After reading this article you will learn about the history of constitutional development of China since 1949.
Constitutionalism between 1949-54:
After the Revolution, the communists did not base their government on any constitution. They preferred to wait for a formulated constitution and decided to rely upon Mao’s leadership and People’s Democratic Dictatorship as conceived, explained and guided by him.
A Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, consisting of 662 delegates who represented all political groups and mass organisations, was created to legalize the system created for carrying out Mao’s Common Programme.
The Organic Law consisting of 31 Articles was promulgated and it outlined the structure and functions of the governmental machinery. It was given the responsibility of fulfilling the common programme. The arrangement continued till 1954.
Constitutionalism between 1954-75:
It was in 1953 that the People’s Republic of China decided to have a written constitution. A committee under the chairmanship of Mao Tse-tung was created for this purpose. This committee proposed the draft of a constitution which was submitted to the people of China and their organisations for a full national debate.
The Chinese People’s Government incorporated several amendments in the draft for incorporating the views of the people. The amended draft was presented to the National People’s Political Conference in September 1954. After its adoption, the Constitution led to the formation of a new government on 4th November, 1954.
The 1954-Constitution affirmed the resolve of the people of China to overthrow colonialism, feudalism and capitalism. While enumerating the socio- economic political achievement made by China during 1949-54, the Preamble to the Constitution recorded deep gratitude for the help given by the (erstwhile) USSR.
It pledged China’s indestructible friendship with all peace loving people of the world. It proclaimed that China was all out for destroying imperialism.
The Constitution of 1954 was a brief document with only 106 Articles. It was designed to serve the people of China for a transitional period of 20 years. A very interesting feature of this constitution was that it, unlike other socialist constitutions, it did not give a constitutional recognition to the status and role of the Communist Party of China.
The Preamble and Article 19 of the Constitution acclaimed the vital role of the Communist Party in achieving revolution against imperialism and exploitation but did not give it a constitutional recognition. The Constitution, further, accepted the principle of democratic centralism, and expressed the resolve to safeguard the people’s democratic system.
However in actual practice, the power of the state continued to be fully controlled and managed by the Communist Party of China. The Communist Party dominated the political system and was itself dominated by the “proletarian head-quarters” of Mao. It was this ‘head- quarter’ which controlled all power and it consisted of a small group of Mao loyalists.
Through this Constitution, the Chinese accepted the concept of granting of fundamental rights and duties to the citizens. It recognized seven fundamental freedoms of the citizens, their social, economic and political rights, and duties towards the socialists.
Like the Stalin Constitution of the (erstwhile) USSR, the Constitution made an attempt to demonstrate that China respects fundamental rights and freedoms. Even while forbidding capitalism, it recognized the right to private property of the citizens.
This Constitution declared that the People’s Republic of China was a single multinational state consisting of several nationalities that stood integrated into a family. Despite its multinational character and vast size, China continued to be a unitary state.
Mao’s concept of People’s Democratic Dictatorship was translated into law by making National People’s Congress the supreme organ of state power. However in reality all powers were concentrated in the hands of the top caucus of the Communist Party, which was itself dominated by Mao Zedong and Chou-en-lai.
The Constitution of 1954 fully reflected that:
1. China upheld the ideology of Marxism-Leninism as understood, interpreted, explained and applied by Mao.
2. China upheld the type of constitutionalism which prevailed in the (Erstwhile) USSR under the Stalin Constitution.
3. China stood for anti-imperialism, anti-capitalism, world peace and international communism.
4. The Chinese decided to keep the Communist Party as an extra-constitutional, but all powerful institution in the Chinese political system.
Till the adoption of a new constitution in 1975, China continued to be governed by this constitution. During this period, the Chinese usurped Tibet and got involved in boundary disputes with India and her other small Asian neighbours. It, committed aggression against India in 1962 and got involved in ‘cold war’-with the USSR.
It began developing nuclear weapons and conducted its first nuclear test in 1964. It accepted Panchsheel and participated in Afro-Asian Solidarity Conference -the Bandung Conference 1955, developed its military might and witnessed a big Cultural Revolution which, however, proved to be counterproductive.
China started emerging as a third power in the world particularly after its admission to the United Nations with a permanent seat and veto power status in the UN Security Council.
