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Representative democracy and Marxist constitutional theory came together in 1954 in a new constitution for China, the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China of 1954. The institution at the top of the system was the National People’s Congress (NPC). Local people’s congresses were organized to provide representation at provincial levels and below. This chapter describes the constitutional structure at the national level under the new Constitution. What was the purpose of the 1954 Constitution? How was it developed? What were the major contents of the constitution? What were to be the key attributes of the National People’s Congress under the Constitution? These are the questions I shall address in this chapter.


A. The Purpose of the Constitution


The Communist Party of China sponsored and led the formulation of the 1954 Constitution. The Communists had the formidable task of transforming their vision for China into a real governing system for a nearly 600 million people. The Constitution had to express that vision. What was in the Communist leaders’ minds about the purpose of the Constitution?


Cai Dingjian, a learned constitutional expert, who has studied China’s constitutional system and reviewed the relevant historical data, has offered his authoritative explanation about the Party’s purposes in a book called Essentials of the Constitution of China. Of course the official explanation to the 1st session of the 1st NPC Full Congress on the Constitution made by Liu Shaoqi provides us with another insight. Cai observes that the Communist leader, Mao Zedong not only wanted China to take “the socialist road,” he wanted to “have it settled within the Constitution.” Liu Shaoqi argued for the socialist mission in his Report on the Draft Constitution. As he saw it, the modern age confronted China with a basic question: “What is the way out for China? Capitalist or socialist?” Liu offered his own definite answer: “Capitalism over the world has declined, while the socialist Soviet Union and other people’s democratic states are booming and getting stronger. In China, our people are building socialism under the leadership of the working class. Therefore, to have a transition from the current democratic society to a new socialist society is the only right way for our nation to proceed. So the 1954 Constitution marked the nation’s turn to socialism.


B. Forming the Constitution


Constitution making during 1954 occurred in a series of stages: preparation, drafting, discussion, formal introduction and approval. The 1st NPC formally ratified the draft Constitution but most of the work was completed before the NPC was called into being.


1. Preparation


Before there was a 1954 Constitution the 1st National People’s Political Consultative Conference (NPPCC) exercised lawmaking power. Its authoritative mandate extended until the end of 1952. During its term of service the Central Committee of the Communist Party proposed to the NPPCC that it authorize elections for the people’s congresses at all levels, including the national level. The elections would serve two purposes. First, the elected National People’s Congress would be in place to approve the yet to be drafted Constitution. Second, the elected bodies could provide the nation with formal governments at national and local levels. The 1st NPPCC easily approved the election proposal and officially authorized the National People’s Government to conduct the first elections.


On January 20,1953, Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai made speeches to the National People’s Government about the elections and the formulation of the Constitution. The National People’s Government promptly adopted a Resolution calling for election of the National People’s Congress as well as local people’s congresses. The National People’s Government put the Election Act of the National People’s Congress and Local People’s Congresses of the People’s Republic of China into effect on February 11, 1953. The elections began in March 1953 and concluded in August 1954. On September 15, 1954, the elected 1st National People’s Congress convened in Beijing with 1,226 to the National People’s Cangress Deputies from all over the country. The NPC was in place, ready to perform its constitutional mission.


2. Actors in the Process


A large and diverse number of people participated in the process of formulating the new Constitution, making the process the most democratic one in the nation’s modern constitutional history after 1911. The diversity of the actors in the process may be observed from several perspectives.


Political parties. There were nine political parties in the mainland of China and all of them participated in the process. The Communist Party sponsored and organized the process.


Social fields of life. Associations of workers, youth, women and overseas Chinese all expressed their opinions regarding the draft Constitution.


The public. The rank and file people also participated in the process directly at the discussion stage.


State institutions. The NPPCC officially proposed the election and the making of the Constitution. The National People’s Government organized the election and drafting activities. The NPC deliberated and gave final approval to the Constitution bill.


Key figures. Mao Zedong was certainly the most influential leader in the process. He sponsored the Constitution making activity. He guided the process with his advocacy. He personally took an active part in each stage of the process. Chen Boda was the leading drafter of the constitution bill. Liu Shaoqi produced the official explanation in behalf of the proposal.


