If you’re confused about the structure and function of China’s government, you’re not alone. Not only do China’s government bodies differ from the parliaments, cabinets, senates, and congresses familiar in the rest of the world, but the translation of the Chinese names for these bodies is inconsistent. Sorting out China’s government structure becomes a colossal study of language and translation! The dizzying use of initialisms (CPC, NPC, PRC, CCP, CPPCC, NDRC, etc.) makes the confusion worse, not better. This new series of posts simplifies China’s governance, using visuals whenever possible.
A tale of Two Sessions
Two important political bodies in China meet annually in Beijing to hold political meetings. These political meetings are jointly referred to as the Two Sessions (lianghui 两会). The two bodies that meet are:
- China’s legislature, the National People’s Congress (NPC)
- an advisory body composed of delegates, the China People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC).
The NPC meets for approximately two weeks every year in March, and the CPPCC customarily meets at the same time. The year 2021 marks the 4th session of China’s 13th National People’s Congress.
The National People’s Congress
Approximately 3000 deputies convene in Beijing, having been elected from 35 electoral units that include congresses of provinces, autonomous regions, municipalities, and military servicemen. As a point of interest, deputies need not be members of the Communist Party of China. The NPC meets annually in March but more frequently in case of special need. Special need is determined either the request of at least one-fifth of NPC deputies or by the call of the Standing Committee. The members of the Standing Committee, currently numbering 175, are elected from among the NPC deputies to serve for five years in legislative duties and meet every two months.
What goes on at the NPC?
The NPC hears reports from the legislative, executive, judiciary, and prosecutor general bodies of China’s government. The central government’s annual budget is reviewed. Social development policies, environmental plans, and national economic plans are announced, such as the 14th Five Year Plan (2021). This makes the NPC of high importance for domestic and international China observers. The NPC reviews new legislation and amendments. Notably, the 2020 adoption of China’s first Civil Code (中华人民共和国民法典) resulted in Hong Kong’s controversial security laws.
Bloomberg calls the NPC meeting an “annual parliamentary pageant” because it appears that legislative decisions are made beforehand at closed-door meetings – making the NPC a reveal, rather than a true decision-making event. Indeed the Standing Committee within the NPC along with other political offices are the locus of power. Regardless of the accuracy of Bloomberg’s assessment, such phrasings diminish regard for the event. This is no pageant, but rather a meeting of the most fundamental governing body of Chinese government, the “highest organ of state power.” Even if Bloomberg is correct, the term “ceremonial legislature” as suggested by Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation is more respectful of the event’s place in China’s government.
What is a People’s Congress?
The National People’s Congress is the largest people’s congress in China. However, it is only one part of a system of congresses which operate at various levels of lower people’s congresses. The congresses are the representative organizations through which “the people” govern China from the national to the local level. Important characteristics of these people’s congresses are:
- democratic election – with direct election at the local village level,
- responsibility to the people and observance of China’s Constitution within their areas,
- supervision of governance, including removal of officials at their respective levels.
The NPC has a key function in electing Chinese government leadership, including the Premier of the State Council and President (currently Xi Jinping). According to official documents, the NPC elects (from a list of nominees) the leadership of the executive branch of government, such as premier and vice-premier, committee and commission chairpersons, state councilors, and ministers for China’s ministries, etc. Lists of nominees are curated by relevant leadership within the executive branch. The NPC also elects China’s president from a list of candidates nominated by a presidium (i.e. executive committee) within the NPC. Other official functions of the NPC are:
- to make amendments to China’s Constitution
- to “enact and amend basic laws governing criminal offenses, civil affairs, the State organs and other matters,”
- to review and approve plans for national social and economic development, to approve budgets for central and local levels, and
- to manage division of interior borders.
Where does the NPC fit into China’s government?
The NPC, as the legislative branch of China’s government, supervises four other political bodies of governance – each of which has supervisory power over its lower respective bodies. In summary, these are the state administration, military, judiciary, and prosecutor general. The official names for these bodies are:
- The State Council (中华人民共和国国务院) – “the highest state administrative organ” and responsible for civil bureaucracy, synonymous with the Central People’s Government
- The Central Military Commission (中央军事委员会) – unified leadership of the country’s armed forces (including People’s Liberation Army, People’s Armed Police Force, and militia)
- Supreme People’s Court (最高人民法院) – “the highest adjudicatory organ”
- Supreme People’s Procuratorate (最高人民检察院) – China’s public prosecutor’s office responsible for prosecution and investigation 
The other session: China People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC)
The diagram above depicts the CPPCC alongside the NPC. This is slightly misleading because, in fact, the CPPCC is not an organ of the government but rather an advisory and consultative body. The CPPCC is comprised of members from a variety of sectors of Chinese society (full list here). Members put forward viewpoints and policy proposals for discussion at the NPC. The CPPCC does not directly control of policy, but instead provides a mechanism for bringing citizens’ concerns to the attention of policy makers in an organized manner.
The CPPCC is lawfully guided by the Constitution and recognizes the continuity of leadership of the Communist Party of China. Officially, the CPPC aims to develop “multi-party cooperation and political consultation” with China’s eight alternative democratic parties and unaffiliated democrats. The CPPCC is the avenue by which they retain a voice in China’s political system. Regarding the extent to which these parties raise criticism, the organization known as the United Front Work Department (UFWD) is of notable importance as it ensures cooperation with the CPC and manages dissent from individuals and groups who are not members of the CPC.
A unique feature of the CPPCC is that it offers a voice to all variety of stakeholders in Chinese society, not only political voices. The CPPCC members represent ethnic groups, religious interests, social organizations, returned overseas Chinese people, and compatriots from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Macau.
It bears mentioning that the purpose of the CPPCC is cooperative and unificatory, rather than an outlet to bark grievances. From a perspective of fairness, we should acknowledge that the CPPCC officially recognizes special interest groups, dissenting political voices, and ethnicities. Furthermore, the CPPCC facilitates social awareness for minority interests and sparks social media debate, both of which are an important part of developing civil society. While imperfect from a western liberal perspective, the CPPCC nonetheless is an aspect of democracy in China that deserves more attention from China observers.
 General Office of the National People’s Congress (NPC) of the People’s Republic of China. (n.d.). The National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China. Constitution. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from http://www.npc.gov.cn/englishnpc/constitution2019/constitution.shtml; Article 57 of the Constitution
 Article 59 of the Constitution
 Article 60
 Article 97
 Article 99
 Article 101 of the Constitution, Article 48 of the Amendment
 Articles 62-63
 Article 85
 Article 93
 Article 132
 Article 135
 Wang, R., & Groot, G. (2018). Who Represents? Xi Jinping’s Grand United Front Work, Legitimation, Participation and Consultative Democracy. Journal of Contemporary China, 27(112), 569–583. https://doi.org/10.1080/10670564.2018.1433573
 China Internet Information Center. (n.d.). Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Retrieved December 30, 2020, from http://www.china.org.cn/english/27750.htm