|Seven men tightly controlling 1.4 billion Chinese.|
Politburo members have never faced competitive election, making it to the top thanks to their patrons, abilities and survival instincts in a political culture where saying the wrong thing can lead to a life under house-arrest, or worse.
Formally, their power stems from their positions in the politburo. But in China, personal relations count much more than job titles. A leader's influence rests on the loyalties he or she builds with superiors and proteges, often over decades. That was how Deng Xiaoping remained paramount leader long after resigning all official posts, and it explains why party elders sometimes play a key role in big decisions.
The politburo controls three other important bodies and ensures the party line is upheld. These are the Military Affairs Commission, which controls the armed forces; the National People's Congress, or parliament; and the State Council, the government's administrative arm.
The Chinese Communist Party's 73-million membership makes it the biggest political party in the world. Its tight organisation and ruthlessness help explain why it is also still in power. The party oversees and influences many aspects of people's lives - what they learn at school and watch on TV, their jobs and housing, even the number of children they are allowed.
It is an elite group made up largely of government officials, army officers and model workers. Business people are also now being invited to join its ranks. It is unrepresentative of China as a whole. Only 20% of members are women, 77% are over 35 years old and 31% have a college degree. It is also obsessive about control, regularly showing itself capable of great brutality in suppressing dissent or any challenge to its authority.
Joining the party brings significant privileges, which explains why membership continues to rise. Members get access to better information, their children get better schooling, and many jobs are only open to members.
Most significantly in China, where personal relationships are often more important than ability, members get to network with decision-makers influencing their careers, lives or businesses.
To join, applicants need the backing of existing members and to undergo exhaustive checks and examination by their local party branch. They then face a year's probation, again involving assessments and training. The party has a pyramid structure resting on millions of local-level party organisations across the country and reaching all the way up to the highest decision-making bodies in Beijing.
In theory, the top of the pyramid is the National Party Congress, which is convened once every five years and brings together more than 2,000 delegates from party organisations across the country.
The congress' main function is to "elect" a central committee of about 200 full members and 150 lower-ranking or "alternate" members", though in fact almost all of these people are approved in advance. In turn, the central committee's main job is to elect a new politburo and its smaller standing committee, where real decision-making powers lie.
Under China's 1982 constitution, the most powerful organ of state is meant to be the National People's Congress (NPC), China's parliament. In truth, it is little more than a rubber stamp for party decisions.
The congress is made up of nearly 3,000 delegates elected by China's provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities and the armed forces. Delegates hold office for five years, and the full congress is convened for one session each year.
This sporadic and unwieldy nature means that real influence lies within a standing committee of about 150 members elected from congress delegates. It meets every couple of months. In theory, the congress has the powers to change the constitution and make laws.
But it is not, and is not meant to be, an independent body in the Western sense of a parliament. For a start, about 70% of its delegates - and almost all its senior figures - are also party members. Their loyalty is to the party first, the NPC second.
What actually tends to happen, therefore, is that the party drafts most new legislation and passes it to the NPC for "consideration", better described as speedy approval. The NPC has shown some signs of growing independence over the past decade. In a notable incident in 1999, it delayed passing a law bringing in an unpopular fuel tax. It has also been given greater leeway drafting laws in areas like human rights.
The congress also "elects" the country's highest leaders, including the state president and vice-president, the chairman of the government's own Military Affairs Commission and the president of the Supreme People's Court. But again, these elections are very different from the Western ideal.
Every significant decision affecting China's 1.3bn people is first discussed and approved by a handful of men who sit on the party's political bureau (politburo), the nexus of all power in China. The 24-member Politburo is elected by the party's central committee. But real power lies with its nine-member standing committee, which works as a kind of inner cabinet and groups together the country's most influential leaders.
How the standing committee operates is secret and unclear. But its meetings are thought to be regular and frequent, often characterised by blunt speaking and disagreement. Senior leaders speak first and then sum up, giving their views extra weight. The emphasis is always on reaching a consensus, but if no consensus is reached, the majority holds sway.
Once a decision has been made, all members are bound by it. Although policy disagreements and factional fighting are widely believed to take place in private, it is extremely rare for these to break into the public domain.