The theory of constitutionalism written in this constitution was however never really followed in actual practice. People’s Democratic Dictatorship was used as a smoke screen for maintaining and strengthening the all- powerful leadership of the Communist Party Chairman Mao.
The Cultural Revolution that was initiated by Mao after the failure of the Great Leap Forward (1958), produced several big upheavals in the Chinese society and political system. It was designed to reform the people by making them true socialists-both in thought and action. Mao’s Red Guards, the committed soldiers of the Cultural Revolution, became active for eliminating capitalism and ‘capitalist road-takers’.
These youthful volunteers of the Chinese Cultural Revolution were supposed to usher Chinese society into a full fledged socialist society. In actual practice, however, the Cultural Revolution resulted into violence, anger, revenge, destruction and destabilization.
Further, it brought to light the struggle between the Mao and the Liu Shao-Chi factions. The Army also came to assert its role by organizing new revolutionary committees.
By 1969, China had to terminate the Cultural Revolution in favour of a new struggle for achieving socialist goals. It however, resulted in the defeat of Liu Shao-Chi faction. Mao and his loyalists continued to be most powerful.
After Mao’s death, the ultra leftists, the Shanghai group-‘the Gang of Four’ led by Mao’s wife Chiang Ching fell into background. The formal end of the era of the Cultural Revolution, however, came in 1975, when a new constitution was adopted and implemented in China.
The Constitution of 1975 and Chinese Constitutionalism:
Constitutionalism in China registered a change in 1975 under the impact of the results of the Cultural Revolution. Further, this change was considered essential because the 1954— Constitution had been formulated for a transitional period of 20 years. The exercise for a change of the constitution was therefore initiated.
In 1975, the official Chinese news agency, Hsinhua disclosed that the Central Committee of the Communist Party has held a plenary session of the National People’s Congress on 18th January 1975 for revising the 1954 Constitution. It was again announced that a session of the Fourth National People’s Congress was held from 15th to 17th January.
It was attended by 2804 Deputies, out of a total of 2885, who had been elected after extensive consultations and repeated discussions. The session reviewed the progress of the past 21 years and resolved that China was to be built into a powerful modern socialist country in another 20 years or so. The resolution recorded that the first phase, which was to continue till 1980, should see “an independent and relatively comprehensive industrial economic system.”
The second phase, commencing after 1980 and continuing up to the end of the 20th century, should register “modernisation of agriculture, industry, national defence, science and technology so that the national economy will be advancing into the front ranks of the world.” Officially, nothing was said about the new constitution and yet by February 1975, a new constitution came to replace the 1954 Constitution.
The Constitution of 1975:
In several ways, the Constitution of 1975 was a natural result of the evolution of the 1954-Constitution. However, it consisted of only 30 Articles divided into only 4 chapters, It had a very long Preamble. The Preamble narrated the past achievements of China during 1954-75.
It praised the Communist Party and Chairman Mao for successfully and ably guiding the People’s Republic of China in its march towards the achievement of the socialist goals and towards meeting the threat of imperialism (American and Western) and social imperialism (Soviet).
The threat, however, was still not over and hence “can be resolved by depending upon the theory of continued revolution, under the dictatorship of the Proletariat and in practice under its guidance.”
The Preamble of the 1975-Constitution called upon the people of China to follow the policies of the Communist Party, maintain continued revolution, and consolidate the unity of the people of all nationalities based on the alliance of workers and peasants, and develop the revolutionary front.
It further voiced full support for proletarian internationalism and expressed the resolve to meet the menace of continued exploitation of people by capitalist states.
The Constitution of 1975 recognized the leading and direct role of the Communist Party in exercising state power for securing socialist goals. The National People’s Congress was described as the highest organ of state power under the leadership of the Communist party. It abolished the office of the Chairman of the Republic and vested the powers of the head of the State in the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.
It maintained the list of the Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the citizens with some improvements. It gave the right to freedom of procession and freedom of strike to the people. It curtailed the list of duties.
The Constitution of 1978:
Constitutionalism under the influence of Hua Guo-Feng:
The 1975-Constitution had a short life of three years. The death of Mao Tse-tung in 1976 and the ensuing power struggle within the hierarchy of the Communist Party brought into prominence the leadership of Hua Guo-Feng. This struggle for power gave rise to the need for a new constitution.
The National People’s Congress, in its February 1978 session passed a new constitution. This meeting of the NPC was attended by several old leaders who had been previously considered disloyal to Mao. The new constitution came into force on 5th March, 1978 and advocated the need for liberalisation in policies.
