Chinese political system?

Reading an article today about the longstanding China-Taiwan dispute brought to mind something which has puzzled me for decades. How, at a pragmatic level, does the Chinese government go about making decisions? Plainly it’s an oligarchy rather than an autocracy. It defies common sense that ALL decisions can be reached by consensus within the ruling circle. How are disagreements resolved? For that matter, how big is the ruling circle, how does one get in and how often does it turn over?

I realize this is a big ol’ beach ball of a question. A brilliant terse explanation would be great, but I imagine it’ll make more sense to refer me to other resources (on or off the web). That’s okay. I don’t mind doing a little work.

I’m not so much interested in the structure of the Chinese political system. For that, Wiki gives an adequate (albeit terse) explanation. As stated in the OP, I’m interested in the pragmatic aspects. By comparison, in dicussing the US system, it’s helpful to know there is a president, a bi-chameral legislature and an independent judiciary. But that doesn’t give one any particular insight into how a policy decision like invading Iraq came to pass. In any system, there will be a contraity of views. How China works through those to make decisions it what I’m after.

The Standing Committee of the Politburo exercises the greatest amount of power. Like you say, it operates by consensus, and has a limited number of members, less than a dozen. One of the few insights into how it actually works was made in the Tiananmen Papers, a collection of documents published a few years back which allegedly are a compilation of secret minutes of how the meetings ran. There are questions about the authenticity of the documents.

To summarize my view of the reading of those papers, and taking them at face value, there appears to be a keen amount of jockeying among factions to isolate and divide opposition in order to form consensus. Deng Xiaoping appeared to revel in these politics, almost setting factions against each other, and then weighing in for final decisions. There also appeared to be a considerable amount of deference to his decisions, too.

Honestly, though I don’t think that the dynamics of that group are too terribly different from any other consensus-seeking body that you might be familiar with, like maybe deciding among friends where to go out for a drink or reaching decisions among a workgroup on a business plan, or something like that. The stakes are higher, and the politics are more brusing, but it doesn’t seem to be an alien concept of reaching decisions.

It isn’t clear, of course, to what extent Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao exercise power in a similar or different way to Deng, so far as I know.

Nobody can really report from inside the inner circle, but there are definitely in-fights and plots. Read up about Hu Yaobang - a “radical” reformer who wanted political liberation added to Deng’s alterations of the economic system. He was forced out of power, but not until he’d

There must be some kind of quasi-democracy going on within the Great Hall. I’d guess it’s much like the workings of a company board, with the CEO being the king pin, but the other directors having their say.

Much as I abhorr their human rights record, and think Mao was as bad as Hitler, I can’t help being impressed at the ability of the government to run a country of that size.

Oops: “He was forced out of power, but not until he’d been visibly in contravention of Deng’s political direction.”

I should also mention that there has been a treasure trove of minutes of the Soviet Politburo. The amount of debate in behind those closed doors was a surprise to me. I expected Khrushchev (or whomever) to say, This is the policy! and everyone would nod along. The debate over invading Afghanistan while Andropov was in power was particularly spirited.

There are first among equals. Even Mao didn’t always get his way. Even with a supreme leader, and really it’s only been Mao and to a lesser extent Deng, there are still factions and support needed. I suspect the political manuvering is such that it’s a vote without taking a vote, and the minority acquiese. jimm and CEO board of directors analogy is probably pretty apt.

Hu Yaobang was never a leader and it was a complete non-event at the time. His whole mandate was dubious in the extreme and based on two seperate out of context utterances by a dying Mao.

(sure Mao: The Untold Story will contradict everything but I’ve read more balanced conclusions from the KMT in the 1980’s)

You can’t run a country like that. If all you have is a single dictator and layers of yes-men, none of whom dare even peep, that dictator will pursue utterly unworkable plans well past the point of no return if only to save face and avoid admitting to a mistake.

Hitler was the perfect example of this: Even if you factor in all of the other strikes against his whole régime, some very serious defeats were due in large part to his position as Unquestionable Lord and Master. The long delay in the German reaction to D-Day was caused because nobody wanted to be the one to wake him to deliver the bad news; his ego and unquestionable power caused one of the worst single German defeats in the entire Second World War.

Stalin might be a counterexample, or might be proof that as long as you don’t add a futile war to the list of all your other insanities, a country as big as the USSR can survive even absolute dictatorship. Of course, perhaps Stalin was closer to how China Guy described Mao.

(A less serious example might be how Steve Jobs ran NeXT into the ground: After leaving Apple, Jobs wanted to pursue his hobby-horse of building the ‘desktop supercomputer’ by building a very nice GUI around a Unix kernel. (Sound familiar? ;)) So he created NeXT and produced NeXT cubes with a dictatorial zeal. He delayed production to get the cases to look just right, he pissed off Bill Gates enough to ensure MicroSoft* would never develop for NeXT systems, and he used technology that was most assuredly Not Ready for Prime Time. The result was a machine that was Insanely Great in some respects, at least on paper, but never came close to living up to either its potential or earnings expectations. It launched in the late 1980s (1989?) and generally stumbled to its death sometime in the 1990s.

At which point Jobs became head of Apple again and turned Macs into what the NeXT cubes would have been had someone at NeXT been able to tell him ‘no’.)

*(I’m pretty sure it really was spelled that way then. They also had a geeky round logo, instead of the ugly flag. They also weren’t monopolists, though they were fairly popular.)

Khrutchev and al. needed support to prevail or stay in power. There’s a french story I don’t remember the details of but ending by the king saying sternly to one of his vassals : “Remember who made you count!” to which the count respond: “Remember, Sire, who makes you king…”

Thanks, all, for the responses so far.

As for the Mao-Hitler-Stalin model, that’s more or less what I meant by autocracy. Napoleon is another example. The difference between oligarchy and autocracy is that, in the latter, there’s one person with the power to select among the various views expressed by his/her inner circle. I gather Deng had (or is believed to have had) similar power. Note that nothing in this system inherently requires the inner circle to be “yes men.” IIRC, Joseph Schumpeter considered Napoleon’s ability to consult with and be guided by his advisor’s on non-military matters a major reason his administration was so succussful domestically (Napoleonic Code, etc.).

Thinking about this further throughout the day, yesterday, it occurred to me that, in a sense, the more challenging question (in the sense of data available) is how this issue extends down the chain. The board of directors model for the upper echelon makes sense. So, that sets broad policy. How does this play out as one moves into implementation at the department, province and municipal level?