Why Is Constitutionalism Impossible Under the CCP?

By Xiaokai Xiang

Published: July 8, 2013


The fundamental irreconcilability between constitutionalism and a Leninist political party. 


Xiang Xiaokai (项小凯)

Xiang Xiaokai (项小凯)

Recently, China’s state-owned media has issued a number of articles bombarding constitutionalism, starting a war of words. Among these, one that is rather weighty is an editorial in the Global Times, along with an article in the CCP Propaganda Department’s Dangjian magazine (《党建》) that bore the obvious signature of team writing. Several authoritative official media outlets such as the People’s Daily, the Guangming Daily, etc., which represent the standpoint of the central government, also all declared where they stood. We can pretty much conclude that this fully reflects the attitude of CCP top leadership towards “Western Constitutionalism.”

The question I want to ask though is this: Can China implement a constitutional government under the Communist Party? Regrettably, the answer is no if the question predicates on the CCP staying in power as China’s ruling party.

The concept of constitutionalism is quite simple. It requires that the ruler rules within the framework of a constitution. Of course, this extends from two basic principles of constitutionalism: the separation of three powers and law-making power granted by the people. These are not fresh concepts; they were already thoroughly discussed as far back as more than 300 years ago in the English philosopher John Locke’s Two Treatises of Government.

But the issue lies in that the party that rules China, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), is still a Leninist political party. It is not compatible with a separation-of-three-powers model, nor does it tolerate law-making power granted by the people. This is because in political paradigms, the Leninist party-state system has a fundamental conflict with the constitutional democracy model.

Origins of the Leninist Political Party

In 1912, under the influence of Lenin, the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party, which believed in Marxism, formally split. A faction with a relatively large number of people, the Bolsheviks, became a new party under the leadership of Lenin. It was seen as the first Leninist political party. In 1918, this party formally changed its name to the Communist Party of Russia.  In time, the word “communist party” became a term specifically used for Leninist political parties.

Leninist political parties use Marxist Communism as their creed. They believe that they represent the most advanced direction of development for humanity, and thus the legitimacy of the party is self-evident. However, the Bolsheviks under Lenin’s leadership were unable to obtain a majority of the seats in the legislative elections following the October Revolution in 1917. The Bolsheviks, who controlled the military, dissolved the legislature and completely banned opposition parties. Also, Lenin established the Cheka, the predecessor to the Soviet Union’s secret intelligence organization, the Committee for State Security (KGB), to purge and eradicate opposition inside and outside of the organization.

From nearly the moment Leninist political parties stepped onto the stage of history, there existed a tense relationship with constitutionalism that was difficult to reconcile. Constitutionalism implies that, in political games under the framework of a constitution, different political parties are in a relationship of peaceful competition. However, Leninist political parties use military force as the basic means of power competition, and they have a built-in hostility toward other apparent or potential political parties as if in a state of war. Peace and war are two totally different systems of political contest.

So then, is it possible for Leninist political parties to evolve in the direction of constitutionalism? Let’s examine two historical examples.

The Pre-1949 Kuomintang Party

The first example is the Kuomintang (KMT) before 1949. Whether or not the KMT was historically a Leninist political party is a topic that has been debated continually without rest. In 1923, under the leadership of Sun Yat-sen, the KMT accepted the guidance of Soviet representative Mikhail Borodin and conducted comprehensive reorganization. In nearly all aspects, it was modeled on the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU), including the party constitution, party membership, party discipline, party organization, the development of the party and the youth league, the management of party affairs, party-military relations, etc. But, ideologically, Sun Yat-sen and other KMT elites held fast to their own “Three Principals of the People,” rejecting communism. Thus, the KMT was not a Leninist political party in the complete sense.

Sun Yat-sen and the other first generation KMT elites participated in the founding of a constitutional republic, the Republic of China. Sun Yat-sen’s “Five-Branch Constitution” was one of the core theories of the “Three Principals of the People.” Constitutional thinking had an enormous influence on KMT ideology. The KMT could not use the “proletariat autocracy” theory like the CPSU to conduct single-party rule; it could only use special wartime “political tutelage” to serve as the rational for the mainland’s military dictatorship. The KMT was unable to break away from the “shadow” of constitutionalism in the long run. Constitutionalism is not only the foundation of the values established by the KMT, it is also the legal objective of the KMT’s struggle. Under the constraints of constitutional concepts, even though the KMT conducted a military dictatorship in the mainland, it had no justifiable way to wipe out other democratic political parties.

