NPC 2023: How China Selects Its State Leaders for the Next Five Years

NPC delegates reading election ballots during the 2013 NPC session. Photo by Tencent.

The 14th National People’s Congress (NPC) will convene for its inaugural session on Sunday. One closely watched task for the session this year is to fill an array of positions in core state institutions whose five-year terms are about to expire, from the nation’s head of state to hundreds of new members on various legislative committees. In this post, we will explain what those positions are, introduce the two methods of selection (election and appointment), discuss the Communist Party-controlled nomination process, and lastly take a look at how the NPC will deliberate and vote on the nominations in the next several days.

There are few standing legal rules on China’s quinquennial state leadership changes. Instead, they follow the ad hoc procedural rules adopted by the NPC every five years, as well as the Party’s internal practices on the selection of candidates. This post is based on those past rules and practices. While the details have changed from cycle to cycle, the fundamentals have remained the same. We will update this post once the NPC approves the ad hoc rules that will govern this year’s elections and appointments.

1. What positions will the NPC fill?

As shown in the table below, twenty categories of positions within seven central state institutions will undergo term changes at the NPC session this year. By the end of the session, the NPC will have approved hundreds of nominees to fill those positions for a five-year term. The exact number of positions to be filled is unclear at the moment, however, because the sizes of several institutions, including the 14th NPCSC, will not be determined until after the NPC is in session.

Other information in the table will be explained in later Q&As.

InstitutionPosition(s)How Selected*De Jure Nominator†
NPCNPC special committees: chairpersons, vice-chairpersons, and membersAppointed
(electronic voting)
NPC Standing Committee (NPCSC): chairperson, vice-chairpersons, and secretary-generalElected
NPCSC: other membersElected
PRC PresidencyPresidentElectedPresidium
State CouncilPremierAppointed**PRC President
Vice-premiers, state councilors, departmental heads‡, and secretary-generalAppointed**Premier
Central Military Commission (CMC)ChairpersonElectedPresidium
Vice-chairpersons and other membersAppointedCMC chairperson
State Supervision Commission (SSC)ChairpersonElectedPresidium
Supreme People’s Court (SPC)PresidentElectedPresidium
Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP)Procurator-generalElectedPresidium

* The differences between appointments and elections are explained in Q&A #2. Unless otherwise indicated, all elections are non-competitive, and all votes are cast using paper ballots.
† The Communist Party is the de facto nominator of all listed positions, as explained in Q&A #3.
‡ “Departmental heads” refers to the heads of the various ministries and commissions (as reorganized by the forthcoming State Council Institutional Reform Plan), as well as the People’s Bank of China and the National Audit Office.
** These positions require formal appointments by the PRC president in accordance with the NPC’s votes.

2. How will the positions be filled?

Broadly speaking, a position is either elected or appointed, as provided for in national law. Except for State Council officials and CMC vice-chairpersons, all officially designated “state leaders” [国家领导人] are chosen through elections. For details, please refer to the chart above. Because NPC special committees collectively have over 200 seats, appointed positions slightly outnumber elected ones.

Because elections can be competitive in theory, they differ from appointments in two main ways. First, only in an election may the delegates cast write-in votes—that is, vote for a candidate whose name is not on the ballot. In the 2013 vice-presidential election, for example, five write-in candidates—including then Politburo Standing Committee member, Liu Yunshan—received a total of six votes. (The sole nominee, Li Yuanchao, won by a landslide, with 2,839 votes.) For an appointed position, by contrast, the delegates cannot vote for anyone other than the official nominee. The second difference is merely technical and has no practical significance. Again, because multiple candidates could theoretically compete for an elected position, the Presidium [主席团]—an ad hoc body that presides over an NPC session—must, prior to an election, decide whom among the candidates to formally nominate. In theory, this extra step can narrow down a longer list of candidates, but in reality, all candidates are selected by the Communist Party and never fail to be formally nominated. The nomination process is further explained in Q&A #3.

Elections can be competitive or non-competitive. In all but one election this year, however, the number of nominee(s) is expected to be exactly the same as that of position(s) available. The election for rank-and-file NPCSC members has been the sole competitive race since 1988. Five years ago, that election was designed to be 8% competitive—that is, there were 8% more nominees (172) than available seats (159). Among the 13 candidates outvoted were military anti-corruption chiefs as well as officials whose tenures had been marred by major industrial accidents or political scandals. Before this year’s election, the NPC will adopt ad hoc voting rules to specify the number of rank-and-file members on the 14th NPCSC and how competitive the election will be.

