The Chinese Communist Party's 80 million members make it the largest political party in the world, and it oversees and influences many aspects of people's lives, from what is seen on television and on the Internet to the one-child policy, experts say.
"Although the Chinese government is authoritarian -- it is a one-party state -- the government is fragmented by territory," said Mary Gallagher, director of the University of Michigan's Center for Chinese Studies. "It is not a federal system, but some people say it would function like a federal system so local systems have a lot of power and that was a choice made in the 1980s to promote economic growth."
Culture and politics in China are vastly different than in the West.
After the September, 1976, death of Mao Zedong, China's leader for 27 years, the 1978 introduction of the "Four Modernizations" and economic reform initiated under leader Deng Xiaoping have led over the past three decades to a market reform accelerated by the establishment of a socialist market economy.
The transformation reached high points in 2010 when China became the world's largest exporter and then again last year when China overtook Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world, behind the United States.
"In terms of ordinary people, and this is related to China being authoritarian and compared to the pre-1978 era, the party is not interfering in most decisions that people make with the exception of the birth policy -- the one-child policy," Ms. Gallagher said. "Although people don't have political freedom they have a lot of personal freedom with the exception of the one-child policy." Under the policy, couples are allowed only one child, with consequences for having more.
At the same time, she said censorship of social networking Web sites is common as a way to control the flow of information.
Regarding business, the government is very involved.
"The government is very invested in the economy, so it is a very hands-on government," Ms. Gallagher said. "It's also the case that local governments in China compete to attract businesses."
The Chinese government has always been subordinate to the ruling Chinese Communist Party, for which membership is coveted and difficult to obtain, experts said.
Edward Friedman, a professor emeritus of political science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and an expert on Chinese politics and U.S.-Asian relations, said there is a great competition for membership.
"It takes the recommendation of two members in the party of your unit, where you live, or go to school, or work," Mr. Friedman said. "It is great competition because it is sort of the union card to good connections in helping you in your career. It is not because you believe in communism. This is the network of people who have power."
He said new members, or nominee members, are on probation for a period and supposedly are observed.
Ms. Gallagher agreed regarding the difficultly of joining the party.
"It is very difficult to enter the Communist Party, and party membership is still very low as a percentage of the total population," she said. "Members' characteristics have also changed dramatically since the Maoist era. In those days, it was better to have a humble class background -- worker, farmer, or soldier in the revolutionary army. [Now], the party is a technocratic elite, with more and more young, upwardly mobile people vying to get into the party because it shows that you are the cream of the crop and it can help you professionally."
She said the Chinese Communist Party "also began to let private entrepreneurs into the party in the 1990s."
According to the U.S. Department of State, China's government branches are made up of the executive branch, with president, vice president, State Council, and premier; the legislative branch, with its unicameral National People's Congress, and the judicial branch, which includes the Supreme People's Court, Local People's Courts, and Special People's Courts. China is divided into 23 provinces. The People's Republic of China considers Taiwan to be its 23rd province.
There are five autonomous regions, including Tibet.
The Chinese Communist Party, "authoritarian in structure and ideology, continues to dominate government," according to the U.S. State Department. "Nevertheless, China's population, geographical vastness, and social diversity frustrate attempts to rule by fiat from Beijing. Central leaders must increasingly build consensus for new policies among party members, local and regional leaders, influential nonparty members, and the population at large."
Party control is tightest in government offices and in urban economic, industrial, and cultural settings. It is considerably looser in the rural areas, where roughly half of the people live, the U.S. Department of State Web site says.
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