If one examines the history of Leninist political parties, it is not difficult to discover that in early and medium-stage expansion and construction, the majority of Leninist political parties all go through regular internal purges, such as the CPSU’s “Cheka” and “Great Purge,” the Chinese Communist Party’s “Elimination of the Counterrevolutionaries” and Yan’an Rectification Campaign, the Communist Party of Kampuchea leader Pol Pot’s purges, etc. The outcome of such purges was the elimination of internal dissenters, and the reinforcement of the party’s cohesion. It is a strengthening self-organization method.

Comparatively, the KMT’s party boss Chiang Kai-shek did not accept such “purification” methods. To maintain his power base, he focused more on military than party affairs, strengthening military discipline and sustaining the balance between factions within the party. Therefore, although the early organization of the KMT nearly copied that of a Leninist political party, Chiang Kai-shek continually had a “de-Leninizing” effect on the KMT before 1949. This made the KMT a kind of “half Leninist political party” that entered into the degradation process too early. This is also an important factor in how, during the civil war, the KMT was unable to rival the newer Communist Party, whether in terms of social mobilization or organizational discipline.

The Gorbachev Era CPSU

Another example is the CPSU in the Gorbachev era. In the 1980’s, in order to break away from long term stagnation, Gorbachev, who had just come into office, set about to implement economic reforms. However, following the deepening of these reforms, the disagreement of conservative forces in the CPSU, such as Second Secretary Yegor Ligachev and KGB chairman Viktor Chebrikov, intensified every day. Power struggles and reform setbacks became intertwined. Deep in trouble, Gorbachev gradually moved the focus of the reforms towards the realm of politics, and in 1989 produced an important policy: to establish a truly independent legislative body and introduce open democratic elections.

However, the consequences of democratic elections far exceeded Gorbachev’s expectations. Democratization did not weaken but rather intensified power struggles within the party. Starting during the Lenin Era, power struggles had to be conducted in secret, Stalin was an expert at this. But now, the rules encouraged electoral competitions that are open, frontal, and geared towards the masses. Some prominent political elites, like Boris Yeltsin, discovered that if they were able to get ample legitimacy from public support, there was no more need to subject themselves to the constraints of the old system. This group of people quickly broke away from the CPSU system. In July 1990, Yeltsin declared that he was leaving the CPSU. In June of the next year, Yeltsin was elected as president of the Soviet Union’s Russian Republic.

Constitutionalization inherently demands democratization, and democratization conflicts with the centralized organization principals of Leninist political parties. This conflict is fundamental to the point of utter irreconcilability. Everyone in the world knows the history that followed: the Soviet Union’s conservative faction, the KGB, and military leaders plotted the August 19th coup of 1991 and placed Gorbachev under house arrest. At the moment of crisis, Yeltsin climbed atop a tank and spoke to the masses. He turned the tide, gaining great popularity and becoming the de facto leader. When Gorbachev came out of house arrest, it was already impossible to save the Soviet Union from its fate of collapse.

The Certain Present and Uncertain Future

In order to survive, Leninist political parties not only must prohibit external political challenges, they also must suppress internal power competition. Their system structure, by nature, is incompatible with a constitutional democracy model. In the process of development, the majority of Leninist political parties go through internal purges to “purify” their organizations and strengthen internal cohesion. Although these purge movements were essentially the same, people seem  less willing to accept the Soviet Union’s “Great Purge” or China’s “Anti-Rightist Campaign” and “Cultural Revolution,” which occurred in peacetime, as opposed to the Soviet “Cheka” or China’s “elimination of the counter-revolutionaries,” which happened in wartime. The post-Stalin Soviet Union and post-Mao China basically abandoned this type of purge movement.

