China and its National People's Congress

By Clay Shentrup & Warren D. Smith, March 2018. INCOMPLETE.

Table of contents.

  1. China's rules
  2. Notes
  3. China as a giant fake-democracy
  4. How long has China been doing this?
  5. Historical note: democracy in China before the Communist takeover
  6. Questions
  7. Conclusion
  8. Sources

China's National People's Congress (NPC) – the largest Parliament body in the world – has been elected via, essentially, Approval Voting since 1979. [With some slight modifications, most importantly that you need more than 50% positive scores to win a seat; if not enough seats obey that, they are left unfilled, see Leung below re article 41.]

We first shall explain the electoral method set out in China's constitution and electoral laws. Unfortunately, it appears that during 1954-2018 China never actually worked quite the way its constitution and laws said. We'll then explain what we call the "shadow model" of what is really going on in China. Almost every official government body in China has a near-duplicate "shadow" body, usually more secretive and with somewhat smaller size, inside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The shadow model postulates that these shadow bodies make the important decisions, then "recommend" them to the official bodies, which then almost always agree. The CCP is the real power and hence effectively the real government, at least as far as the most important decisions are concerned.

If so, then what matters is the methods used to choose the memberships of all those shadow bodies, which are, according to the CCP's own constitution, also elected by a near-duplicate of the official system, except that the base-voters are "CCP members" (currently about 7% of China's adult population) rather than "everybody aged≥18." We are not completely sure, but our guess is: essentially the same approval-voting system is used within the CCP.

However, it is widely believed that during 1954-2018 the CCP also never actually worked quite the way its constitution and internal rules said! The decision-making theoretically is supposed to be "bottom up," i.e. the CCP, like the official government, is hierarchical with the more-populous layers electing the less-populous layers above them. However, there in reality appears to be a lot of "top down" decision making too where the High layer instructs the Lower layer how to vote instead of the Lower layer deciding that all by itself. According to the CCP rules that is never supposed to happen, and anybody who does it is supposed to be disciplined. In some cases that disciplining has been severe, such as life imprisonment.

What really happens in China? How does the system really work? As far as I can tell, few or no people know. Most or all professional China Experts outside of China do not know. I believe the vast majority of Chinese citizens do not know. And nor do I. Many think that there has been a gradual trend during 1954-2018 causing China and the CCP to work more like the way its constitutions and laws say, but if so, that trend has not come anywhere near completion.

China's rules

Here is a quote from an English translation of some rules (see especially rule 2C):

"2. How are the deputies elected?

  1. The People's Congress system in China has several levels: county- and township-level; provincial- and municipal level; and the national level. Eligible voters elect county and township-level congresses only. The other levels are elected by deputies at the level immediately below theirs.
  2. The election committee publishes a list of candidate deputies 20 days before an election. Sometimes there are discussions or preliminary elections. After that, officials release a final list of the candidates 5 days before the election.
  3. Then it's time to vote. Voters may cast ballots for or against candidates, or abstain from voting. They also have the option of voting for people who are not on the official ballot.
  4. Successful candidates must receive more than half the votes. If the number of successful candidates exceeds the number of vacancies, those with more votes are elected."

This is confirmed in Kwan-kwok Leung: The Basic-level Elections in Guangzhou since 1979 (1996, but I have changed his article-numbers to conform to our more recent 2018 copy of China's election law):

A voter may cast an affirmative or negative ballot for a candidate, may vote for any other eligible voters and may also abstain from voting (article 37 of the 1979 election law). Candidates are considered elected if they have obtained more than half the votes in the election districts. When the number of [elected] candidates falls below the designated number of [seats], a supplementary election will be held to fill the remaining seats, [this time using a threshold of 1/3 instead of 1/2] (article 41 of the 1979 election law).

If they cannot attain 1/3, then, apparently, the seat really is left unfilled.


