China's State Organizational Structure

NPC   |   Central Military Commission   |   NPC Standing Committee   |   Supreme People's Court
Supreme People's Procuratorate   |   State Council   |   Organs Composing the State Council
Local People's Congresses   |   Legislative Transparency   |   Judicial Independence

The National People's Congress


The NPC is defined in the 1982 Constitution as "the highest organ of state power" without being identified, as it was in the 1975 state constitution, as "under the leadership of the Communist Party of China." In addition, the Constitution states that "all power in the People's Republic of China belongs to the people." Although the preamble makes clear that the nation operates "under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought," the trend has been to enhance the role of the NPC.

In principle, "[t]he NPC is the supreme source of law in China and the basic laws and other laws adopted by the full NPC or its Standing Committee are the highest form of law after the Constitution." In reality, however, the NPC traditionally has been subservient to the leadership's wishes, and in most respects has operated as a "rubber stamp" legislature. Beginning in the early 1990s, this role has gradually changed, and the NPC has begun to exercise more control over the legislative and policy agenda in accordance with its constitutional mandate. This change follows leadership efforts to define more clearly the scope of the NPC's legislative powers, to unify the legislative system to prevent conflicts of laws, and to improve the overall quality of legislation.

The major functions of the NPC are to:

  • amend the state constitution and enact laws;
  • supervise the enforcement of the state constitution and the law;
  • elect the president and the vice president of the republic;
  • decide on the choice of premier of the State Council upon nomination by the president;
  • elect the major officials of government;
  • elect the chairman and other members of the state Central Military Commission;
  • elect the president of the Supreme People's Court and the procurator-general of the Supreme People's Procuratorate;
  • examine and approve the national economic plan, the state budget, and the final state accounts;
  • decide on questions of war and peace; and
  • approve the establishment of special administrative regions and the "systems to be instituted there."

The 3,000 members of the NPC meet once a year and serve 5-year terms. Delegates are elected by the people's congresses at the provincial level as well as by the People's Liberation Army. Provincial delegations meet before each NPC session to discuss agenda items. Because of the infrequent meetings, the NPC functions through a permanent body, the Standing Committee, whose members it elects. The Standing Committee's powers were enhanced in 1987 when it was given the ability to "enact and amend laws with the exception of those which should be enacted by the NPC," thus giving this body legislative powers. The Standing Committee presides over sessions of the NPC and determines the agenda, the routing of legislation, and nominations for offices. The NPC also has six permanent committees: one each for minorities, law, finance, foreign affairs, and overseas Chinese and one for education, science, culture, and health. Leaders of the NPC Standing Committee are invariably influential members of the CCP and leaders of major mass organizations. The Standing Committee has within it a smaller group that is led by the chairman of the Standing Committee.

To read about the legislative transparency of the NPC, click here.

The State Central Military Commission


The 1982 State Constitution established the state Central Military Commission as the key governmental body charged with "directing the armed forces." While the party Central Military Commission provided the political direction for military policy-making, the state Central Military Commission oversaw key military personnel appointments, managed PLA financial and material resources, developed regulations, and implemented statutes to provide a more rational and professional organizational basis for the PLA. The chairman of the state Central Military Commission--in a departure from earlier practices that put either the state president or the party chairman in command--was designated as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.

The Standing Committee of the NPC


When the NPC is not in session, its Standing Committee assumes legislative responsibilities until the next time the entire Congress convenes. The Standing Committee consists of delegates elected from the NPC and has a similar structure and virtually identical procedures to the NPC. The Standing Committee has more limits on the types of laws it can draft than the NPC as a whole, but because the Standing Committee controls the legislative agenda for a longer period each year, it has produced a larger body of law. The Standing Committee is responsible, among other things, for:

  • conducting the election of NPC delegates;
  • interpreting the State Constitution and laws;
  • supervising the work of the executive, the state Central Military Commission, and judicial organs;
  • deciding on the appointment and removal of State Council members on the recommendation of the premier;
  • approving and removing senior judicial and diplomatic officials;
  • ruling on the ratification and abrogation of treaties; and
  • deciding on the proclamation of a state of war when the NPC is not in session.

Like the NPC as a whole, the Standing Committee has made efforts to improve the quality of the legislation it promulgates. In 2003, the Standing Committee expanded from 155 to 175 members. The 20 new members serve as full-time delegates (as opposed to many older Standing Committee members who serve only on a part-time basis) and have professional backgrounds in subjects such as law and economics. The Standing Committee also has its own specialized bureaucracy to assist in drafting and supervising legislation.

