CCP Internal Resilience – post 5 of 10

Organization Department - Vetting and Evaluation


The vetting process for moving up in the hierarchy is serious and it is constant.  At a certain level of middle management, the Central Organization Department (zhongzubu) controls promotions and lateral moves and arranges annual progress reviews.  The Central Organization Department controls the top 5000 or so positions within CCP, and provincial and local organization bureaus control thousands more.  Someone is always watching, and the watching is everywhere.

Richard McGregor describes the portfolio of the zhongzubu in the Financial Times - An equivalent of the Organization Department in the United States would "oversee the appointments of US state governors and their deputies; the mayors of big cities; heads of federal regulatory agencies; the chief executives of General Electric, ExxonMobil, Walmart and 50-odd of the remaining largest companies; justices on the Supreme Court; the editors of The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post, the bosses of the television networks and cable stations, the presidents of Yale and Harvard and other big universities and the heads of think-tanks such as the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation."  Provincial and local bureaus operate as well. 

McGregor -

Promotions are tied to length of service, education levels and mandatory classes at a party school every five years. Officials holding posts such as governor or mayor are rated according to a lengthy list of numerical indicators that look like they were drawn up by management consultants. Economic growth, investment, the quality of the air and water in their localities and public order all theoretically count in the performance metric. The department has developed all the trappings of a sophisticated multinational headhunter, using psychological tests, lie detectors and confidential interviews with colleagues of officials up for promotion. For modernizers in the party, the benchmarks are essential to elevate the standard of government administration and keep corruption to a minimum.

Bruce Gilley and Andrew Nathan note in China's New Rulers: The Path to Power that in the promotion of individual candidates for high positions, a good rating from the Organization Department is essential. The Department judges on such qualities as "ideological probity, loyalty to the Party, attitude toward work, and ability to mobilize others." Its research on individuals slated for top positions are "probing" and assessments often acute.   As one might expect, the position of leader of the local Organization Department office is much sought after, since the positions carries great weight in promotions and great individual discretion in recommendations.

Officials are not assigned to their home city or province, the same concept as was followed in dynastic times.  This move is meant to cut down on corruption.  Whether it accomplishes that task or not, the movements do require that cadres develop strong local relationships - more binding of oneself to others.  Officials do not remain in one position for more than ten years (two terms) and usually less.  Over time, the vetting process gets lots of data from different locales, and different circumstances, and individuals develop contacts in several provinces and cities.      

Nathan, writing in The Struggle at the Top – 

With rare exceptions, officials have to move up or out after a maximum of fifteen years at a given rank. Unless granted special dispensation, they must retire from government and Party posts at a fixed age between fifty-five and seventy-two depending on their rank. (Indeed, experts have shown that the rules for length of service in grade and age of retirement at rank are so tough that it would be impossible to reach the top leadership at an age young enough to be eligible to serve there, except for special paths upward that are built into the system for unusually talented cadres.

There is testing and education and training and evaluation; rinse and repeat.  It is not meritocracy, as is proclaimed by observers like Daniel Bell, but it is serious vetting and does create a sense of unity with respect to the system and comradeship with like-situated colleagues. 

Richard McGregor in the Financial Times in The Party Organizer - By the time Chen Deming was tapped to be commerce minister in 2007, for example – a post that put him in charge of trade policy and negotiations and foreign investment policy – he had already served in three distinct positions. In Suzhou, as mayor and party secretary, Mr Chen helped build the city in the Yangtze delta near Shanghai into one of China’s most advanced manufacturing hubs, winning kudos on the ground by standing up for local interests even when it embarrassed Beijing. After Suzhou, Mr. Chen was dispatched to Shaanxi, where his reputation survived. Finally, he was put in charge of the sensitive energy portfolio in Beijing before being promoted to take charge of trade.

Moves by the Organization Department are opaque.  Cadres do have some ability to say no to an offered change – I know several CCP members who have declined an offer.  One declined an offer to go from a small city in Zhejiang to Beijing, normally a big promotion, for fear of the air pollution.  But most often, the offer is accepted as a career demand (remember IBM – “I’ve been moved?”) and the career minded cadre complies.  But the moves within the Organization Department are not understood outside – there is secrecy and mystery, two ancient aspects of Chinese governance. 

The career minded cadre knows the process, if not the details, and strives to fit in.  The best way to fit in is to not subject oneself to criticism, and that means protecting oneself. Protection demands secrecy. The best way to maintain power and control is to give only limited information to subordinates – then they must question their own behavior, their own decisions, and hope that they are noticed without seeming to self-promote, another deadly sin (see Bo Xilai).  There is no volunteering of information among Chinese thinking of promotion. 