The procedures for appointments also vary slightly among positions. There are three categories of appointed positions: (1) all State Council positions; (2) vice-chairpersons and rank-and-file members of the CMC; and (3) constituent members of NPC special committees. Votes for the first two groups are cast using paper ballots, whereas electronic voting is used for the third. In addition, the delegates must indicate a choice for each State Council or CMC nominee on the ballot, but can only vote on the membership of an NPC special committee as a whole without the ability to object to or abstain on individual nominees. Finally, confirmed State Council nominees must be formally appointed by the PRC president. The mechanics of voting are further explained in Q&A #5 below.

3. How are the nominees selected?

Historically, nominees for non-competitive positions (i.e., all except rank-and-file NPCSC members) have always won the NPC’s approval and typically by an overwhelming margin. The NPC’s twice-a-decade personnel votes are therefore mostly a formality. What matters is how one gets nominated in the first place.

On paper, the Presidium is the nominator of all elected positions. As mentioned earlier, the Presidium is the presiding body of an NPC session. Its membership, approximately 170–190 strong, changes somewhat from year to year. The Presidium that oversaw 2018’s state leadership transition, for example, included all Communist Party and state leaders, representatives of major United Front groups, as well as cadres from central agencies and local governments. In comparison, appointed positions are nominated by three officeholders with the corresponding constitutional authority: The PRC president nominates the premier; the premier nominates other State Council officials; and the CMC chairperson nominates other members of the CMC.

In practice, however, the Communist Party leadership holds the ultimate power of nomination under the nomenklatura system. Known in Chinese as “党管干部” (the Party manages the cadres), nomenklatura allows the Party to control the appointment of “practically all but lowest ranking officials,” who are then responsible for ensuring that “the Party’s lines, principles, and policies” are implemented. The Party’s vetting and selection of a new slate of state officials traditionally starts a year in advance, and runs in tandem with the Party’s preparation for its own twice-a-decade leadership transition (in the fall before a new NPC convenes). According to official accounts, the process generally entails multiple rounds of consultations with Party members serving at high-ranking positions as well as with major non-Party organizations, in addition to anti-corruption and political review of potential candidates and repeated discussions among Party leaders themselves.

This process would culminate in a list of nominees approved first by the Politburo Standing Committee, and then by the full Politburo. For the more important positions (i.e., PRC president and vice-president; NPCSC chairperson and vice-chairpersons; heads of the SSC, SPC, and SPP; State Council premier, vice-premiers, and state councilors; and all CMC members), the nominees by tradition would be further endorsed by the Central Committee plenum taking place just before the NPC session (like the recent second plenum of the 20th Central Committee).[1] Before the plenum ends, the Communist Party would customarily hold a “democratic consultative meeting” to formally inform major non-Party groups (including the eight minor political parties) of its proposed nominees and solicit those groups’ views. The full Central Committee’s approval is not required for lower-stakes positions, including rank-and-filed NPCSC members, State Council secretary-general and departmental heads, and all members of NPC special committees.

During the ensuing NPC session, the Presidium and other de jure nominators will put forward nominees based on the Party’s list. But first, a top Party official in charge of personnel (Liu Yunshan in 2013 and Chen Xi in 2018), who also sits on the Presidium, will first explain the proposed nominees and the selection process to the Presidium on behalf of the Central Committee. The delegates will receive short bios of the candidates and will have time (typically the half day before each voting session) to conduct “deliberations and consultations” [酝酿协商] on candidates for elected positions—or simply “deliberate” [酝酿] nominees for appointed positions, as they cannot propose alternatives. Such deliberations for all intents and purposes are but a formality that would not change the Party’s list in any way. State media tend to report that the delegates have spoken glowingly of the candidates and have voiced their “unanimous support.”

4. What will be the order of the votes?

The sequence of the NPC’s votes on elections, appointments, and related matters during this year’s session is shown in the flowchart below. The NPC will appoint members of its Constitution and Law Committee (CLC) and Financial and Economic Affairs Committee (FEAC) first, because they are responsible for, respectively, revising the legislative bill submitted for review and submitting reports on the government’s proposed socioeconomic development plan and budgets. The remaining votes will take place during the three days before the session closes. The votes each day will take place during a plenary meeting in the morning.

During each voting session, the delegates will mark and cast all ballots distributed that day in one sitting. The votes thus do not proceed in any particular order, but the results will be announced in the order as the votes are listed in the session’s daily schedule. For simplicity, we have grouped some votes together in the flowchart. Because organic instruments and voting rules must be adopted before personnel votes, and nominators selected before the positions they nominate, the votes connected by arrows must proceed in the order shown.