The 1978 Constitution made several major changes in the 1975 constitution. Its stated objective was:
“The Consolidation of the socialist economic base” and “development of the production forces at high speed.” It accepted “Socialist Democracy as the goal which was to be achieved by arousing the socialist enthusiasm of the people of all our nationalities to strive for the fulfilment of the central task for the new period.”
The Preamble of the 1978 Constitution placed on record the services of the highest order that Mao Tse-tung had rendered to the People’s Republic of China first towards its birth and thereafter towards its consolidation and development as a socialist state marching fast on the road to political) economic, cultural and military development.
The constitution gave recognition to the role of the army by providing that the Chinese Liberation Army is the workers’ and peasants’ own armed force led by the Communist Party. “It was the pillar of the dictatorship of the Proletariat.” It called for further efforts towards revolutionisation of the Army with a view to strengthen it for safeguarding the socialist revolution and the reconstruction being done in China.
The 1978 Constitution further extended the list of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms of the Chinese and now it came to include the right to “speak out freely, air the views fully and hold great debates. It provided for a socialist democratic system with a unicameral National People’s Congress (NPC) as the highest organ of state power.
NPC was given the power to choose the Premier acting upon the recommendation of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. The members of its State Council were to be appointed by the NPC upon the recommendations of its Standing Committee.
The powers of the NPC were to be exercised by its Standing Committee during the interval between its two sessions. The State Council was made responsible before the NPC, and during its absence, it was to be responsible before the Standing Committee of the NPC. The constitutional arrangement, thus made, was similar to the one in operation in the USSR.
The 1978-Constitution expressed full faith in the ideology of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Tse-Tung’s thought. It once again committed the nation to the promotion of arts and science and to bring about a flourishing socialist culture.
Article 16 of Constitution prescribed that all the personnel of the state should study Marxism-Leninism-Maoism, whole heartedly serve the people, endeavor to perfect their professional competence, take an active part in collective productive labour, accept supervision by the masses, be role models in observing the constitution and law, correctly implement the policies of the state, seek the truth from facts and must not have recourse to deception or exploit their position and power to seek personal gains.
The 1978 Constitution accepted fully the paramount role of the Communist Party. It declared that the Communist Party of China was the core of the leadership of the whole Chinese people and “the working class exercised leadership over the state through its vanguard, the Communist Party.”
The Central Committee of the Communist Party was given a key role in determining the choice of high ranking officers of the state including the Premier. Chairman of the Central Committee of the party was to command the armed forces. Hence, the Communist Party continued to be the bed-rock of the Chinese Political System.
The Constitution of 1982: New Constitutionalism:
The power struggle within the Communist Party that had emerged after the death of Mao, brought into reality another big change in the Chinese leadership and consequently in Chinese Constitutionalism. By 1981, Hua Guo-Feng lost power and Deng Xiaoping emerged as the strongman along with General Secretary Zhao ZhLang. Chairman Hua was charged with erecting a personality cult.
The new leadership then decided to phase out Hua and provide a new constitution to China with several liberalizing changes.
The attempt was designed to ensure that China would not be in future rocked by political eruptions that had occurred under Mao, which had produced drastic consequences for the people of China. The Cultural Revolution was criticized.
The separation of the government and Party was affected, concentration of powers in individual hands was curtailed, the concept of collective leadership was accepted and the need to give due share to the younger generation leadership was recognized.
A new emphasis on decentralization and liberalisation of the economy also became evident from both the discussions that were held and the decisions that were made. The private sector in China’s socialist economy was assigned a role.
China decided to go in for a ‘multi-faceted economy’, including private sector. “Joint Socialist Private Enterprises” in which public stock was to be owned by the workers, came to be an accepted new principle of Chinese economy.
Thus, the 1982 Constitution accepted Marxism-Leninism-Maoism but along with it a new need for liberalisation, decentralization, modernisation and market socialism was accepted. It secured a separation between the Government and the Party.
It attempted to give a new orientation to the Chinese Political Culture: Liberalisation of economy involving a multi-faceted economic system (Socialist market economy) and more openness in Chinese politics. The Constitution of 1982 and the features it incorporated still continue to guide the activities and policies of the Peoples Republic of China in this first decade of the 21st century.