Eventually people from all over the nation mobilized for the task. Everyone, including common people and brilliant leaders, had the opportunity to air his or her opinions about the proposed Constitution.


3. Steps in the Formulation


The momentous task of formulating the 1954 Constitution took place in a series of well-synchronized steps.


Drafting commission. On January 13, 1953, the National People’s Government resolved to establish the drafting commission. Mao Zedong accepted appointment as the Chairman. With him were thirty-two additional members of the commission. They were: Zhu De, Song Qingling, Li Jishen, Li Weihan, He Xiangning, Shen Junru, Shen Yanbing, Zhou Enlai, Lin Boqu, Lin Feng, Hu Qiaomu, Gao Gang, Ulanhu, Ma Yinchu, Ma Xulun, Chen Yun, Chen Shutong, Chen Jiageng, Chen Boda, Zhang Lan, Guo Moruo, Xi Zhongxun, Huang Yanpei, Peng Dehuai, Cheng Qian, Dong Biwu, Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, Deng Zihui, Seypidin Azizi, Bo Yibo and Rao Sushi.  It is worthy of note that this drafting commission was under the National People’s Government and it included leading figures from almost all China’s political parties.


Discussion of the draft constitution bill within the Communist Party. A small task force undertook the work of drafting ideas into constitutional language. The task force was designated by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and was under Mao Zedong’s direct personal leadership. The task force began the drafting on January 7,1954, and completed its draft bill on February 18. From February 20 to March 20 the members of the Party political Bureau and the communist Central Committee who were in Beijing discussed the draft bill at length and made some refining touches.


Drafting commission discussions with selected publics. On behalf of the Communist Party Mao Zedong introduced the constitution bill to the drafting commission on March 23. Chen Boda, the key drafter for the Task Force, explained details about the draft to the Commission. From March to June the Commission discussed the draft bill item-by-item in a series of six meetings. As the discussion in the Commission went forward, the Central Committee of the Communist Party organized public discussions. Leading figures in all the other political parties and for various associations in the large cities discussed the bill over a period of eighty-one days, registering 5,900 specific opinions.


Nation-wide discussions. On June 14 the National People’s Government deliberated about the commission’s bill and resolved to recommend it nationally for consideration by the people. The constitution bill was published in the leading national newspaper, People’s Daily, on June 16. During the following three months approximately 150 million people from all around the country participated in a national discussion of the bill. The commission gathered 1,160,000 questions and opinions during the nationwide discussion.


The commission’s final revisions. On September 9 the commission held its eighth session. The commission made its final revisions to the bill during this session in light of the opinions gathered from the nation’s people. The proposed constitution bill was finally ready for submission to the soon to be convened 1st National People’s Congress.


Formal approval by the NPC. The 1st National People’s Congress convened on September 15 and the draft Constitution was introduced to the Chamber. On behalf of the drafting commission, Liu Shaoqi delivered his Report to the National People’s Congress on the Draft Constitution of the People’s Republic of China. After five days of deliberation the Chamber approved the draft, making it China’s official Constitution.


What appraisal do I offer regarding the formulation of the 1954 Constitution? It is certainly the most democratic one of its kind, not only in modern Chinese constitutional history, but also in modern constitutional life the world over. No nation ever had so many people directly involved in producing its constitution as has modern-day China. The Communist Party of China sponsored and firmly guided the process. However, the Chinese people accepted the Communist Party’s advice, clearly expressed their approval and, through their elected representative institution, said “yes” to the Constitution.


C. Major Contents of the Constitution


The 1954 Constitution consisted of a preamble and four chapters. The Constitution fixed the social system as well as the system of government. What were the essentials of this constitutional system and its basis in socialism?


