This is the tenth in the South China Morning Post's series of explainers about China's Communist Party in the lead-up to the party's centenary in July. In this piece, Eduardo Baptista explains the relationship between the ruling party and the eight smaller "democratic parties" of China.
In a country where the Communist Party is synonymous with the state, it may surprise some that there are eight minor political parties.
China's constitution, which defines the Communist Party as the nation's leading political force, specifies that the eight officially recognised "democratic parties" have the right to participate in the country's governance.
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In practice, this right is strictly limited to making proposals which the Communist Party can choose to ignore or implement.
The eight officially recognised minor political parties in China are:
China Democratic League
China National Democratic Construction Association
Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang
China Peasants' and Workers' Democratic Party
China Association for Promoting Democracy
China Zhi Gong Party
Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League
The China Democratic League - made up of what it calls mid and senior-level intellectuals in culture, education, science and technology - is the largest, with 300,600 members as of 2020. The smallest party is the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League, which targets pro-Communist Party Taiwanese people and reported 3,000 members in 2017.
When eight relatively small, left-leaning parties declared their support for the Communist Party's vision of building a new China in 1948, the dynamics were very different from now.
The Communist Party was near the end of a brutal civil war with the nationalist Kuomintang party and not making new enemies was a matter of survival, said Deng Yuwen, an expert in party politics and former deputy editor of Communist Party publication Study Times.
The support of the smaller parties, many of which had also fought alongside the communists against Japan during World War II, was answered with concessions from the ruling party. Several of the minor parties were defined by hopes for democracy, and the Communist Party did not repudiate their ideologies.
"Between 1949 and 1950, the Communist Party was relatively open-minded," Deng said. "It had not completely and unequivocally cast away the idea of a path to democracy."
The eight minor parties also took part in the drafting of documents laying out the principles of the new People's Republic of China, from political structures such as the national legislature to guidelines on how China would transform itself into a socialist country.
Deng estimated that in the first years after the Communist Party took power in 1949, over a third of officials in important political offices were from these eight minor parties. However, he said this state of affairs lasted only through China's first five-year plan from 1953 to 1957.
After that, party chairman Mao Zedong felt China no longer needed a phase of democratic transition before socialism. Consolidating power, rather than sharing it, became the objective, and fewer officials were appointed from outside the ruling party.
"Labelling [it] 'multiparty cooperation' no longer conformed to reality," Deng said of the Communist Party's description.
By 1966, the start of the Cultural Revolution - initiated by Mao to accelerate a communist utopia - minor parties had lost all influence, Deng said. "They had completely transformed into puppets," he said.
One way the Communist Party ensures its supremacy is through its United Front Work Department (UFWD). A secretive organ responsible for managing its relations with political parties inside and outside China, it acts as the "organisation department" for each of the eight parties.
The UFWD vets membership applications, some of which take several months and meetings, and fills the eight parties' leadership roles.
"The leaders of these parties, from the general secretary to the members of the central committees, cannot be chosen by the parties themselves but [are chosen] by the Communist Party," Deng said.
The vetting process ensures that perceived dissenters, such as human rights activists or lawyers, are not allowed in. Police and army personnel are only allowed to join the Communist Party, designed to eliminate any chance of these eight parties challenging the regime's power.
Some powerful members of minor parties are also Communist Party members, even though several minor parties forbid members to also join the ruling party.
Rong Yiren was known as only the second member of a minor party to serve as vice-president of China when he took the post in 1993, having been a member of the China National Democratic Construction Association since 1950. It was revealed only after his death that he had also been a secret member of the Communist Party since 1985.
Su Hui, chairwoman of the Taiwan Democratic Self-Government League, had been a Communist Party member for over two decades before she took up her post in 2007. She continues to hold membership of both parties.
Aside from ensuring that leaders are Communist Party loyalists, the UFWD keeps the minor parties small in size and scope by preventing them from operating widely in counties and villages, leaving them unable to amass a broad enough base to claim to represent the Chinese people.
Chinese question-and-answer website Zhihu is full of people proclaiming the perks of joining one of the eight minor parties, despite them being satellite parties rather than alternative centres of power.
Their combined membership is only a fraction of the almost 92 million Communist Party members, but their smaller size could facilitate professional networking, especially in those with a high proportion of members from a specific industry or background.
For example, the Revolutionary Committee of the Chinese Kuomintang's strong connections to Taiwan mean people involved in cross-strait business could find new partners by joining the party.
The Chinese Peasants' and Workers' Democratic Party lists mid to senior-level professionals in the medical industry among its major demographic groups, and its chairman Chen Zhu is the president of the China Red Cross.
Some members of minor parties aspire to be nominated to high-ranking positions in state offices, which can come with a host of perks including extra salary, housing in Beijing, chauffeurs and secretaries.
Given that their positions are mainly ceremonial, state officials from the minor parties enjoy a quieter life and fewer responsibilities than their ruling party counterparts, who often start their political careers by governing villages before moving on to progressively larger jurisdictions.
Officials from minor parties can help shape national policies, although this is mostly limited to a consultative role - doing research, making proposals and giving advice.
Lower-ranking officials often have to carry out menial work in exchange for the right to take part in Chinese politics. For example, since the early 1990s, the eight minor parties have been charged with conducting surveys on all kinds of matters, from railway-building in China's far west to free-trade zones in Shanghai.
Li Xing, a professor of international relations at Aalborg University in Denmark, said the eight minor parties were part of China's "self-correcting mechanism".
"They act as a mirror for the Communist Party to see its own flaws," he said. "They can't write public criticism, and they can't question basic values like the leadership of the Communist Party, but they are encouraged to be critical."
Li said that while the Communist Party's central committees set nationwide policy through documents such as the five-year plans, the eight other parties and their branches help to provide advice on how to implement targets on a more local scale.
This involves a lot of knowledge-gathering. Li, who has worked overseas as a scholar for over three decades, said officials from several of the minor parties would invite him out for dinner whenever he returned to his hometown.
They included the Jiusan Society, a party for intellectuals that has a strong presence in the country's top universities, and the China Zhi Gong Party, founded in Los Angeles to represent patriotic overseas Chinese.
"They basically always ask me three questions," he said. "First, how do Western countries perceive China? Second, where can we learn from the West? Third, which countries should we visit to research a specific issue concerning China?"
The content of these discussions would be included in reports sent to Communist Party officials supervising these parties, he said.
Other authoritarian regimes have deployed satellite or "puppet" parties to appear to strengthen the legitimacy of their rule, from the socialist state of East Germany to the totalitarian dictatorship of North Korea.
In China, none of the minor political parties has openly opposed the ruling party or pushed for substantial political reform. During the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, when hundreds of thousands of students and workers took to the streets calling for a more transparent system and an end to corruption, the eight minor parties were mostly silent.
And when China abolished term limits for the president and vice-president in 2018, paving the way for President Xi Jinping to stay in power beyond 2023, every representative from the eight minor parties voted in favour of the motion, which permanently altered the Chinese constitution.
Official party rhetoric has long summarised the relationship between the Communist Party and the eight minor parties with the four-phrase slogan "long-term coexistence, mutual supervision, take care of each other, enjoy honour and shame together".
But in practice, under China's one-party rule, only the first of these applies.
This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2021 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
Copyright (c) 2021. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.