  1. "All citizens of the People's Republic of China who have reached the age of 18 have the right to vote and stand for election, regardless of ethnic background, race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education level, property status or length of residence. [But] people who have been deprived of their political rights according to law do not have the right to vote and stand for election."
  2. The lowest-level Deputies are elected directly by their constituencies.
  3. "In both direct and indirect elections, the number of candidates must exceed the number of vacancies by 33% to 100% for direct, and 20-50% for indirect elections." (Article 30.)
  4. "In a direct election, more than half of the eligible voters in the election district must vote in order for the election to be valid."
  5. A voter who is absent from his electoral district during the time of an election may, with the approval of the election committee and by written authorization, entrust another voter with a proxy vote. A voter shall not stand proxy for more than three persons. (Article 38 of the 1979 election law, quoted verbatim.)
  6. The lowest-level elections are supposed to be done by secret ballot (Articles 36 & 46 of the 1979 election law) and on a day that "does not interfere with production," which usually means Sunday.
  7. The congress is made up of 2900-3000 delegates (as of year 2018), 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.
  8. The three NPCs during 1979-1994 made 251 laws, an average of 84 per congress or 17 per year.
  9. The bulk of the NPC's power lies within a standing committee of 150-175 members elected from congress delegates. It meets every couple of months. (The full congress meets too rarely and is too large and hence unwieldy to do much.)
  10. It's illegal for Chinese citizens to form their own political parties, so they must choose between the 9 parties the Chinese government offers them (which are the same 9 that were set up at the founding of the PRC in 1949). In 2012-2013, the result was that the NPC consisted of 2157 members of the Communist Party of China and 830 either from the United Front of other parties, or partyless candidates (if any); together amounting to 2987.
  11. On the 2196 NPC members in year 2000, supposedly 128 were not members of any party, 68 were members of non-CCP parties, 71 were army generals, 118 were artists, 107 college presidents, 142 academics, and 49 corporate.
  12. In the 19th congress (2280 delegates) 24% were women. A membership list (published by the Chinese government in 2017) of the Standing Committee elected in 2013 included 150 people. Their birthdates ranged from 1945 to 1968. 25 of them (16.7%) women. 46 were not Communist Party members.

The NPC supposedly is the supreme organ of power in China, the world's most populous country. The responsibilities of the NPC include:

  1. Amending the constitution and overseeing its enforcement.
  2. Enacting and amending basic laws governing criminal offenses, civil affairs, state organs, and other matters.
  3. Electing and appointing members to central state organs, including the chairman, vice chairmen, secretary-general, and other members of the NPC Standing Committee; and also the President and Vice-President. Theoretically they also can remove any or all of these.
  4. In addition to the national people's congress, there also are many local people's congresses. People's Congresses of cities that are not divided into districts, counties, city districts, towns, townships, and lastly "ethnic townships," are directly elected. Village committee members and chairpersons are directly elected. Local People's Congresses have the constitutional authority to recall the heads and deputy heads of government at the provincial level and below.

China as a giant fake democracy

Despite those official powers, the NPC is largely symbolic, often described as a "rubber stamp" or "fig leaf," because its members usually are unwilling to challenge leadership. Therefore, true power lies with the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. It is they who ultimately set policy. Nevertheless there have been historical occasions when dissenting voices in the NPC have forced goal and policy reconsideration.

On various occasions in world history, there have been giant fake democracies. Indeed, fake democracies have been very common. The laws proving they are great democracies are written on paper for all to see. The countries involved can be small or enormous. But the reality is different. For example, the USSR – Union of Soviet Socialist Republics 1922-1991, which some during Stalin's rule even lauded (based on an examination of its 1936 constitution) as "the most democratic country on earth." In the USA during about 1900-1950, the laws were all very fine, but on the ground was the reality of "Jim Crow" oppression of black people, especially in the South. Any extraterrestrial reading these laws probably would not have suspected the truth.

There are a number of clues enabling you to deduce that the "Great Chinese People's Democracy" in reality is quite different from the one explained in their laws. First of all, in order for a nationwide Democracy on China's enormous scale to work, the voters need to know what their Congress-members are doing, and there need to be all sorts of critical voices and analysis of that, available in a free press. That free press also needs to provide similar consideration of all the rival candidates for office. Well, China as of 2018 simply does not have a free press. It instead has by far the largest censorship operation the world has ever seen, with millions of full time employees and sophisticated software censoring all information generated by the entire world.