1. State Composition


Article 1 of the Constitution provided that: “The People’s Republic of China is a people’s democratic state based on the worker-farmer coalition and led by the working class.” This means that the whole state, including all its constitutional branches and departments, was under the leadership of the working class. Politically this placed the whole state under the leadership of the Communist Party. I previously explained why the Chinese Communists chose to compose the state in this fashion. Liu Shaoqi provided a definitive answer in his Report on the Draft Constitution. He said that before 1919 many leading Chinese “studied hard the politics and culture of Western capitalist class, believing that these Western capitalist class’ instruments could really rescue China. They ...attempted to change the state system and social system of China in accordance with the capitalist state model of the West.” However, China’s history before 1919 warranted that the Chinese capitalist class “was unable to lead the people to defeat the coalition between the domestic reactionaries and the foreign imperialists, and therefore it could not turn China into a capitalist republic.” Liu concluded by saying: “Therefore for our nation socialism is the only bright road to follow. We can do nothing other than follow this road because it is the inevitable law for the historical development of our nation.”


2. Constitutional Form


Article 2 of the Constitution provided that “All power of the People’s Republic of China belongs to the people. The institutions through which the people exercise power are the National People’s Congress and the local people’s congresses at various levels.” In other words People’s Congressional Government was established as the constitutional system of the People’s Republic.


Why did the 1954 Constitution reject the Western parliamentary and presidential forms of government and adopt the People’s Congressional Government instead? Liu Shaoqi explained this with two considerations. Of first importance, “It is in accordance with the fundamental nature of our state that we adopt this regime. With this political regime the Chinese people have assuredly resolved that the state goes along the socialist road.” Second, the people’s congressional regime “makes it convenient for the people to exercise their own power. It is convenient for the people to participate frequently in the management of the state by means of this political regime, thereby giving full play to the people’s vitality and creativity.”


3. Constitutional Principle

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Article 2 of the Constitution stipulated, “The National People’s Congress, the local people’s congresses at various levels and other state institutions shall practice democratic centralism.” This constitutional provision means that the state applies the principle of democratic centralism in its decision-making, a provision that contrasts with a constitutional tenet practiced in the West, specifically separation of powers. The classical Marxist writers first employed democratic centralism as an intra-party principle for the socialist and communist political parties. It grew into a fundamental principle to regulate relations among all state institutions. The principle gives order to fundamental relationships in governing.


The relationship between the people and the people’s congresses. The people could elect and dismiss deputies to the people’s congresses, bestowing all powers upon the deputies. The people’s congresses were responsible and accountable to the people.


The relationship between the people’s congresses and their respective executive, trial and, procuratorial institutions. The people’s congresses could elect or confirm the executive, trial and procuratorial officials and could dismiss them at will. The executive, trial and procuratorial institutions were responsible and accountable to their respective people’s congresses.


The relationship between the people’s congresses at higher levels and those at lower levels. Local people’s congresses had to make sure that national laws were followed in their areas. The people’s congresses in national autonomous areas were entitled to enact regulations, exercising autonomy and providing separate regulations in the light of the political, economic and cultural characteristics of the ethnic group or groups concerned. Higher people’s congresses could annul inappropriate resolutions passed by the lower ones. The autonomy regulations had to be submitted to the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress for approval before they went into effect.


The relationship between the executives at higher levels and those at lower levels. Simply put, lower level executives must follow orders from the higher ones.


The relationship between the trial branches at lower levels and those at higher levels. Higher courts have authority to supervise the work of the lower ones.


The relationship between the procuratorates at higher levels and those at lower levels. Procuratorates at higher levels may lead those at lower levels.


In summary, democratic centralism meant that the people’s congresses were responsible to the people while the executive, trial and procuratorial branches were responsible to their parent people’s congresses. Local people’s congresses have to follow national laws and local governments must follow the leadership of the State Council. These components of democratic centralism reveal how the people’s congressional government was to function as a political and constitutional system. Democratic centralism combined the people’s congressional government with a unitary state structure.


D. The National People’s Congress under the Constitution


In his report on the Draft Constitution, Liu Shaoqi explained the central place of the Congress under the 1954 Constitution. He said, “Our exercise of state power is accomplished in a unified and centralized way through the people’s congress.” He added, “The highest power of the state is exercised by the National People’s Congress in a totally centralized way.”  Given its vital position, what attributes did the NPC have under the 1954 Constitution?


