The Power of Separation

By QIAN GANG

Keywords: power of decision-making, power of administration and power of monitoring

If I suggested to my audience that “separation of powers,” the tripartite model of state governance common to many of the world’s democracies, exists in the Chinese Communist Party too, they would probably revile me. “You must be dreaming!” they would scoff, sliding off their shoes to use as projectiles. I’ll leave that thought hanging in mid-air for a moment as I indulge in a bit of background.

In March 2011, at China’s annual National People’s Congress (NPC), Wu Bangguo, the NPC’s chairman and a member of the powerful Politburo Standing Committee, made a statement that later became shortened and popularized as the “Five Will Nots,” or wu bu gao:

China will not do rotational multiparty rule; will not do diversity of guiding ideologies; will not do “separation of powers” and a bicameral system; will not do privatization [of property].

In fact, this idea comes from Deng Xiaoping. In 1987, when Deng had a mind to promote political reform, he stressed that China would not follow a multiparty system and separation of powers, or san quan fen li. When Deng opposed “separation of powers” — in Chinese, literally “separation of three powers” — he was referring broadly to the Western sense of the idea, Montesquieu’s division of political power into the executive, legislative and judiciary.


[ABOVE: Wu Bangguo addresses the NPC in 2011 and rules out Western-style separation of powers.]

It may or may not surprise readers to know that the Chinese Communist Party has its own version of “separation of powers.” This is the idea of a tripartite functioning of power within the Party itself, the three powers being: power of decision-making; power of administration; power of monitoring.

In theory, the highest decision-making organ of the Chinese Communist Party is the National Congress of the CCP. This power is exercised, or administered, by the Central Committee, Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee on which the congress decides. The Central Commission carries out monitoring for Discipline Inspection.

Back in the 1950s, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union sought to cleanse itself of the tyranny of Joseph Stalin. At the Chinese Communist Party’s 8th National Congress, held two and a half years after Stalin’s death, it was decided that a permanent body would be constituted to exercise decision-making power while the congress was not in session. At the same time, a secretariat would be formed to execute these decisions. Finally, oversight committees would be set up at various levels to monitor the Party’s work.

It was just a year later, however, that Mao Zedong fomented his Anti-Rightist Movement, re-centralizing and monopolizing these three powers. The tragedies of the Great Chinese Famine and the Cultural Revolution followed over the next two decades. When Deng Xiaoping rose to power after the end of the Cultural Revolution he singled out over-concentration of power as the root sickness of the old political system under Mao. In the Deng Xiaoping era, through the efforts of Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, there was some progress in building mechanisms to check power, but that progress was slow.

In today’s Chinese Communist Party the root of decision-making power is somewhat obscure. National congresses are held only once every five years, but these are carefully scripted events, everyone clapping at the right moments, raising their hands to approve matters that have already been decided. After this staged event, the responsibilities of the Party “delegates” are at an end.


[ABOVE: Wen Jiabao addresses the National People's Congress in 2010, photo by Remko Tanis, available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license. While the NPC is supposed to have substantial lawmaking powers, the real power lies with the Central Committee's Politburo.]

The Party’s administrative power is massive. Both decision-making power and administrative power are in fact concentrated in the hands of the Central Committee — more precisely, in the hands of the Politburo Standing Committee.

The monitoring of power is a difficult proposition: the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection is controlled by the Central Committee, which means essentially that the sick patient is also the doctor.

The idea of “three powers” within the Chinese Communist Party dates to the era of state-owned enterprise reform in the 1990s. On November 27, 1995, the People’s Daily reported the remarks of the boss of one state-owned enterprise, who said there was a need to create “scientific management systems in which the powers of decision-making, administration and monitoring and their related mechanisms were mutually independent.”

If applied to political power, this idea of “mutually independent mechanisms” is quite significant. Later, however, when the Party introduced the idea of “three powers” into the political sphere, the word “independent” was left out.

Corruption has steadily worsened in China under the leadership of Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. In the five years between the 15th National Congress (1997) and the 16th National Congress (2002), the Party investigated at least 98 provincial and ministerial level officials. The first high-level official to be pulled from his perch during Hu Jintao’s term in office was Cheng Weigao, the top leader of Hubei province.

In 2003, as there was increased discussion about “corruption among principles” — meaning officials with chief responsibility for particular offices — the phrase “three powers within the Party” began appearing in the media. But if anyone at the time had tried to elevate the debate by using the phrase “separation of powers within the Party,” or dang nei san quan fen li, they would have been stepping into a forbidden zone.

On November 3, 2004, a brand new weekly publication in Hubei province called the New Weekly Report, or Xin Zhou Bao, ran a gutsy report called, “New Trends in Official Corruption.” The report argued that without the proper monitoring mechanisms, the institutions of power inevitably become hotbeds of corruption. It suggested further that there be “separation of power” within the Party, that the powers of decision-making, administration and monitoring be entrusted to different branches.


[ABOVE: Hubei's New Weekly Report runs a daring article on separation of power and gets shut down in 2004.]