Indeed, Xi Jinping just amended the constitution to abolish his 2-term limit to permit him to remain in charge for the rest of his life – plus (rather absurdly) banned the use of the English letter "N" and the children's cartoon bear "Winnie the Pooh" on the Chinese internet, apparently because those were felt somehow to be associated with dissent against that!

The fact that, according to article 31 of the 1982 election law, "the list of candidates shall be made public five days before the election" is not exactly inspiring. You immediately can conclude from that that any prolonged press analysis/investigation of the different candidates, would be impossible even with a fully free press.

What about international election-monitoring groups? The Economist says "Russia and China have set up pseudo-monitors, such as those from the Commonwealth of Independent States, a Russian-sponsored organisation based in Minsk, and the Beijing-based Shanghai Co-operation Organisation. These groups happily endorse fraudulent elections, muddying the waters to undermine the efforts of more reputable bodies."

Further, even if everything operated as advertised, the multilevel structure of the NPC seems assured to yield communist party domination at the top levels. Let us make an analogy. Natural uranium is 0.78% U-235. If uranium atoms are put through a sequence of processes, each of which makes it 5% more likely to pass a U-235 atom, then after 100 such stages we get very pure "weapons grade" U-235. If at the lowest levels the Communist Party was the largest sub-faction within the NPC, "enrichment" would be expected to occur each level to yield much higher Communist fraction at the top level.

On the other hand Brown 2011 seems to suspect, or hope, that the Organic Law of village elections has indeed genuinely yielded local democracy in at least 10% of China's ≈800,000 villages. He thinks they have genuinely been "one person, one vote," secret ballot, with more candidates than seats, with public announcements of results and pre-election campaigning. And most importantly to Brown, the winners have at least sometimes not been Communist Party members. On pp.120-125 of Diamond & Myers 2001 we find "In how many of China's one million villages have democratic elections taken place? Estimates vary widely, as do definitions of 'democratic.'..." They then mention claims/estimates ranging from <10% to 60% by various foreign & domestic sources. (It seems probable that even China's leaders do not know this answer.) They then say they did their own estimate in 1997 by opportunistic interviews with 8302 random Chinese people in 478 villages in 7 provinces, finding an estimate that 82 of the 478 had democratic (according to the authors's standards of "democratic," which sound reasonable to me) elections (i.e. 17%), but then finally gave reasons to suspect this 17% probably was an overestimate nationwide.

Any abrupt dismissal of China's constitution leaves unanswered the question of what really is going on. For example, if the Communist Party really is calling all the shots, perhaps including rigging all the NPC elections – then what is their decision-making process? It simply is not possible for Xi Jinping by himself to make the vast number of decisions needed, at least if he wants there to be any quality in those decisions. So clearly some sort of collective decision-making process is employed. Whatever it is, is shrouded in mystery.

As of 2018, approximately 7% of China's population (i.e. perhaps 85 million) are Communist Party members. To join, there is an application process involving writing an essay and interviews. They have meetings. They pay membership dues. There is a "youth division" too. They have their own universities apparently not accessible by non-party members. There is a major nationwide party meeting every 5 years. The "central committee" of the party has about 204 members plus 164 part-time or alternate members, and holds most of the power. They have regional responsibilities. Within that, the "politburo" has 25 members (of whom, up to 2018, none have ever been female) and within that is the "standing committee" with 9, with the leaders of China apparently always being in that 9. What do they do, how do they decide to do it, and how are their members determined? I do not know. Crucially, the Central Military Commission in charge of the armed forces, is a subset of the Communist Party; and similarly for the bodies in charge of intelligence, security, and police.

The Chinese government as a whole is enormous, with 29 ministries employing about 30 million civil servants in all. The heads of these ministries are usually, but not always, Communist Party members.

And is the NPC, all 3000 of them, really just there for show? Or do they actually do something useful? And if they do, surely it is desired that they do it well?