1. Electoral System


The framework of the electoral system for the people’s congresses at all levels was set in 1953 in the Election Act of the National People’s Congress and Local People’s Congresses at All Levels of the People’s Republic of China. This act was basically consistent with the election stipulations in the 1954 Constitution. After the Constitution became effective some minor changes were made to the act to bring the law into line with the terms of the Constitution. The act had several key provisions affecting the National People’s Congress.


Universal suffrage. Article 86 of the Constitution provided that “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 status, race, sex, occupation, family background, religious belief, education, property status or length of residence, except persons suffering mental disorder or being deprived of political rights according to law.” Article 4 of the act set the same principle.


Indirect election. Article 3 of the act provided that NPC Deputies are elected by the people’s congresses directly under NPC. Thus the constituencies for the NPC were the provincial people’s congresses; people’s congresses of the municipalities directly subordinate to the national government or with populations over 500,000 and people’s congresses of minority areas directly under the national government. The armed forces and the overseas Chinese each constituted a constituency of the NPC as well.


Unequal apportionment for deputies. Deputies were apportioned to the provinces on the basis of one for every 800,000 in population. The industrialized municipalities received one per 100,000 people. Other kinds of constituencies were allotted a fixed quota of seats in the NPC. The following table shows the actual quota for each constituency in the 2nd NPC.


Quota to the 2nd NPC

















Inner Mongolia






Overseas Chinese




































Taiwan (to be liberated)





Armed Forces




Total: 31 constituencies; 1,226 Deputies




Election committee. Article 35 of the act provided that the National People’s Government would appoint an election committee to conduct the election of Deputies to the NPC.


Submitter of candidates. According to Article 47 of the act the Communist Party of China, each democratic political party, each people’s organization and independent figures were entitled to submit candidates for the NPC.


Vote. According to Article 55 of the act, the vote procedure required secret voting on the candidates for the NPC.


The act included sanctions against illegal behavior in the election. Deng Xiaoping reported at the time that the act aimed to produce a really democratic electoral system. However, given the conditions in that period, some obviously undemocratic aspects, such as different population ratios for deputies that favored industrialized over rural areas, were tolerated in order to move toward democracy in elections.


2. Constitutional Powers


In Article 21 the 1954 Constitution declared, “The National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China is the highest organ of state power.” Article 22 stated, “The National People’s Congress is the sole institution to exercise the legislative power of the state.” After specifically listing eighteen powers for the NPC the Constitution added that NPC should exercise “other powers that National People’s Congress deemed ought to be exercised by itself.” Thus the NPC was the highest organ of state power and the sole national legislature. It was supreme in the national constitutional structure. All the other branches were responsible and accountable to it while the NPC was responsible and accountable to no institution, only the people.


The Constitution specifically listed 18 powers for NPC. According to the Chinese way of thinking these powers come under the next four headings:


Power to legislate. The NPC could both amend the Constitution and enact the laws.


Power to appoint and dismiss state leaders. The NPC was empowered to elect the president and vice presidents of the State, to decide who would be the premier and other members of the State Council, to elect the president of the Supreme People’s Court and the procurator-general of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate. The NPC had the power to remove these office-holders as well.


Power to decide. The NPC was empowered to decide on the plans for national economic development, to examine and approve the state budget and final accounts, to decide on amnesty, peace and war and other matters of like importance.


Power to oversee other constitutional branches. The NPC exercised supervision upon all the other parts of the governing system, bringing about implementation of the Constitution.


These were the primary constitutional powers of the NPC. As I shall explain later, the Constitution established a NPC Standing Committee that exercised additional constitutional powers.


3. Congressional Privileges


Acknowledging constitutional crises in other countries, the 1954 Constitution provided some privileges and immunities for the NPC Deputies as well as the institution itself. The NPC was required to hold a regular, annual session. Special sessions of the NPC could be convened by a call from its Standing Committee or on demand from one-fifth of its deputies. The NPC was entitled to establish special committees, and to appoint investigatory commissions. It had the right to demand and receive materials from other state institutions, people’s organizations and citizens. The NPC’s Deputies had the right to address questions to the State Council or the executive branch and its various ministries and agencies. Moreover, NPC Deputies were not liable to arrest or trial without approval from the Presidium of the NPC Full Congress, or by the NPC Standing Committee when the NPC Full Congress was not in session.


