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The First Constitution of 1954

Mar 20, 2017 © Ulrich Theobald

The first State Constitution of the People's Republic (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo xianfa 中华人民共和国宪法) was adopted on September 20, 1954, five years after the creation of the state structure. It lasted until the years of the Cultural Revolution, when the administration was replaced by revolutionary committees (geming weiyuanhui 革命委员会). The new statutes of 1954 gave the a Party a legal position and a leading role at every level in the hierarchy, while Party members held all important posts in state institutions.

The National People's Congress

The legislative body of the state structure was the National People's Congress (Quanguo renmin daibiao dahui 全国人民代表大会). It was elected for a four-year term by provincial congresses, which were in turn elected by congresses at the district (xian) and village/township (xiang) levels. Several seats were reserved for members of the Army, Overseas Chinese, and delegates of the National Minorities. In practice, only one list of candidates existed that was approved by the Party, yet the electorate might be able to exert moral pressure. The electoral law from March 1, 1953, provided for one member for each 100,000 people in towns of more than half a million inhabitants, and one for 800,000 people in the countryside. The Congress amended the Constitution, exercised legislative power, appointed the president and the vice-president, and voted the budget and plans for economic development. It was to meet once a year for a two-week session. There was debate as common in parliamentary systems. In-between the plenary sessions the Congress was represented by a Standing Committee (Quanguo renmin daibiao dahui changwu weiyuanhui 全国人民代表大会常务委员会) that met twice a month. In theory, it controlled the Prime Minister (Guowuyuan zongli 国务院总理) and could remove the Chairman of the PRC from office.

The Chairman of the PRC

The Chairman of the People's Republic of China (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo zhuxi 中华人民共和国主席) was elected for four years by the Congress. He presided over the National Defense Council (Guofang weiyuanhui 国防委员会), commanded the army, appointed and dismissed the Premier, and represented China in foreign affairs. He had the power to convene the Supreme State Conference (Zuigao guowu huiyi 最高国务会议), an extraordinary organ only assembled about 20 times.

The State Council

The State Council (Zhonghua renmin gonghehuo guowuyuan 中华人民共和国国务院) was the highest executive organ. It consisted of about forty ministries or commissions under the authority of the Premier and 10-15 Vice-Premiers. It was under the control of the Congress and the Party. It had the right to lay bills before the Congress. Under the chaotic circumstances of the Cultural Revolution, the Council in fact exerted greater power than the Constitution actually allowed. The State Council had no power over the National Defense Council, the Supreme People's Court, the court of appeal and the court controlling all judicial activities, and the Supreme People's Procuratorate.

The Political Consultative Conference was not abolished. Its 1,000 members met to session held to the same time as the National People's Congress, and concentrated to a Standing Committee of 300 members.

Local Congresses

Local People's Congresses (Difang geji renmin daibiao dahui 地方各级人民代表大会) were elected at each of the three regular administative levels, the provinces (sheng, and Autonomous Regions, respectively), counties (xian) and villages/townships (xiang). Everyone aged 18 and older had a vote. Township congresses (7-30 delegates), elected for two years, elected the county congresses (30-40 delegates), also elected for two years. These in turn elected the provincial congresses (50-600) for a term of four years. The local congresses supervised the observance of laws and approved local budgets. In practice, their chief duty was to elect people's councils (Difang geji renmin weiyuanhui 地方各级人民委员会) representing them to ensure that laws were executed; in other words, councils were the executive organs of local people's congresses. These councils were presided over by chairmen (shengzhang 省长, shizhang 市长, xianzhang 县长, quzhang 区长, xiangzhang 乡长, zhenzhang 镇长) and consisted of 25-55 members for the provinces, 9-31 for the counties, and 3-13 for the villages/townships. They met once or twice a month and had at their disposal administrative and technical units.

The Supreme People's Court

The Supreme People's Court (Zhonghua renmin gonghehuo zuogai renmin fayuan 中华人民共和国最高人民法院) and local people's courts (renmin fayuan 人民法院) at various levels and special people's courts exercised judicial authority. Their presidents (yuanzhang 院长) were appointed for a term of four years. All cases in the people's courts were heard in public except those involving special circumstances as prescribed by law. The accused had, in theory, the right to defense. The people’s courts administered, also in theory, justice independently, and were subject only to the law. The Supreme People's Court was responsible and accountable to the National People's Congress or its Standing Committee.

The Supreme People's Procuratorate

The Supreme People's Procuratorate (Zhonghua renmin gongheguo zuigao renmin jianchayuan 中华人民共和国最高人民检察院) and local people's procuratorates (difang geji renmin jianchayuan 地方各级人民检察院) and special people's procuratorates (zhuanmen renmin jianchayuan 专门人民检察院) exercised procuratorial authority to ensure observance of the law by all the departments under the State Council, or local organs of state at various levels, respectively. The term of office of the Chief Procurator of the Supreme People's Procuratorate (jianchazhang 检察长) was four years.

The Rights and Duties of Citizens

In chapter three, the Constitution defined the rights and duties of citizens. All citizens were equal before the law, had the right to vote and stand for election, irrespective of their nationality, race, sex, occupation, social origin, religious belief, education, property status, or length of residence, except insane persons and persons deprived by law of the right to vote and stand for election. The last point is important, as it shows that personal rights for individuals could be abrogated. The Constitution stressed the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, association, procession, demonstration, religious belief, scientific research, and literary and artistic creation. Citizens had the right to work and that for education. Working people had the right to rest and leisure, and to material assistance in old age, and in case of illness or disability. The Constitution also guaranteed the right to make written or oral complaints to organs of state at any level against any person working in an organ of state for transgression of law or neglect of duty.