Historical note: democracy in China before the Communist takeover

Some democracy existed during 1900-1947 before the Communists took over in Oct. 1949, although China as a whole was not a democracy. By 1907, everybody resident in Shanghai for at least 5 years was entitled to vote. In 1911 there were 500 newspapers in China with readership 42 million (about 10% of the total population at that time). In 1912 the National Assembly and House were elected by 40 million voters. Some provinces like Hunan and Zhejiang introduced voting rights in the 1910s and 1920s. Provincial elections in 1918 involved 36 million voters. Village elections began in 1929 (the Communists only re-introduced them in 1979). What would have happened to Chinese democracy if the Communists had lost the civil war, is unknown.

How long has China been doing this?

I claim the NPC's approval voting system started in 1979. Red China began operating in 1949. The first NPC adopted the 1954 constitution on 20 Sept. 1954 and it appears from its text that the multilevel structure of the NPC, and its powers, were essentially the same in 1954 as in 2018. However the mechanics of the election method are not described in the 1954 constitution (at least not that I noticed). Instead they are descibed in an electoral law.

According to professor Emerson M.S. Niou, traditionally village chiefs had been appointed by the township government, but the Organic Law of Village Committees (enacted 1987 and implemented 1988; revised Nov.1998) stipulated that the chairman, vice-chairman, and members of village committees are to be elected directly by villagers, by secret ballot, for a term of three years. By the end of 1997, elections of village committees allegedly had been held in most parts of rural China. This all was after initial experiments with this kind of democracy by Deng Xiaoping during the early 1980s. His idea apparently was that introducing this amount of democracy might have the beneficial effect of reducing corruption.

Hogg's 2010 BBC News story claimed that Chinese state media regularly reports on vote-buying and corruption during these elections to discredit wider implementation in higher levels of government.

Niou claims that the 1987 Organic Law did not specify the election method, and that decision was then made by the provincial People's Congresses and local governments. The result was a wide variety of systems, including one unique to China which Niou calls the "accumulative ballot." That ballot contains only the names of the candidates without specifying the positions the candidates are running for. The candidates are simultaneously considered for all three types of positions. When voters cast their votes, they specify the positions they expect the candidates to fill. The candidate who receives the highest votes for the position of committee chairman wins the chairmanship. For losers, the votes collected by them as chairman are counted toward the votes for the next position.

Presumably the same sort of approval voting system used in the NPC also is used in a goodly percentage of the "Organic" elections.


How well has it worked? It is very difficult for me to tell to what extent the system that is supposed to be used in the NPC, really is. What does the NPC really do? How well does it do it?

Clearly China as a whole has, by some measures, been a tremendous success. According to world-bank statistics during 1990-2014, and also according to IMF statistics during 1980-2016, China ranked second in GDP per capita (PPP) %growth among countries with over 1 million population at 11.4%, topped only by Equatorial Guinea with 17.8% or 12.4% respectively; and since Equatorial Guinea's 2016 population was 1.2 million, China's GDP/capita growth was top among countries exceeding 2 million population. (This economic success of Equatorial Guinea was mainly due to the 1996 discovery of huge oil reserves in a country at that time mired in extreme poverty. Politically speaking, the place was and remains a disaster.) Note 1980-2016 corresponds almost exactly with the approval-voting period in China's National Congress (this also is the period when China dramatically outperformed India); and 1990-2014 corresponds well to the subspan featuring "organic" local elections. I cannot guarantee that is not just a coincidence, but it is a pretty impressive one.

As a result of all that growth, China is on track to become the world's largest economy sometime between 2025 and 2030. [Also during 1990-2007, China ranked 2nd in GDP %growth among countries with over 1 million population at 12.4%, topped only by Vietnam with 13.3%, according to UN statistics.]

In my opinion China's "one child policy" has also been a tremendous success unequalled by any other country, and a goodly part of the reason that China has outperformed (e.g.) India.

But in some other ways China has not been so successful. For example as of 2018 China has been claimed to be the 7th most polluted country based on surveys, behind only Myanmar, Mongolia, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Vietnam, and Egypt. (And China has at times claimed Mongolia as a substate, although it presently is claimed to be independent and sovereign.) The WHO estimated that due to synergy of its high pollution and population levels, there were 7 deaths caused by air pollution per 10000 Chinese in year 2017 – the 5th worst among all countries (the worst was Turkmenistan with 10.8). But China was ranked 118th of 178 countries on the year-2014 environmental performance index combining a multiplicity of factors (smaller rankings are better; China's score is about half that of the best country, Switzerland).

