Constitutional history of the People's Republic of China

Constitutional history of the People's Republic of China
People's Republic of China

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The Constitutional history of the People's Republic of China describes the evolution of its Constitutional system. The first Constitution of the People's Republic of China was promulgated in 1954. After two intervening versions enacted in 1975 and 1978, the current Constitution was promulgated in 1982. There were significant differences between each of these versions, and the 1982 Constitution has subsequently been amended several times. In addition, changing Constitutional conventions have led to significant changes in the structure of Chinese government in the absence of changes in the text of the Constitution.


The Common Program (1949)

In 1949, the Chinese Civil War was turning decisively in favour of the Communist Party of China. In June, the Communist Party organised a "Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference" (CPPCC) to prepare for the establishment of a new regime to replace the Kuomintang-dominated Republic of China government.

The first meeting of the CPPCC opened on 21 September, 1949, and was attended by the Communist Party along with eight aligned parties. The first CPPCC served in effect as a Constitutional Convention. The meeting approved the Common Program, which was effectively an interim Constitution, specifying the structure of the new government, and determining the name and symbols of the new state. It also elected leaders of the new central government, including Mao Zedong as Chairman of the Central People's Government. After the end of the conference, the People's Republic of China was proclaimed on 1 October, 1949.

The People's Republic of China government functioned for the next five years under the Common Program, with a degree of democracy and inclusion that was not seen again in Chinese government to the present day. Among the provisions of the Common Program were those guaranteeing protection of private property (Article 3), "uniting" the bourgeoisie (Article 13), and assisting private enterprise (Article 30). The first People's Government, elected in 1949, included a significant number of representatives from parties other than the Communist Party.

1954 Constitution

In accordance with the Common Program, preparations soon began for convening the first National People's Congress and the drafting of the first permanent Constitution of the People's Republic of China. On 24 December 1952, a resolution was moved by Premier Zhou Enlai on behalf of the Communist Party of China at the 43rd meeting of the first CPPCC Standing Committee to draft the new, permanent, Constitution. The resolution was passed, and on 13 January 1953, the Central People's Government appointed a thirty-person drafting committee led by Mao Zedong.

The drafting process was dominated by the Communist Party, and was almost exclusively restricted to the Politburo. In March 1954, the draft Constitution was passed to the CPPCC and also distributed within the Communist Party. On 20 September 1954, exactly five years after the passage of the Common Program, the first meeting of the first National People's Congress unanimously approved the new Constitution. This version has subsequently been called the "1954 Constitution".

The 1954 Constitution included a preamble and 108 articles organised into four chapters. It specified a government structure remarkably similar to the current system. Chapter Two of the 1954 Constitution set up a system of government composed of six structural parts. The highest organ of government was the legislature, the National People's Congress. The executive was composed of the President and the State Council. Sub-national government was to be composed of people's congresses and people's committees of various levels. Autonomous ethnic areas would decide on their forms of government according to the wishes of the "majority of the people" in these areas. Finally, a hierarchy of courts headed by the Supreme People's Court and a procuratorial system headed by the Supreme People's Procuratorate formed the judicial system.

Chapter Three, Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens, guaranteed a relatively comprehensive set of human rights, but also imposed the duty to pay taxes, undertake national service, and to obey the law.

Like the subsequent versions of the Constitution, the 1954 Constitution was not entrenched. It could be amended by the National People's Congress (Article 27(1)) by a special two-thirds majority (Article 29) without recourse to a referendum or other such mechanism.

1975 Constitution

However, the Chinese government functioned more or less as envisaged for only a short time. In 1957, the Anti-Rightist Movement marked the beginning of a series of political movements and purges during which the Constitution largely failed to be respected. These culminated in the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), a period in which the normal operation of government virtually ceased. In 1966, President Liu Shaoqi was political denounced, and from 1967 was placed under house arrest. After suffering two years of persecution, Liu died, unreported, in 1969, and the position of President was left unfilled. During this period, most government bodies around the country ceased operation; various levels of people's governments were replaced by Revolutionary Committees. Instead of (formally) by election, power passed via public denunciations and, in many cases, violent clashes.

