Moving beyond power and tightened control

by Straton Papagianneas

Two months after the Two Sessions in March, it might be interesting to revisit two key developments: the first one being the massive government restructuring and the second being the constitutional status given to the National Supervision Commission. Together, they are a manifestation of increased and tighter control over the entire government structure. The former’s aim is to make the Chinese government better structured, more efficient and service-oriented. The changes are immense; it is safe to say that governance will actually become more inefficient before it gets better as local departments get used to the new structure. The latter’s aim is to expand anti-corruption jurisdiction beyond party officials. In this sense, one could speak of a significant erosion between party and state.

However, it is quite simplistic to argue that the CPC has taken over everything. It is not so much about the CPC taking over government – it has always been in charge. When discussing initiatives like the government restructuring or the NSC it is important to move beyond political infighting or power grabs. The question should rather be: how and why do moves like this fit into the larger vision that Xi has spelled out for the country? This feature argues that it is much more about ensuring that policy objectives are achieved, and top-down instructions streamlined.

A major reason for China’s economic success in the last forty years is that local governments enjoyed great freedom how to implement central directives. The CPC stepping away from day-to-day management provided space and opportunity for adapting actual implementation to local circumstances as well as experimentation. There was room for improvisation and diversity at a local level. As long as growth was achieved, all was well. The separation of party and government allowed central authorities to divert policy blunders onto the government: the party was not entirely responsible and could easily blame local government actors mismanaging central directives. Diversified responsibilities and various grey zones provided a buffer to the party’s accountability. Central authorities could even enhance legitimacy by swooping in, punishing those responsible, and restoring order and justice. As long as the country generally moved into the overall direction the party had decided, all was well.

However, the situation has become much more complex in the past decades. Now, local cadres and officials are also evaluated on how well they follow new central policy directives concerning environmental protection, poverty relief, sustainable economic growth, and a whole laundry list of other considerations. On top of that, Xi Jinping’s goals of eliminating poverty by 2020, becoming technologically independent by 2025 (Made in China 2025), achieving middle-income status by 2030, and finally achieving the Great Chinese Rejuvenation by 2050, loom over every single official. It is quite clear why the CPC is anxious to ensure everything happens in good order. Kerry Brown writes: “any disobedience, however small, however seemingly insignificant, is treason to this great effort. … So, no matter what, every effort is being made to make sure that such aberrant events don’t occur.”

Then there is the NSC. Initially, it was argued that it would give Xi’s ongoing anti-corruption campaign, which started when he took office in 2012, more legal backing. Nonetheless, following Jeremy Daum’s analysis, it makes more sense to argue that this integrates and codifies the more questionable party practices into the government system. More importantly, it widely expands the scope of supervision. It essentially forms a new type of governmental organ for auditing all officials’ use of their offices and authority. It will have the jurisdiction to supervise all persons holding public offices and exercising public powers, called “public power holders”. This includes employees and management of enterprises, universities, hospitals, and media. The scope is immense, ranging from the classical bribery and fraud crimes to causing accidents due to negligence. Simply put, it not only expands and strengthens the scope of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, but also general supervision and control.

Still, combatting corruption has always been an exclusive party-affair. Here, the party’s control was always firm. CPC officials cannot be arrested by civilian law enforcement or other outside agencies for criminal offences. Only the CCDI had the right to investigate officials and detain them when it decides they have a case. However, for any official it wanted to investigate, the commission first had to get clearance by the party body one level up in the hierarchy. This process meant that the commission was dogged by politics and political struggle. This is unlikely to change with the NSC.

So why does the party insist on going even further and enhancing control over lesser public servants? The answer lies in the CPC’s insistence on controlling anti-corruption efforts. More specifically, the legitimacy issue that is connected to it. China’s long dynastic history is full of stories of corrupt officials who caused the fall of the dynasty. Wide-spread corruption among the imperial bureaucracy was as a prominent sign of a dying dynasty. Corruption is seen as a failure of the emperor’s legitimacy. Xi understands this and has warned numerous times that corruption would inevitably doom the party and the state.

This narrative is heavily ingrained in collective public consciousness. This inevitably threatens the political legitimacy of the ruling order. However, the CPC managed to revise this narrative. In the 1990s, Chinese leaders and official media rewrote the story of corruption so that it was not a sign of the ruler’s immorality but a threat to economic growth. Corruption became a faceless enemy of the people and the party battled corruption on behalf of its subjects to bring them economic opportunities and social stability. In this new narrative, the role of the party was no longer that of ideological or moral leadership, but of economic management. This made the party’s legitimacy dependent on excelling in the latter, rather than upholding the former.

This suggests that the party monopolises the fight against corruption as a way to enhance public faith in the party. It reaffirms its legitimacy as the only power that is strong and stable enough to provide continued economic welfare and social stability. This was exactly one of Xi’s aims during his first term: to reassert faith in the party and more specifically in his own leadership. His slow accumulation of power and control over the past five years was necessary to achieve this.

This is exactly the reason for Xi’s obsession with control: because it perceives the party’s and its own legitimacy as constantly under threat. Xi has given himself and the party extra time, but legitimacy constantly needs reaffirmation and renewal. With 2021, the party’s centenary anniversary, and the other goals closeby, failure is not an option. Achieving these goals will cement the CPC’s legitimacy at least beyond 2050. Xi Jinping is wholeheartedly convinced that only under the unified leadership of the party with him at its core, it can achieve China’s Great Rejuvenation. This has created a lot of pressure – it is absolutely imperative to achieve this.

However, there are abundant challenges. And when one is so obsessed with achieving these goals, then everything becomes a threat. These challenges could not only slow down progress, but also threaten the party’s legitimacy. There are no excuses: everything rests on the party and the achievements of its goals. Yet success is all but guaranteed. This explains current developments: Xi sees them as necessary to stay on the course he and the party have set out for the Chinese nation.

References and further reading

Quade, Elizabeth, “The Logic of Anticorruption Enforcement Campaigns in Contemporary China”, Journal of Contemporary China 16, Issue 50 (2007): 65-77

Gong, Ting, The Politics of Corruption in Contemporary China: An Analysis of Policy Outcomes, Wesport: Praeger, 1994.

Hsu, Carolyn L., “Political Narratives and the Production of Legitimacy: The Case of Corruption in Post-Mao China”, Qualitative Sociology 24, Issue 1 (2001): 25-54.

McGregor, Richard, The Party: The secret world of China’s Communist Rulers, London / New York: Penguin Books, 2012.

Minzer, Carl, End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining Its Rise, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018.

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