How many votes are we talking about? If it is really true that over half the adult population of China votes each 5 years, that is large. China's population as of 2018 is estimated to be 1.4 billion. Certainly the number of voters is at least 6 million.

In 1979-1981, according to official statistics of 2712 counties whose official electoral population totalled ≈542 million, their number of registered voters was 539 million, and of those 516 million actually voted (95.8%). Leung confirms that 95% voting rates are common but says no official announcements are made concerning the rates of invalid ballots. Leung also says there are "mobile ballot boxes" which travel around to voters at their homes thus increasing turnout versus if all people traveled to the polling places. Leung gives an example of the Beijaio district in the Tianjin 1987 elections, in which 100% of 358 registered voters voted, of whom 214 traveled to a polling place, while the remaining 144 (who must have been "sick") voted using the mobile ballot box.

Babones 2017 claimed that in 2017 there were 89 million voters for the NPC elections, with 99% turnout, and that the voters were Communist Party members only. He gave no evidence. Babones also notes that China's claimed turnouts exceed the highest turnouts in (what normally are considered to be) democracies. The highest of these are around 90% and the lowest around 10%, depending on what country and what election. Babones claims all China's elections above the local level are in reality rigged and just rubberstamp decisions really made beforehand by the Communist Party. I find it hard to know how true that claim is.


As of 2018, China is, for the most part anyhow, an autocratic fake democracy. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that both China's local and national governments do, by design, contain democratic elements, and that China's leadership wishes for at least some of the things it wants to be democratic, to work as well as possible. And they are not idiots. So it should be a source of embarrassment for (e.g.) the USA, that the autocratic society of China, inside those democratic elements has adopted the superior approval voting system.


Salvatore Babones: China Will Be Driven By 89 Million Votes This Week, But Don't Call It Democracy, Forbes Magazine, October 2017.

BBC news "reality check": Does China's Communist Party have a 'woman problem'? 25 Oct. 2017.

Robert E. Bedeski: China's 1979 election law and its implementation, Electoral Studies 5,2 (August 1986) 153-165.

The Economist: What do election observers do?, 21 June 2017.

Kerry Brown: Ballot Box China, Univ. of Chicago Press 2011.

Electoral Law of the National People's Congress and Local People's Congresses of the People's Republic of China, English translation downloaded from Chinese government web site, 2018. Prior version: "The Electoral Law for the All-China People's Congress and Local People's Congresses of All Levels: With an Explanation," Foreign Language Press, 1953; JQ1518.C4.

Organic Law of the Villagers Committees of the People's Republic of China, English translation of Nov.1998 revision, downloaded from Chinese government web site, 2018.

Larry Diamond & Ramon H. Myers (eds.): Elections and Democracy in Greater China, Oxford Univ. Press 2001.

Chris Hogg: Buying votes in China: village polls 'costing more', BBC News (22 July 2010).

Kwan-kwok Leung: The Basic-Level Elections in Guangzhou Since 1979, pp. 107- in Stewart Macpherson & Joseph Yu-Shek Cheng (eds.): Economic and Social Development in South China, Edward Elgar Publishing (1996). ISBN 978-1-858-98301-1. HC428.S74E25.

Emerson M.S. Niou: An Introduction to the Electoral Systems Used in Chinese Village Elections, Duke University.

Robert A. Pastor & Qingshan Tan: The Meaning of China's Village Elections, The China Quarterly 162 (June 2000 Special Issue: Elections and Democracy in Greater China) 490-512.

Tony Saich: Governance and Politics in China, Palgrave 2001. JQ1510.S26.

Meirong Yang: A long way toward a free press, the case of the World Economic Herald, pp.183-188 in Decision making in Deng's China, (C.Hamrin & S.Zhou eds.) M.E.Sharpe 1995. JQ1508.D43.

Zaijun Yuan: The failure of China's democratic reforms, Lexington Books, Lanham, MD 2012. JQ1516.Y834.

Return to main page