John G. BLAIR and Jerusha H. McCORMACK

The People’s Republic of China, unlike other nations, is governed by a dual system. The government, as the visible face of this system, includes familiar branches called legislative, executive, and judicial. But behind this government the high leadership of the Chinese Communist Party determines policy at all levels, which the government merely implements and disseminates.

The dual governance system of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has proven to be an effective way to cope with the extraordinary problems of managing a polity on China’s massive scale. Since the end of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, this system is unusual in the world today, perhaps even unique, because the center of power lies behind the government, not within it. For comparative purposes it is important to clarify how the present order came about and how it functions.

Westerners often assume that the Chinese government operates as the power governing the country. But in the PRC, the government is merely the outward and visible face of the governance system. Behind (and above) the government is the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The Party determines policy and oversees appointments to all levels of government and to Party supervisory committees, even in corporations and non-governmental organizations. In effect, the CCP comprises a “shadow” government that shares some superficial characteristics with the “shadow cabinet” in the U.K. In England the “shadow” ministers watch over (and criticize) their official counterparts as part of their role as a “loyal opposition.” But in the United Kingdom they have no power as such and can only appeal to the people at large when they have criticisms to make. In the PRC, the “shadow” officials are active at all levels of organization, and they, in fact, are in charge, dominating their government counterparts through the dual system of governance.

Soviet Origins

The Party-State dual governance system originated in Soviet Russia. Vladimir Lenin (1870–1924) put forth the idea that the Communist Party’s task was to provide political leadership, rather than actually to govern. Under Josef Stalin (1879–1953), however, power became intensely centralized, to the point of overriding any possibility of a division of power between Party and government. The Soviet system, then, became a de facto unitary governing system under the Party. The chief mechanism for maintaining central control was that every major government and military office had a duplicate counterpart in the Party structure. The job of the Party representative was to double-check in advance on any action that might be undertaken by any government official. In case of disagreement between the two, the Party view prevailed, on the grounds that overall effectiveness required a coherent source of policy.

History in China

The Nationalist (GMD, Guomindang) Party (as constituted in 1919), led by Sun Yat-sen until his death in 1925, was the first to adopt the dual governing system of the Soviet Union. This represented a significant shift away from the unitary political control system that had been characteristic of Chinese political history for thousands of years. As a Leninist party structure, this one too was designed to protect against possible subversion.

After the establishment of the PRC in 1949, this dual system from the USSR became established national practice. After the third session of the Party’s eleventh congress in 1978, Deng Xiaoping and other leaders decided to reform the dual relationship so that the Party would be more discreet in exercising its control. This evolution was part of the reform process that tended to decentralize the governance system nationally.

Contemporary Party-State Relations

The relationship between the CCP and the State begins with the legislative branch of State power, the NPC (National People’s Congress) and extends through the executive and judicial branches of government. The relationship between the Party and the executive branch is mainly exhibited in the Party’s political, ideological, and organizational leadership, while the Party’s control over the judicial branch is shored up by policies that ensure against undue independence on the part of magistrates and judges.

The Legislative Branch

As the primary legislative branch, the NPC (with its local branches) has been set up under the direct leadership of the CCP. Members are designated for five-year terms and may be reappointed. Legislative proposals, including constitutional amendments and other proposals, either for new legislation or revisions of existing laws and regulations, are presented to the NPC and its committees at various levels by corresponding Party committees. In recent years the NPC has resisted rubberstamping legislation proposed to it, at least when controversial issues are involved. The most visible example involves the role of private property within the socialist State. Starting in 1993, draft laws were long debated in the NPC, leading to significant changes to the legislation that became the 2007 Property Law. Though the effectiveness of this law remains to be tested in practice, it does legitimize the registration of private property rights for the first time since the creation of the PRC in 1949.

Any change in the country’s political orientation, significant economic and social development policy guidelines, highly influential projects, and the like are decided first by the Party, and then sent to the NPC as proposals, which, through its legitimating procedures, become decisions of the State. According to the nominating criteria required in relevant Party regulations and laws, CCP committees recommend appropriate people to fill the important positions in all branches of the government and bring these nominations before the NPC. These nominations, made by the Party for the State, constitute a major organizational safeguard by which the Party exercises its direction of State affairs and maintains its political centrality.

The CCP’s leadership dominates the State’s executive and judicial branches. Party organizations established within the National Congress and its committees at various levels report regularly to Party committees, and maintain oversight over the People’s Congress.

The Executive Branch

The relationship between the CCP and the executive branch (i.e., the State Council and local administrative branches) is one of political, ideological, and organizational leadership. Politically the CCP defines principles, fixing the nation’s course and direction and making all important decisions. In such an arrangement the will of the Party becomes the will of the State by means of legislative procedures.