5. How will the votes take place?

Votes on constituent members of NPC special committees (like all non-personnel votes) are cast using electronic voting devices. Each delegate has in front of them three buttons (each of a different color) that they can press to vote for, vote against, or abstain on a nomination. The NPC’s electronic voting system is developed and maintained by an IT company controlled by the Chinese Academy of Sciences. According to a company official, anonymity was one of their “primary considerations” and the system would “never” track who casts a particular vote. The results of electronic voting are announced on the spot by the meeting’s presiding officer and are also shown on the displays inside the meeting hall.

Paper ballots and ballot boxes are used for all other personnel votes, including both elections and appointments. Before the first vote by ballot (expected to be the PRC presidential election), the NPC will appoint from the delegates 35 scrutineers [监票人] and designate two of them as co-chief scrutineers [总监票人]. (Each delegation can recommend one delegate not in the running for any position as a scrutineer.) The scrutineers are responsible for distributing the ballots and reporting the results of each vote to the Presidium, among other administrative duties. And they vote first during a voting session.

The delegates may mark their ballots in their seats or in one of the “secret voting booths” [秘密写票处] installed at the back of the meeting hall. According to some accounts, however, they rarely use the booths in practice, because standing up in a hall of thousands of seated people—and potentially forcing an entire row of delegates to get up—attracts so much attention that it defeats the purpose of writing one’s ballot in private in the first place. In addition, the ballots were once (and, absent contrary statements from the NPC, are likely still) designed in such way that the delegates need not mark the ballots at all unless they wish to vote against or abstain on a nominee (see photo below). Hence a trip to the secret voting booths would practically be a public announcement of one’s disagreement with one or more names on the ballot.

An NPC delegate reading an election ballot during the 2013 NPC session. Photo by Reuters.

* Delegates attending the 2013 NPC session were specifically told not to fill in any boxes after a nominee’s name if they wish vote in favor of that person. Press photos taken of that year’s ballots confirm that each nominee’s name is followed by only two boxes, one for nay and the other for abstention. We have been unable to find any photo clearly showing the design of the ballots used in 2018’s personnel votes. But it is reasonable to assume that 2013’s ballot design is still in use.

Vote tallying is for the most part performed automatically by the electronic ballot boxes. They are designed by the same IT company mentioned earlier to instantly scan the ballots, recognize and anonymize the delegates’ choices, and tally the results. They are also able to recognize the names of write-in candidates, but these votes will be sent to the co-chief scrutineers to review the computer’s recognition of handwriting. Any ballot declared invalid by the electronic system, too, will be reviewed by the co-chief scrutineers. After the votes are tallied, the meeting’s presiding officer will announce the results to the delegates.

6. What happens after each vote?

To conclude a day’s personnel votes, two events will happen after results are announced in the Great Hall of the People.

First, the NPC will issue several public announcements [公告] to proclaim the outcomes of the day’s personnel votes (except for State Council positions). One public announcement may include the results of multiple votes. For State Council positions, the newly elected PRC president will sign two presidential orders [主席令]—one for the premier and one for other officials—to announce the results of the NPC’s votes and formalize the appointments.

Second, in a practice that began in 2018, newly elected or appointed officials must take the following constitutional oath before assuming their offices:

I pledge to be loyal to the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, to safeguard the authority of the Constitution, to perform legally prescribed duties, to be loyal to the motherland and to the people, to be dedicated to my duties, to have integrity and serve the public interest, to accept the people’s supervision, and to make arduous efforts to build a strong modern socialist country that is prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced, harmonious, and beautiful!


The PRC president, vice president, NPCSC chairperson, State Council premier, CMC chairperson, and heads of the SSC, SPC, and SPP will take the oath individually, while others will do so in several groups.[2] Because constitutional-oath ceremonies are held at the end of a voting session, since 2018, the PRC president has signed presidential orders to formally appoint State Council officials immediately after the results are announced and in the presence of other attendees inside the Great Hall of the People.

[1] The (sole) nominee for the NPCSC secretary-general presumably also requires the Central Committee’s endorsement, but the position has not been mentioned in official accounts of the selection process.

[2] The officials in each of the following groups will take the constitutional oath together: (1) NPCSC vice-chairpersons and secretary-general; (2) CMC vice-chairpersons and members; (3) rank-and-file NPCSC members; (4) State Council vice-premiers, state councilors, and secretary-general; (5) constituent members of all NPC special committees; and (6) State Council departmental heads.

Edited by Changhao Wei & Taige Hu

Comments & Pingbacks

Leave a Reply