When they do – as happened in 1989 when the leadership battled over how to deal with the Tiananmen protests – it is a sign of all-out power struggle. New politburo members are chosen only after rigorous discussion and investigation of their backgrounds, experience and views.
Members of the standing committee also share out the posts of party general secretary, premier, chairman of the National People's Congress, and head of the Central Discipline Inspection Commission.
The full politburo tends to include party secretaries from big municipalities like Beijing and Shanghai, and from important provinces like Guangdong. Recently, the wealth generated by China's economic reforms has led some analysts to suggest the power of the centre is waning.
It is pointed out that party secretaries of large provinces like Sichuan and Guangdong are in charge of populations bigger than most European countries, and that their tax revenues are vital to Beijing. But it is difficult to see them getting free from Beijing's political grip so long as the country's political system remains so closed.
The State Council is the cabinet which oversees China's vast government machine. It sits at the top of a complex bureaucracy of commissions and ministries and is responsible for making sure party policy gets implemented from the national to the local level.
In theory it answers to the National People's Congress, but more often the State Council submits legislation and measures which the NPC then approves. The State Council's most important roles are to draft and manage the national economic plan and the state budget, giving it decision-making powers over almost every aspect of people's lives. It is also responsible for law and order.
The full council meets once a month, but the more influential standing committee comes together more often, sometimes twice a week. This committee is made up of the country's premier, four vice-premiers, state councillors and the secretary-general.
Military Affairs Commission
China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) has always defended the party as much as national borders. During the early years of communist rule, most of the country's leaders owed their positions to their military success during the civil war, and links between them and the PLA remained very close.
The party's control over the armed forces and their nuclear arsenal is institutionalised through the Central Military Affairs Commission. The 11-man commission has the final say on all decisions relating to the PLA, including senior appointments, troop deployments and arms spending. Almost all the members are senior generals, but the most important posts have always been held by the party's most senior leaders.
In theory, the commission's chairman is elected by the National People's Congress. But in practice, the job automatically goes to the party's most powerful figure, who effectively becomes commander-in-chief.
The chairmanship was held by Mao Zedong and then Deng Xiaoping, who stayed in the job after he had resigned from all other positions, suggesting to some analysts that this is the real source of power in China.
Jiang Zemin, who became Chairman in 1989, had none of the military background or cachet of his predecessors. But by careful promotions of supporters and budget increases, Jiang ensured strong support from the military and within the Commission. He resigned in 2004, handing the chairmanship to a man with even weaker military links, Hu Jintao, who has since tried to build his own power base in the military.
Twenty years ago, soldiers in China's People's Liberation Army (PLA) spent as much time on "political work" and reading party speeches as military training. Reforms introduced since the 1980s have made the armed forces much more professional. They have shed one million men in a bid to concentrate on quality not quantity. Emphasis is being put on better training, better weapons and better pay.
Nevertheless, the military's position as defender of the party means it will never be de-linked from politics. Officers and men still have to declare their loyalty to party principles, study its teachings and read leaders' important pronouncements. PLA officers are also party members, and there is a separate party machine inside the military to make sure rank and file stay in line with party thinking.
In keeping with its more professional role, the PLA has lost influence over non-military affairs. It was forced by Jiang Zemin to give up a vast business empire. It also appears to be losing clout at the top of the party, where there is no PLA representative on the politburo's standing committee.
Some analysts think PLA generals are happy with this, so long as they retain influence over the areas which really matter to the military – specifically the Taiwan issue and relations with America.
There have been suggestions that on at least one of these – US relations – military thinking is different to the party leadership's. Senior military figures are thought to be far more wary of US intentions in the region, especially regarding Taiwan.
Provinces and townships
China is governed as 22 provinces, five "autonomous" regions, four municipalities - considered so important they are under central government control (Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin and Chongqing) - and two special administrative regions.
The people in charge of these bodies – a group of about 7,000 senior party and government leaders - are all appointed by the party's organisation department. Although many are powerful individuals – the governor of Sichuan province rules over 85 million people – their ability to deviate from the party line is limited because they know their next career move would be at stake.