4. Congressional Structure


The congressional structure of the NPC is especially perplexing to people who are not familiar with the Soviet style. To begin with, references to the NPC can mean more than one thing. In its typical meaning the NPC refers to the aggregation of the Full Congress, its Standing Committee and its various special committees. Sometimes it means the Full Congress plus the special committees, not including the Standing Committee. Most inclusively speaking, the NPC was composed of the Full Congress, the Standing Committee, special committees and its staff institutions.


What does referring to the Full Congress mean? Once each year the NPC assembled its 1,226 Deputies into the annual session. This yearly session is the Full Congress. The Full Congress exercised all the previously mentioned constitutional powers assigned exclusively to the NPC.


Apart from the annual session of the NPC Full Congress, the Standing Committee worked as the interim legislature for the nation. According to the Constitution the NPC Standing Committee “was the standing institution of the National People’s Congress.” By the term interim legislature I mean that the Standing Committee was bestowed with a set of its own powers by the Constitution. However, its powers were useable only when the Full Congress was not in session and its actions were subordinate to those of the Full Congress.


The Constitution listed 18 powers for NPC Standing Committee and allowed it to put into effect “other powers granted to it by the National People’s Congress.” To give some examples, the NPC Standing Committee could make decrees, supervise the work of the State Council, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, and decide on appointments of vice premiers and ministers.


The NPC authorized several special committees: the Ethnic Groups Committee, the Bills Committee, the Budget Committee and the Committee on the Qualifications of Deputies. These committees served both the NPC Full Congress and the Standing Committee regarding matters under their jurisdiction.


5. Congressional Term and Sessions


What is the explanation for the NPC to have a Standing Committee at all? The answer to this question necessitates an examination of the Marxist view about the session of the Full Congress. According to Article 24 of the 1954 Constitution, the term for each NPC (both Full Congress and Standing Committee) was five years. The Constitution’s language about the NPC’s session was very terse. Article 25 said: “The National People’s Congress shall hold one session each year, to be summoned by the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress.” How many days would a session last? The Constitution was silent on this matter. The annals of the NPC reveal that the 1st session of the 1st NPC Full Congress lasted from September 15 through 28, 1954, just 13 days. The 2nd session lasted from July 5 through 30, 1955, for 25 days. The 3rd session was from June 15 through 30, 1956, 15 days. The 4th session was 22 days, from June 23 through July 14, 1957. The 5th session took 18 days, from January 25 through February 11, 1958. So the length of annual sessions for the 1st NPC varied. The longest session was 25 days and the shortest was 13 days.


According to Marxist thought, the full membership of a people’s representative institution should be in session for only a few days each year. Congress should adjourn as soon as it completes its legislative actions on major policy matters. Deputies of the full congress should spend most of their remaining time in their regular employment. It is intended that most of each year they are keeping in close touch with the ordinary people that they represent. Necessarily, therefore, some institutionalized portion of the full body of the NPC is required to handle matters of secondary importance under its jurisdiction. That necessity brought about the Standing Committee of the NPC.


The Constitution makes no mention about sessions of NPC Standing Committee. The NPC’s annals reveal that ordinarily there were as many as five Standing Committee sessions each month and that the sessions each lasted for one day. Altogether, 110 sessions occurred during the 1954-1959 term of the 1st NPC. It is apparent that the Standing Committee’s usefulness was appreciated from the beginning of the NPC’s history.


The 1954 Constitution of the People’s Republic of China irreversibly turned the nation into a socialist system. The people’s congresses became established as key institutions in the state’s constitutional regime, with the National People’s Congress supreme. Both the founding fathers of the constitutional system as well as the Chinese people were beaming with joy at their historic achievement. They put the new ship of state underway, confident that, subject to the people’s congressional government, China’s citizens would enjoy full rights and freedom, and that state affairs would function in a constitutionally democratic way. I wish that ship smooth sailing.

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