The Supreme People's Court


The State Constitution of 1982 and the Organic Law of the People's Courts that went into effect on January 1, 1980, provide for a four-level court system. At the highest level is the Supreme People's Court, the premier appellate forum of the land, which supervises the administration of justice by all subordinate "local" and "special" people's courts. Local people's courts--the courts of the first instance--handle criminal and civil cases. These people's courts make up the remaining three levels of the court system and consist of "higher people's courts" at the level of the provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities; "intermediate people's courts" at the level of prefectures, autonomous prefectures, and municipalities; and "basic people's courts" at the level of autonomous counties, towns, and municipal districts.

In China, courts have limited power and authority. The NPC and its Standing Committee have the ultimate authority to interpret law and to enforce the Constitution. As China is a civil law jurisdiction, courts have no formal power to make law in the sense that judicial decisions are not binding precedent. Similarly, courts are not empowered to interpret administrative regulations--ultimate authority over the interpretation and application of such rules rest with the issuing agency. Even with this limited authority, Chinese courts are subject to detailed supervision by the people's congresses and the procuratorate. Court officials typically are outranked by public security and other law enforcement officials in the Party hierarchy, limiting their influence over Communist Party policy related to legal work.

One consequence of the limited power of Chinese courts is that many court judgments are not enforced. As a July 2003 report by China's official Xinhua News Agency notes, most court enforcement orders remain unresolved, "leaving a blemish on the reputation of the judiciary." The problem is serious enough that judicial leaders have made improving the enforcement of judgments a key reform goal. In the criminal context, the weak position of the courts in relation to public security and prosecutors makes it difficult for the courts to check abuses by these institutions or to resist interference from law enforcement chiefs in sensitive cases.

To read more about judicial independence in China, click here.

The Supreme People's Procuratorate


The 1982 State Constitution refers to the procuratorates as the state organs for "legal supervision." However, the procuratorates exercise both prosecutorial and watchdog functions. In their prosecutorial roles procuratorates review cases investigated by public security officials, decide whether to approve arrests and prosecute criminal suspects, and carry out public prosecutions on behalf of the government. As the watchdogs of China's bureaucracy and legal system, however, procuratorates are also responsible for investigating cases involving official graft, corruption, and dereliction of duty; supervising criminal investigations, trials, and the execution sentences; and investigating citizen complaints against state personnel. These supervisory powers include the right to appeal verdicts if a procuratorate determines that a criminal or civil court has made errors.

The State Council


General Office of the State Council (国务院办公厅)
Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference ( 中国人民政协全国委员会)

The State Council executes laws and supervises the government bureaucracy and thus carries out the administrative functions of the Chinese government. The Premier heads the Council and is assisted by the Vice-Premiers and the ministers and chairmen of the commissions. Subordinate to the State Council are ministries, commissions, and direct offices, which constitute the State Council's principal policymaking and supervisory offices.

The Chinese Constitution directs the State Council to assure that laws passed by the NPC are promptly and properly executed. Thus, it serves a primarily administrative function. The Constitution gives the State Council specific power "to adopt administrative measures, enact administrative rules and regulations, and issue decisions and orders in accordance with the Constitution and statutes." Before the Legislation Law was enacted in 2000, a tradition of vaguely drafted laws and deference to the State Council left it with a wide mandate to regulate. The Legislation Law defined the subjects that must be addressed in the form of "laws" and thus are exclusively within the competence of the NPC. Together with a trend toward more precise drafting within the NPC, the Legislation Law now provides more concrete guidance on the State Council's rulemaking powers.

The State Council maintains a large staff that enacts detailed regulations and instructions on how to execute the laws. Since the early 1980s, this staff has reflected an overall trend in Chinese government institutions toward greater professional competence and specialization. Improving the quality of its regulations and avoiding conflicts between law and administrative and local regulations on important issues have been high priorities.

Through organizational changes, the State Council has sought to improve efficiency, combat corruption, and advance market-oriented economic reforms. In its March 2003 reform plan, the NPC made several important changes to the State Council that reflect China's interest in developing a "market economy with socialist characteristics." The merger of a number of government bodies that administer China's domestic and foreign trade regimes into a new Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) may prove to be the most significant of these changes. MOFCOM may simplify access to China's economy for foreign businesses and investors through greater centralization and coordination of regulatory activities. In other potentially important changes, the NPC created a new commission to supervise state-owned enterprises, with a mandate to supervise state capital, but not to participate in the management of the specific enterprises. The NPC also created a new commission to supervise the People's Bank of China, apparently to coordinate efforts to shore up the shaky state-owned banking sector--a risky and complex task.

