sovereignty and developmental interests of China.

The address reflected similar concerns shared during the 20th CCP Congress held in October 2022, when Xi used the word “security” 91 times. Similarly, an often-repeated phrase is “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, citing China’s “century of humiliation”, and projecting the CCP as the country’s only saviour, especially from external enemies and threats. All these rhetoric is aimed at invoking revanchist sentiments within the Chinese population and thereby using it to sustain its continued legitimacy at home.

After the conclusion of NPC, Chinese state-run media Xinhua wrote, “The (NPC) session called on the Chinese people of all ethnic groups to rally more closely around the CPC Central Committee with Comrade Xi Jinping at its core, to hold high the great banner of socialism with Chinese characteristics, follow the guidance of Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era, and fully implement the guiding principles of the Party’s 20th National Congress…”

In other words, the Party “guides and leads” everything and now there is a singular source of power for the Party and the government, which seems to look like a return of China to one-leader-centered politics after nearly five decades. Hope, the PRC’s evolving political dynamics won’t take a perilous turn, particularly in the foreign and security policy fronts, which is increasingly witnessing conflictual turn of events in the recent past.

Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian
Bejoy Sebastian writes on the contemporary geopolitics and regionalism in eastern Asia and the Indo-Pacific. His articles and commentaries have appeared in Delhi Post (India), The Kochi Post (India), The Diplomat (United States), and The Financial Express (India). Some of his articles were re-published by The Asian Age (Bangladesh), The Cambodia Daily, the BRICS Information Portal, and the Peace Economy Project (United States). He is an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), New Delhi, where he acquired a post-graduate diploma in English journalism. He has qualified the Indian University Grants Commission's National Eligibility Test (UGC-NET) for teaching International Relations in Indian higher educational institutions in 2022. He holds a Master's degree in Politics and International Relations with first rank from Mahatma Gandhi University in Kottayam, Kerala, India. He was attached to the headquarters of the Ministry of External Affairs (Government of India) in New Delhi as a research intern in 2021 and has also worked as a Teaching Assistant at FLAME University in Pune, India, for a brief while.