Nevertheless, most analysts agree the centre has lost some control to the regions in the past two decades, especially in the economic field.
There has even been speculation that some provinces want to break away from central control, though this is seen as highly unlikely to be allowed.
Power and decisions flow down from the top level to an intermediate level of counties and cities, and finally to the local-level townships. At each level the party and government structures sit side by side, with the party's representative always the more powerful. Thus a province's party general-secretary takes precedence over its governor.
Each level has its own local People's Congress which elects its own government for periods of three or five years. These local governments have been given limited leeway to adopt local regulations in keeping with their situation.
China's laws reflect a complicated mix of party priorities, a Soviet-inspired system set up after 1949, and a raft of new legislation passed since 1979 to haul the country's modernising economy into line with those of major foreign investors like the US and Europe. But the party still comes first. Laws are seen as a way to manage the economy and people's lives, rarely to protect them from the state or enshrine individual rights.
Law-making is also complicated. The National People's Congress is responsible for drafting laws covering areas like human rights and taxation. But in other areas, the State Council and local governments can legislate too. Even once laws have been passed there is no guarantee they will always be respected.
Often provincial governments and state-owned enterprises view court decisions as something to be negotiated, not obeyed. And for the party and state, the ‘rule of law' is not allowed to undermine its own interests, as pro-Tibetan independence activists and followers of the outlawed Falun Gong spiritual movement know to their cost.
Both main legal organs answer to the National People's Congress. The Supreme People's Procuratorate is the highest legal supervisory body, charged with safeguarding the constitution, laws and people's rights.
The Supreme People's Court sits at the top of a pyramid of people's courts going down to the local level. Public security organs are in charge of the investigation, detention and preparatory examination of criminal cases. The people's procuratorates are responsible for approving arrests and initiating and providing assistance to public prosecutions. Cases are heard and judged in the people's courts.
Senior leaders sometimes retain great influence over decisions and appointments long after they officially step down from power. The most notorious example was Deng Xiaoping, who remained paramount leader even when his only remaining official post was chairman of the China Bridge Association.
More tellingly, it was Deng and other "retired" leaders – and not the Politburo standing committee – who are thought to have made the fateful decisions to declare martial law and then send in the army to clear Tiananmen Square during the 1989 protests.
The issue is still important today. Chinese President Hu Jintao is believed to be trying to reduce the influence of former President Jiang Zemin, even though he no longer has an official post. Part of the reason the elders wield such influence is because of the patron-protege nature of Chinese politics.
Mr Jiang and other members of his generation took care to manoeuvre their own supporters into the politburo and government bureaucracy. This should ensure they at least retain some influence over the new generation, even if that influence wanes as the new leaders gain more experience.
It is not simply about power for power's sake. In China, retiring leaders know that the verdict on their achievements can easily be reversed. They also have to look out for their children, whose wealth and success becomes vulnerable to attack if their own influence fades.
As compensation, elders get a privileged and pampered retirement. They are guaranteed elite bodyguards, special housing, secretaries and drivers, as well as access to restricted documents and information.
Party members suspected of corruption, bad management or breaking with the party line are liable to be hauled before discipline inspection commissions, set up to deal with internal party discipline and to monitor abuses.
As economic reforms have gathered pace, corruption has become probably the single most damaging issue for the party's standing. As a result, there have been consistent campaigns to root out corrupt officials and give maximum media coverage to a few, high-profile punishments. For example, Shanghai party chief Chen Liangyu, who was also a member of the Politburo, was arrested in 2006 accused of mis-using the city's pension fund.
More often, powerful party members are usually able to protect themselves, their families and proteges from any enquiries or public criticism. And because it is the party which investigates the party - it is not prepared to tolerate outsiders monitoring its members' behaviour - the commissions are always prone to interference from higher up.
On the occasions that the party has acted against senior members, its motives have been questioned. For example, experts say the fall of Mr Chen is as much about Chinese President Hu Jintao's attempts to consolidate his power as it is about corruption.
Nevertheless, the discipline inspection commissions do have privileged access to information about people. Their control over networks of informers and personal files makes them particularly feared.