Under a constitutional democracy model, the masses and a free press supervise political parties and political parties supervise each other to stem corruption. Leninist political parties do not possess these kinds of mechanisms. And once they stop internal purges, there is likely nothing that can stop the spread of internal corruption. At the same time, ideology degenerates into a code of allegiance that is only a formality, and the actual internal cohesive force yields to a tangled maze of interests and “patron-client” relations. This was the history of mainland-era KMT and Brezhnev-era CPSU. History also tells us that an organization which purely uses interest as its cohesive bond lacks competitive power. Competition in an open environment, regardless of whether in peace or war, creates a fatal threat to its survival.

For present day China, continuing to suppress external challenges on the one hand and prohibiting internal competition on the other will mostly likely be an unavoidable strategy. Under the CCP, China cannot constitutionalize, nor is it able to democratize. It is compelled to go even a step further and block discussions of these topics so as to prevent people from having unrealistic expectations of the future. This is what we are witnessing right now in China in one argument after another against constitutionalism and in Party’s instructions prohibiting discussions of an array of related topics in universities and elsewhere. All of these are perfectly logical and unsurprising. As for what will follow in the future, no one knows.


Xiang Xiaokai (项小凯) is a PhD candidate in information science at Tokyo University. He is also emerging as a fresh voice in discussions of China’s political transition. Translated by Jack.


Chinese original

7 responses to “Why Is Constitutionalism Impossible Under the CCP?”

  1. Thanks for the insightful article. Actually, my personal opinion is that the KMT was a Leninist party. Perhaps it wasn’t such in the Sun Yat-sen’s era, but after his death in 1925 Chiang Kai-shek reorganised the party and gave it a clear Leninist touch. Chiang on the one hand claimed that Sun’s Three Principles of the People were the party’s ideology, but in reality he created a one-party-rule in many ways resembled the CCP’s one-party-state. That was possible because Sun Yat-sen himself, after losing power to the warlords, had established a military rule in Guangdong in 1917 and had declared that the country needed a period of ‘political tutelage’, which was nothing more than a de facto dictatorship. If I am not mistaken, the theory of political tutelage was outlined in Sun’s Principles of National Reconstruction. Moreover, Sun Yat-sen openly praised Lenin and the Soviets.

    Consequently, the KMT became a Leninist party. Both Chiang Kai-shek and his son Jiang Jingguo, by the way, had been trained in the Soviet Union and had learned the methods of the Red Army and the secret police. Chiang Kai-shek admittedly admired the organisational methods of the Russian Communists, although he despised their ideology.

    So, both the KMT and the CCP were dictatorial and Leninist. But if one looks at the history of the KMt one can see an interesting precedent. Even a Leninist party can become democratic and accept the principles of constitutionalism. I find it remarkable that a party like the KMT, which was autocratic, brutal and militaristic, could become a democratic party. I don’t see how this could happen in mainland China in the near future, but when the standard of living of most Chinese will have risen, perhaps the CCP might change its power structure.

  2. Thank @aristeon84 for the comment. In my view, there exist three indispensable components to constitute a Leninist party: a Communistic ideology (Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, etc.) , a totalitarian organization, and a full control of the socioeconomic life. Especially, the first one is the most important trait because the full control of the thought is the start-point of controlling everything in a totalitarian way. From this point of view, KMT (at least in mainland period) obvious did not belong to this category. In particular, Chiang Kai-shek and Tai Chi-tao developed an ideological theory by mixing Sun’s theory and Confucianism.

    Besides, KMT never fully statized the enterprises under its control, while full or near-full statization is the most important economic trait of a Leninist party-state.

    Anyway, KMT had many weak points in its ruling period. On the other hand, perhaps such weak points became advantages for democratization in the future – the party’s poison is the people’s meat.

  3. Urashima Joe says:

    Thank you for the interesting article. I just got back from my first visit to China (Shanghai), and spend a lot of time thinking about what the future will hold. I am at Kyoto U., so if you are ever visiting this area please send me a mail and I will buy you a coffee or beer.


  4. […] the 1989 Democracy Movement. One should understand that, as one of the dissident intellectuals we translated on this website recently pointed out, the survival of a Leninist party such as the CCP depends on […]

  5. excellent issues altogether, you just gained a new reader.
    What would you suggest in regards to your put
    up that you simply made a few days in the past?
    Any certain?

  6. […] Why Is Constitutionalism Impossible Under the CCP?, by Xiaokai Xiang, July 8, 2013 […]

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.