In 1975, Mao Zedong and his supporters sought to formalise their power through the promulgation of a new Constitution. Under the 1975 Constitution, the office of the President (officially translated as "Chairman" during this period) was abolished, leaving Mao, as the Chairman of the Communist Party, as the sole power centre. Formal duties of the President as Head of State were to be performed by the Chairman of the National People's Congress (who was, at the time, Zhu De). The replacement of local government by Revolutionary Committees was also formalised. The Constitution was shorted to 30 articles, and the Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens was greatly shortened. Guarantees removed included the rights to property and privacy, freedom from political discrimination, freedom of movement, speech, and artistic freedom, among other human rights. Concurrently, the duty to pay taxes was also removed. The 1975 Constitution also saw a significant shift in tone compared to the 1954 Constitution, and saw the insertion of a significant number of ideological sloganeering provisions.

1978 Constitution

Mao died in 1976, and the Gang of Four who had dominated Chinese politics were driven out of power by October 1976. The 1978 Constitution was promulgated in March 1978 under the chairmanship of Hua Guofeng. It contained 60 sections organised into four Chapters. In many ways, the 1978 Constitution was a compromise between the interim leadership's desire to consolidate power using Mao's moral authority, while responding to the popular desire to reverse the Leftists extremes of the previous period. On the one hand, the new Constitution in many places maintained the ideological tone of the 1975 Constitution, such as in Article 16 ("State officials must diligently study Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Zedong Thought, serve the people whole-heartedly ...") and Article 19 ("The fundamental role of the Armed Forces is: [...] defending against destabilisation and invasion from Socio-Imperialism, Imperialism, and their running dogs"). At the same time, the need for "Socialist democracy" was emphasised (Article 3), and the 1954 system of government was largely restored, with the exception of the Presidency, which remained absent.

1982 Constitution

The 1978 Constitution was again short-lived. In December 1978, the third plenary meeting of the 11th Communist Party Central Committee began a series of reviews and reforms that confirmed Deng Xiaoping as the new paramount leader of China, with reform-minded leaders supported by Deng filling the top echelon of government. As part of the Deng faction's political reform agenda, a fourth Constitution was promulgated on 4 December 1982. The 1982 Constitution was born in a political environment where the past, including Mao's "errors" and almost all of the Communist Party's policies from 1949, were relatively objectively re-examined, and the country's future, including the pursuit of market economic reforms, were being openly debated. As a result, the 1982 Constitution returned the government structure to broadly that set up in 1954, with the Presidency restored. The Fundamental Rights and Duties of Citizens were greatly expanded, and elevated to Chapter Two, ahead of the provisions for the structure of the government. The 1982 Constitution was subsequently amended in 1988, 1993, 1999 and 2004, generally modifying the Constitution in accordance with economic and political reforms over that period. The current compilation dates from 14 March 2004.

The system of government set up under the 1982 Constitution has undergone some changes, largely due to the evolution of Constitutional conventions rather than textual amendments. The most significant of these occurred in 1989-1993. As drafted, the 1982 Constitution contemplated that the power of the state would be distributed amongst the Chairman of the Central Military Commission, the Premier of the State Council, and the General Secretary of the Communist Party of China. The President, as head of state, would be a symbolic role with little substantive power. Such was the arrangement until 1989. However, during the 1989 Tiananmen Square Protests, the President, Yang Shangkun, used his formal powers under the Constitution to declare a state of emergency and collude in the subsequent violent crackdown in Beijing, against the wishes of Zhao Ziyang, the General Secretary of the Party. In a reaction against the conflict between the two roles, at the expiration of Yang's term, the new General Secretary, Jiang Zemin, also became President, and later took on the position of the Chairman of the Central Military Commission as well. In this way, the centres of power were unified. This convention has continued to this day.

See also

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