When this report was re-published by other media, some editors decided to include “separation of powers within the Party” in the headline. The report quickly drew fire from officials in the Central Propaganda Department. Under pressure, provincial officials in Hubei moved immediately to shut down the New Weekly Report, which had published only seven issues. All at once, the phrase “separation of powers within the Party” became taboo.

The phrase “power of decision-making, power of administration and power of monitoring,” however, became more and more popular. The following is a graph of articles on People’s Daily Online using the term “three powers,” or san quan, in recent years:

A meeting of the Central Committee for Discipline Inspection in early 2006 marked an intensification of the official campaign against corruption. Conveying the “spirit” of the meeting, an article in the People’s Daily listed out for the first time the “three powers”:

. . . [The Party] must build and improve power structures for mutual conditioning and mutual coordination of the powers of decision-making, administration and monitoring, improving oversight mechanisms . . .


[ABOVE: A 2006 article in the People's Daily lists out the "three powers" for the first time in central state media.]

Notice that the report refers to “conditioning” — or restriction — and to “coordination,” but not to “independence.” This phrase was destined to become a formal phrase, a new watchword, making it into the political report to the 17th National Congress in 2007.


[ABOVE: The People's Daily mentions the "three powers" in an article about the 17th National Congress in 2007.]

The term “three powers” appeared more frequently in the wake of the 17th National Congress. There were two peaks of use, the first in 2008, when the State Council pushed a program of institutional restructuring (and the term “separation of powers” actually appeared in the official Xi’an Daily). The second peak came in 2011, when the fourth full meeting of the Central Committee again appealed for a tough stance on corruption. Clearly, the phrase “three powers” is directly associated with administrative restructuring and anti-corruption.


[ABOVE: The official Xi'an Daily uses the term "separation of powers" in a headline dealing with the "three powers."]

As the 18th National Congress approaches, some language in the official press has linked the “three powers” of the Chinese Communist Party with political reform. People’s Forum, a magazine supplement of the People’s Daily, ran an article in its July 2012 edition by Xu Yaotong, a professor at the China National School of Administration. Professor Xu wrote: “In its top-level design, political reforms must take reasonable steps to separate the power structure into separate institutional structures [exercising] the ‘power of decision-making, power of administration and power of monitoring,’ so that these ‘three powers’ can operate on their own and mutually check [one another].’” This idea of three powers that are “separate” and “operating on their own” was a step closer to the idea of independently operating powers or branches.

There have also been increasingly bold calls for reform of the Party power structure from Party insiders. Unpublishable in China’s mainstream media, these have been passed along privately, through e-mail and social media. One of the most notable examples has come from Cao Siyuan, a well-known constitutional scholar in China. In a piece called, “Three Suggestions for the 18th National Congress,” Cao argued that the most serious issue for the Party was the concentration of the powers of decision-making and monitoring in the hands of those also charged with implementing policies. He offered a proposal for the separation and mutual balancing of powers within the Party.

According to Cao’s proposal, the number of delegates to the National Congress, which exercises decision-making power, should be trimmed down. This smaller, more streamlined body would then serve a permanent role for the five-year duration of each congress. Delegates to national congresses, now numbering more than 2,000, would be reduced to around 500 permanently serving members who would be salaried and meet on an annual basis. This body would have the power to elect or remove officials in administrative and monitoring organs, but they would not have the power to interfere in these activities.

The delegates in Cao’s proposal would elect from among themselves seven to nine committee members to form an Executive Commission (like the present Standing Committee) to serve an executive function. The Executive Commission would report on and be responsible for the work of the National Congress, offering opposing opinions and prompting reconsideration of policy decisions.


[ABOVE: Flowers outside the Communist Party Museum are formed in the shape of the Party's flag. Photo by z_fishies available at Flickr.com under Creative Commons license.]

The National Congress would also, under Cao’s plan, select five to seven members to form a Discipline Inspection Commission to exercise a monitoring role. The primary responsibility of this commission would be to monitor the conduct of Party officials of approximate rank (including delegates to the National Congress and members of the Executive Commission). They could not, however, interfere in the daily business of the congress or other officials.

Importantly, officials serving as delegates to the National Congress, or as members of the Executive Commission Discipline Inspection Commission, would not be permitted to hold other positions concurrently.

Cao believes that his plan could ensure that decision-making power in its present form could be made substantial instead of empty, and at the same time elevate the power of monitoring to an independent status, so that the three institutions provide separate checks — and so that the executive institution, the most easily abused, can be effectively monitored.

This is one form of intra-Party reform as proposed by a moderate within the Party. Nevertheless, for many within the Party, this proposal is revolutionary if not outright subversive.

If separation of powers occurred within the Party, this would effectively mean victory over the existing, entrenched system of concentration of power within the executive. That is something that won’t happen at the upcoming 18th National Congress. Nevertheless, the watchword “three powers” is one to watch carefully at the 18th National Congress. Will the phrase that was included in the political report five years ago make it into the upcoming political report? If it does, will the phrasing change in any way, and how? Will the idea of three powers edge closer to the idea – and perhaps even the likelihood – of their independent exercise? Is there any possibility for the implementation of a permanent body of delegates such as that envisioned by Professor Cao? And if this does not become an agenda for the moment, will there be any mention of a timetable for such reform?

Leave a Comment