For prior posts in this series, see Whither Xi? Whither CCP? Whither China?


Whither China? post #4 - Question 2 - Xi’s MO - Purifying CCP and the Chinese people – can Xi do it?

You know the stories - melamine in milk scandal, death of Wang Yue, gutter oil, ocean sand instead of river sand in high rise construction, fake college degrees, fake credentials evaluation, chengguan abuses. There are more where those came from.  A society highly desirous of harmony sees everything but harmony every day. 

Peking University political scientist Pan Wei, who is usually deemed an establishment intellectual, has complained that “the lack of the feeling of justice in everyday life is the core contradiction of this country’s governance.” (Willy Lam, Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping, page xv).  These stories are what Xi means by the moral crisis of CCP and the Chinese people – fairness and trust on the street are vanishing commodities.   Trust is perhaps the most obvious missing element of social relations in China.

There are public opinion polls – conducted mostly by western sources - that show Chinese to be very trusting people.  No Chinese believe these polls, or act as if they do.  Trust is in family and guanxi network.  Trust is not outside, even in a more modern China with social media and better communications across distance.  One might even say, there is lack of trust despite social media and online endorsements for products and businesses.  The lack of a feeling of fairness is widespread, as  Martin King Whyte has pointed out.

In this context, it is fair to ask why Mr. Xi has become the General Secretary of the Central Committee of CCP.  There are other princelings with backgrounds as solid.  Mr. Xi's background is, in fact, not impressive.  But there was widespread  internal demand that something be done to reverse the course of the last two decades, and Mr. Xi was chosen.  Some say that Mr. Xi is the leader China needs right now. 

That is debatable.  But there is no doubt that he has seized the reins of power, and is imposing his personal will on CCP and on China.

Fairness in business and consumption is one element of culture that Xi wants to change.  Another cultural element is Chinese tolerance of official corruption, even as they dislike it.  Chinese seem less concerned that top leaders are corrupt – distributive justice -  than they are about getting a fair shake for themselves – procedural justice.  Let us call it “voice” in public affairs.   To purify the Chinese people, Xi would need to change both these cultural assumptions.

Purification of the Chinese people is thus a Herculean task, albeit, Hercules was able to successfully complete his labors.   Moral purification of the people is too big a task even for Xi. In a society forced by population pressure and tradition to seek the tiniest advantage, to rush in where weakness is observed, there is going to be little of this “turn the other cheek” or “there but for the grace of god” business.

Chinese are considered a very practical people -  a bit of, “do what you can, with what you have, where you are.”  How much help are cadres going to give him in moral purification?  He must realize that exploitation of the peasants and migrant workers is not a bug, it is a feature of Chinese politics.  Either distributive or procedural justice would nullify the advantage of being a vanguard party for the proletariat.  “Justice” would put CCP on the same level as the rest of the population, and who wants that?  CCP would have to compete – struggle - for resources and justify actions. Who will join an organization in which “struggle” is again a key concept?  And if justice were to be achieved, what next for CCP?  There’s no money in it. 

In his 2015 book, Willy Lam lays out the failures of Xi’s reversal of reform – if one can intellectually parse that phrase.  The anti-corruption campaign has nailed lots of tigers and flies, but is doomed to fail.  Xi is treating symptoms, not the disease.  Xi is warning – or threatening – both cadres and citizens.

The warning to cadres …

Xi was quick out of the gate on reform – as he understood the term.  The Central Office of the Central Committee is the originator of many policy proclamations.  Traditionally, each year Document No. 1 pertains to improvements in the lives of farmers.  In the spring of 2013, a few months after Xi was installed, a warning came from the Central Office to all cadres in the form of Document No. 9.  The document was titled Communiqué on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere, and warned cadres of the western attempts to destroy CCP.

The first of the Document No. 9 warnings in 2013 is about constitutionalism.  The word is anathema now in China for two reasons – protesters, educated Chinese, professionals other than attorneys – but including attorneys – have begun to read the Chinese constitution, and ask why the freedoms of speech and assembly cited in paragraphs 35 through 41 go unenforced.   My Chinese undergraduates in Hangzhou, in an American political class (don’t ask) from 2009 to 2012, had never seen the Chinese constitution.  I think some of them did not know it existed.

The hammer comes down on the people …

Xi hasn’t – and can’t – make any significant moves in the direction of rule of law, recent articles by Xi to the contrary.  Early on, Xi was clever in promoting “rule by law,” which calls for rule-based governance without applying the rules to CCP.  The constitutional problem is that CCP wrote the Chinese constitution, and cannot give up control over law and policy and the courts without giving up governing power.  Such a change will not happen.  Constitutionalism was the byword for several small organized groups at the end of the Hu administration –the New Citizens Movement  among them.  It was then that the word obtained its threatening connotation in Document No 9.