These political principles find their guiding ideologies within the Party as well. As one Chinese political scientist recently reaffirmed, as translated into English by Qin Chuan: “The Party applies Marxist worldview and methodology in order to guide all administrative staff. The Party’s propaganda organ uses ideological build-up, spiritual-civilization construction and propaganda education to educate cadres in how to oppose corruption and interference from out-dated thinking patterns, so as to better serve the people” (Lu 2001, 261).

Organizational leadership follows naturally and inherently; it is accomplished by the CCP at all levels through Party organizations established within every department of the State. In practice, that means that a person or a committe
e responsible to the Party is active at every level of organization. Although these commonly operate out of public view, their influence is great. The CCP and local committees also recommend candidates for administrative leadership positions, who are to be elected by legislative branches. The Organization Department of the Party has particular responsibility for nominations and appointments.

The Judicial Branch

The relationship between the CCP and the judicial branch (i.e., The People’s Court and The People’s Procuratorate (Attorney General’s Office) is one of organization, that is, setting up guidelines, and support through community education and coordination with other departments within the State. The way this relationship is designed to work has been described recently by Lu Shigong, a Chinese political scientist, as one in which “the Party supports the judicial endeavor to strengthen Party leadership, educates citizens, protects the judicial from external interference in order to preserve its independence, guarantees this independence by coordinating its relationships with other departments, using Party members within the judicial branch itself” (Lu, 2001, 286–290). If the independence of the judicial body is enhanced by coordinating its activities with other departments of the State, the result may be greater governing coherence but at the price of judicial independence.


Westerners will recognize here the three branches of governance with which they are familiar: the legislative, the executive, and the judicial. That familiarity should not, however, lead to easy assumptions that the Chinese dual system is not so different after all. In all of these domains—and at all levels from the local to the national—the Party is in control, deciding not only broad policies but also who will fill each role within the governing structure. Moreover, each position in the governmental hierarchy will have a shadowing “twin” in the Party structure. The National People’s Congress is the centerpiece of the legislative process, composed entirely of members approved by the Party. The same is true of all members of the government, the courts, the police, provincial and local committees, and so on.

The National People’s Congress appears here on the left as the primary organ of the State, due to its role in officializing decisions that originated in the Party structure diagrammed below. The State Council, which serves to implement decisions, normally takes its direction from the Central Committee, a primary organ of the Party. The Central Committee has about three hundred members, bringing together major figures in the Party, the State, and the military. The Central Committee in its turn is directed by a standing political committee known as the Politburo, currently with twenty-five members. The Politburo normally meets once a month, but its day-to-day business is handled by a standing committee of nine. These nine individuals are responsible above all others for formulating decisions and seeing to their application throughout the administrative system. This is the level of governance where alternative policies can be debated, though always outside of public view. Its decisions are said to be made by consensus rather than a voting process.

The arrows in this diagram point upwards to indicate how decisions generated within the Party apparatus end up as officialized by the National People’s Congress. Through all these levels, the key factor is control over who will occupy positions in the Party hierarchy as well as in the State. Appointments remain under the control of the Party leadership. There are roughly 70 million members of the Communist Party, not quite 6 percent of the population. This group defines the political class in today’s China and functions as a leadership oligarchy.

The PRC dual system allows the vast governing apparatus to be responsive to an authoritative and centralized source of decision making. If the system sometimes seems unduly repressive to some Western observers, it also permits exceptional attention to long-term needs as opposed to short-term problems.

Further Reading

Blair, J. G., & McCormack, J. H. (2008). Western civilization with Chinese comparisons, 2nd ed. Shanghai: Fudan University Press.

Lieberthal, K. (2004). Governing China: From revolution through reform, 2nd ed. New York: Norton.

Lu Shigong. (2001). Studies on the contemporary Chinese party and government relation. Shanghai: People’s Press.

Shambaugh, D. (Ed.). (2000). The modern Chinese state. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.

A governor may commit arson while the governed are not allowed to light a lamp.

只许州官放火, 不许百姓点灯

Zhī xǔ zhōu guān fang huǒ, bù xǔ bǎi xìng diǎn dēng

Source: Blair, John G., & McCormack, Jerusha H. (2009). Governance System, Dual. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 910–909. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

Governance System, Dual (Liǎngyuánhuà lǐngdǎo zhìdù 两元化领导制度)|Liǎngyuánhuà lǐngdǎo zhìdù 两元化领导制度 (Governance System, Dual)

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