This secrecy also promotes stability in another way.  The individual who does not meet expectations lets down the team, and no one knows who is looking at you and when.  Barbara Geddes wrote about authoritarian party dynamics, suggesting that cadre dynamics within a ruling party approximate the incentive structure of a Stag Hunt game, in which all players are better off if they fill in their share of the circle around the stag: “No one ever has an incentive to do anything but co-operate.”  Factions do form in single-party regimes, but all cadres are better off if the factions remain united and in office.  They will continue to receive benefits from being in the ruling elite.  It is when benefits decline or are cut off or threatened (see anti-corruption campaign) that opposition can become salient. 

If some group of individuals are like minded toward substantial change, it is in no one’s interest to step forward first.  Nathan makes this point in China at the Tipping Point (Journal of Democracy, January 2013).  No one wants to go first.  This is akin to, “let’s you and him fight.”  The nail that sticks up gets hammered down.  The cadre who wishes to advance plays along. 

Another element of bonding comes from the imprecision in law, regulation, and imperatives from the top.  Without rule of law, and with rules written in maddeningly vague terms, there is uncertainty for provincial and local leaders as to how policy should be implemented.  Ministries have overlapping portfolios, starting from the central government level on down.

Example - I have often commented on the poor coordination between land use planning and transportation planning in China’s cities, even though great sums are spent and great thinking is behind the marvelous plans one sees in reports and dioramas.  The result shows in dense land use with inadequate traffic engineering – as in the seven lanes of traffic from tens of thousands of new apartments, all feeding into one single lane tunnel through the hills into downtown Hangzhou.  We sort of expect socialist planning to do better than that.

There can be many reasons for lack of coordination at the local level, but a fundamental one is that planning for land use and transportation are functions of different central ministries – land use planning is part of the ministry of construction, and transportation planning part of the ministry of communications.  Since the governmental structure repeats down at every level, one may expect the lack of coordination to follow.  There is little need for the separate departments to talk with each other. And so I have been told by municipal urban planners and district heads of communication bureaus.  

But this official lack of coordination in the face of demands to produce GDP means that informal one-to-one cooperation, working out details in late night eating and drinking sessions, is a must.

A vivid memory is a dinner – one of those fabulous feasts, pre-Xi, in Taizhou, a rapidly growing city in Zhejiang.  Ostensibly, the dinner was in my honor, the foreign teacher come to visit students who had been in Chicago for a year.  But as usual, there was far more going on than I could normally detect.  Through the three hour dinner and drinking, officials were coming in and out of the room, lifting toasts and simply hailing fellow cadres from other bureaus.  There must have been half a dozen, maybe more, other dinners going on at the same time in other rooms, with officials running in and out to drink and bond.  This is one sort of place where business gets done.  Repeat this scenario, several evenings a week.  In vino veritas, but also, deals and bonding.  And again, Benjamin Franklin on hanging together.  As to poor results from dinner-time coordination – sometimes the alcoholic bonding is stronger than the ability to promise and remember.  And, don’t forget, cadres have obligations to more than one leader in more than one department.  The unstated concept is that lack of clarity in law or regulation or responsibility will create accountability.  This is a flawed concept, except to the extent it creates partners in deals, with or without corruption.

As Lucian Pye observed in China: Erratic State, Frustrated Society, the lack of clarity also leads to the Chinese political game of feigned compliance. Governance in China is highly decentralized, with local power bases that control government, business, banks and interpretation of national rules.  There is inordinate strength and durability to a political culture in which the central claims omnipotence, the locals pay homage, and no one looks too closely at whether strict compliance is achieved.  This has changed over the last thirty years, as China has become more of an administrative state rather than a revolutionary movement, but the principle still applies.  A bit of, “they do their thing, and we do ours.”

The contrast with American governance is clear – the government in Washington makes law and regulations, and often authorizes locals to make modifications based on local needs.  The authorization, and the rule of law, are the difference.  One would not go so far as to call Chinese localism a form of policy initiative, but rather a version of Minxin Pei’s crony capitalism.  Unclear property rights, unclear regulations and local control of courts means that local interpretation of rules is a must.  Local interpretation leads to local claiming of state assets in land, or resources. To accomplish local tasks – create a new development zone, let us say - everyone must be on board – different departments of government, business, banks.  To demur is to stand in the way.  If rules need to be broken, well, then, so be it.  When the local leader looks good to the Organization Department, we all benefit.  It is American small town business promotion writ large.