From 2012 to 2019, courts were under even more direct supervision by the Central Political and Legal Commission. Attorneys and judges were monitored even closer than prior to Xi.  The 2014 document Decision Concerning Some Major Questions in Comprehensively Moving the Country According to the Law Forward promoted socialist rule of law, but obviously CCP could not be covered by such a decision.  Li Ling, law professor at the University of Vienna, describes how that tightening will get even tighter in 2019.

Ling describes the own-goal problems of legal reform under Xi.  From 2012, the General Secretary has continued to make speeches regarding implementation of rule of law, but those speeches do not match action on the ground with respect to court reform or legal reform.  On January 19, 2019, the Party issued a new directive regarding political-legal work, and unsurprisingly, it declares the absolute leadership of the Party over all law institutions, including courts.  There cannot be any judicial independence.  The directive brings back a legal distinction, that of conflicts with the enemy (foreigners) and us (the people) and conflicts between Chinese only.  Li suggests that there will be two legal tracks, separate but definitely not equal.  And, again not surprisingly in the Xi era, the General Secretary will be directly involved in supervision of all work.  Party groups in all courts answer to the Party Center (the core, as Xi has had himself labeled) and most specifically not to the Central Political and Legal Commission, which formerly had oversight.

(Li Ling, Highlights of the CCP Directive regarding Political Legal Work.pdf)

Legal own-goals are not limited to Chinese people. Interpretations of the new Foreign Investment Law do not bode well for foreign businesses in China.  All Chinese businesses, and now foreign invested businesses, are now required to have a CCP committee within management.  How will that work for protection of profits, IP, or independence?


The hammer comes down on the cadres …

Xi has military, security, foreign affairs, economic power, and reform efforts all under his personal control.  The National Supervision Commission is an example.  This new organization, created in 2018, now overseas efforts that were once thought to be very powerful in their own right – Ministry of Public Security, the People’s Armed Police, the Ministry of Justice, the Ministry of State Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, army intelligence units, and the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the feared jiwei.  This new organization therefore takes as its portfolio national defense, domestic security, anti-terrorism efforts, and internet security.  It now has supervision over corruption within CCP as well as outside and has centralized these efforts, rather than leaving discipline and courts subject to local influence.  One is reminded of the Censorate, the dynastic agency that served as the eyes and ears of the emperor to monitor provincial officials, who themselves were supposed to monitor local performance.  In a game of who watches the watchers, it is turtles all the way down.  But Mr. Xi is the top turtle.

Xi has broken with traditional practices, put into place after Mao to restrain individual power.  The concept of collective leadership among the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) is now gone.  Xi is the sole determinant of action.  The Party sought to forbid leader veneration.  Xi has promoted himself through songs, primary and secondary school writing contests, art contests, and promotion of Xi Jinping thought in tv programs and now, all CCP members must take phone study sessions with quizzes to ensure understanding of what the dear leader intends.  For some years, there was increasing separation of government and business; that is no more, with Made in China 2025 and related ventures.  For some years, there was greater focus on administration in government, rather than continuing the revolution.  That is no more, also – CCP and Xi Jinping thought is in direct control of every industry, every social organization, every university program.   All is focused on what Xi wants. 

Which is what?

It is understood that CCP sees existential crisis at hand.   The question now is what is in the head of Mr. Xi - whether all these changes are designed for a future reform-conducive environment, or whether Xi is simply building a personal power base. It only makes sense that to reform anything, Xi would need to remove obstacles.  Wang and Zeng in 2014 saw a clearing away of resistance and obstacles, mainly Party factions and interest groups, that would stand in the way of reforms. 

In that sense, the anti-corruption campaign is more like a purge of enemies than an attempt at purification.  There are factions and interest groups and alliances, cemented over decades, that oppose restrictions on SOE, opening of the financial system to the west, essentially rocking the boat as built over the last forty years.  Senior leaders developed networks of personal influence, with followers through mid and lower levels of the bureaucracy, extending across industries and across provinces.  As Carl Minzner says, the fusion of money and power spread across Party organs, SOE, and private financial institutions.  The model was Zhou Yongkang (Minzner, page 25)  Minzner cites Minxin Pei in China’s Trapped Transition – politics was frozen between the need for economic and institutional reform and CCP politics and vested interests. The risk in 2019 is that politics is again frozen, mostly due to Xi’s actions.  These are errors of commission, and not smart. 

Early on, Chinese thought that Donald Trump was smart, a crafty bargainer.  Much intellectual effort was spent trying to read the tells behind the orange hair or the crazed threats.  Eventually, Chinese discovered there was no there there.   Similarly for Mr. Xi.  Is there a secret plan for reform, or just consolidation of power?  If there is a there there, Mr. Xi cannot get there from where he is starting. 


Next: Whither China Post #5 - Question 3 - Does Xi have a plan … or even a solution?