Organs Composing the State Council




Civil Affairs
Foreign Affairs
Information Industry
Labor and Social Security
Land and Resources
National Defense
Public Security
Science and Technology
State Security
Water Resources
National Development and Reform Commission
Commission of Science, Technology and Industry for National Defense
State Ethnic Affairs Commission
State Population and Family Planning Commission
State Owned Assets Supervision and Administration Commission
People's Bank of China
National Audit Office

Organs Directly Under the State Council 国务院直属机构

Institutions Directly Under the State Council 国务院直属事业单位

Working Organs of the State Council 国务院办事机构

General Administration of Customs
State Administration of Taxation
State Administration for Industry and Commerce
State Environmental Protection Administration
General Administration of the Civil Aviation of China
State Administration of Radio, Film and Television
State General Administration of Sport
National Bureau of Statistics
State Forestry Administration
State Drug Administration
State Intellectual Property Office
National Tourism Administration
State Administration of Religious Affairs
Counselors' Office of the State Council
Government Offices Administration of the State Council
State General Administration for Quality Supervision and Inspection and Quarantine
General Administration of Press and Publication
National Copyright Administration
State Administration for Work Safety
(State Administration of Coal Mine Safety)
Xinhua News Agency
Chinese Academy of Sciences
Chinese Academy of Social Sciences
Chinese Academy of Engineering
Development Research Center of the State Council
National School of Administration
China Seismological Bureau
China Meteorological Administration
China Securities Regulatory Commission
China Insurance Regulatory Commission
National Council for Social Security Fund
National Natural Science Foundation of China
State Electricity Regulatory Commission
China Banking Regulatory Commission
Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council
Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office of the State Council
Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council
Economic Restructuring Office of the State Council
Research Office of the State Council
Taiwan Affairs Office of the State Council
Information Office of the State Council
Office of the Leading Group for Western Region Development of the State Council
State Council Informatization Office

Administrations and Bureaus Under the Ministries and Commissions of the State Council

State Bureau for Letters and Calls
State Administration of Grain
State Tobacco Monopoly Administration
State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs
State Oceanic Administration
State Bureau of Surveying and Mapping
State Post Bureau
State Administration of Cultural Heritage
State Administration of Traditional Chinese Medicine
China Atomic Energy Authority
State Administration of Foreign Exchange
State Archives Bureau
National Administration for Protection of State Secrets

Local People's Congresses

The state institutions below the national level are the local people's congresses--the NPC's local counterparts--whose functions and powers were exercised by their standing committees at and above the county level when the congresses were not in session. The standing committee was composed of a chairman, vice chairmen, and members. The people's congresses also had permanent committees that became involved in governmental policy affecting their areas and their standing committees, and the people's congresses held meetings every other month to supervise provincial-level government activities. In May 1984 Peng Zhen described the relationship between the NPC Standing Committee and the standing committees at lower levels as "one of liaison, not of leadership." Further, he stressed that the institution of standing committees was aimed at transferring power to lower levels so as to tap the initiative of the localities for the modernization drive.

The administrative arm of these people's congresses was the local people's government. Its local organs were established at three levels: the provinces, autonomous regions, and special municipalities; autonomous prefectures, counties, autonomous counties (called banners in Nei Monggol Autonomous Region (Inner Mongolia)), cities, and municipal districts; and, at the base of the administrative hierarchy, administrative towns (xiang). The administrative towns replaced people's communes as the basic level of administration.

Reform programs have brought the devolution of considerable decision-making authority to the provincial and lower levels. Nevertheless, because of the continued predominance of the fundamental principle of democratic centralism, which is at the base of China's State Constitution, these lower levels are always vulnerable to changes in direction and decisions originated at the central level of government. In this respect, all local organs are essentially extensions of central government authorities and thus are responsible to the "unified leadership" of the central organs.

The people's congresses at the provincial, city, and county levels each elected the heads of their respective government organizations. These included governors and deputy governors, mayors and deputy mayors, and heads and deputy heads of counties, districts, and towns. The people's congresses also had the right to recall these officials and to demand explanations for official actions. Specifically, any motion raised by a delegate and supported by three others obligated the corresponding government authorities to respond. Congresses at each level examined and approved budgets and the plans for the economic and social development of their respective administrative areas. They also maintained public order, protected public property, and safeguarded the rights of citizens of all nationalities. (About 7 percent of the total population was composed of minority nationalities concentrated mainly in sensitive border areas.) All deputies were to maintain close and responsive contacts with their various constituents.

Before 1980 people's congresses at and above the county level did not have standing committees. These had been considered superfluous because the local congresses did not have a heavy workload and in any case could serve adequately as executive bodies for the local organs of power. The CCP's decision in 1978 to adopt the Four Modernizations as its official party line, however, produced a critical need for broad mass support and the means to mobilize that support for the varied activities of both party and state organs. In short, the new programs revealed the importance of responsive government. The CCP view was that the standing committees were better equipped than the local people's governments to address such functions as convening the people's congresses; keeping in touch with the grass roots and their deputies; supervising, inspecting, appointing, and removing local administrative and judicial personnel; and preparing for the election of local deputies to the next higher people's congresses. The use of standing committees was seen as a more effective and rational way to supervise the activities of the local people's governments than requiring that local administrative authorities check and balance themselves. The proclaimed purpose of the standing committee system was to make local governments more responsible and more responsive to constituents.

The establishment of the standing committees in effect also meant restoring the formal division of responsibilities between party and state authorities that had existed before 1966. The 1979 reform mandated that the party should not interfere with the administrative activities of local government organs and that its function should be confined to "political leadership" to ensure that the party's line was correctly followed and implemented. Provincial-level party secretaries, for instance, were no longer allowed to serve concurrently as provincial-level governors or deputy governors (chairmen or vice chairmen in autonomous regions, and mayors or deputy mayors in special municipalities), as they had been allowed to do during the Cultural Revolution. In this connection most officials who had held positions in the former provincial-level revolutionary committees were excluded from the new local people's governments. Some provincial-level officials who were purged during the Cultural Revolution were rehabilitated and returned to power.

Like the NPC at the national level, LPCs also have risen in prominence and importance in recent years. The Chinese Constitution charges local congresses and governments with legislating on specific matters relating to the localities and drafting local regulations to implement certain NPC laws. Local governments also have the power to draft regulations or detailed implementation rules similar to those that a State Council ministry would draft. The Legislation Law requires that local congresses and governments have internal procedures similar to those laid out for the NPC and its Standing Committee for drafting and debating legislation.

In the past decade, LPCs have been the focal point for much of the experimentation occurring in China in reforming legislative processes. This trend is due in part to increasing popular demand. The Chinese public no longer places complete trust in government officials or institutions, and increasingly looks to the law as a tool to limit government powers. As a result, the public has shown a growing interest both in seeing quality legislation produced and in having a role in the legislative process. Many local people's congresses now view public participation and transparency as vehicles to gain legitimacy for their legislation.

In Shanghai, which is often the center of nascent legal reform efforts, the Shanghai People's Congress has taken a number of steps to open up its legislative process. The Shanghai People's Congress now makes a practice of seeking the views of the Shanghai Bar Association when issuing any new laws, and Chinese lawyers report that the people's congress is considering financial support for academics to draft legislation. Moreover, the Shanghai People's Congress has been a pioneer in holding open hearings on legislation. Using a model for public hearings based on U.S. practice, the Shanghai People's Congress has been working to develop its own procedures. This process is evolving. The Shanghai People's Congress has experimented with different methods to notify the public about the hearings and with a variety of formats for the hearings themselves. It also has sought input and feedback from a number of sources on how to improve its hearings. Shanghai has seen a growing number of exchanges with delegations from other LPCs interested in improving public participation in the drafting process.

Other LPCs also have begun making efforts to improve the transparency of their legislative processes in the past year. The Standing Committee of the Yunnan Provincial People's Congress passed a "Decision to Openly Solicit Legislative Items and Draft Laws," calling for the public to submit legislative items and draft laws. This decision was the first attempt by Yunnan authorities to open the legislative process to public participation. According to Na Qi of the Yunnan Academy of Social Sciences, this experiment may enhance transparency in legislative activities and provides new means of measuring public opinion. The Sichuan People's Congress has been publicly soliciting proposals since November 2002, and it included 13 proposals it received through the solicitation process in the Standing Committee's 2003 Plan on Legislation Proposals. In December 2002, the Guiyang Municipal People's Congress began soliciting legislative proposals as well as comments from the public on existing legislation. The Standing Committee of Zhejiang Province has announced a plan to regularize public participation in its legislative process by opening all of its meetings to the public. Other cities and provinces that have begun to collect suggestions on legislation from citizens include Beijing, Kunming, Gansu, and Guangdong.

These efforts to improve transparency are limited, however, to only a small number of geographic areas. Such steps cannot be characterized as an indication that the legislative process on the whole has become significantly more democratic. The Communist Party still exercises control over the lawmaking process at every level. Representatives in the NPC and the LPCs have limited accountability, as direct elections only take place at the very lowest levels, notably for village representatives to the township local people's congress. Even at these levels, some have questioned the value of elections. While some observers argue that the elections familiarize the Chinese people with the tools of democracy and could lead to a yearning for greater popular representation at higher levels of government, critics charge that the election process only serves to strengthen Communist Party control. Moreover, the elections that do take place have many deficiencies--there are no competitive political parties, candidates are not granted access to the media, and secret ballot booths often are inadequately administered.