What does party control mean in China

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THE is working of Chinese power is not easy for outsiders to follow. Two vertical signboards welcome visitors to some official buildings, one in black characters and the other in red. The sign with black letters indicates a government department. Red characters indicate the organ of the Communist Party. In bureaucratic slang this is called “party and government on one shoulder pole”. Sometimes the two offices oversee the same policy area, and employ some of the same officers. They are not as obvious. Especially when meeting foreigners, officials may present name cards with government titles but remain silent about party positions that may or may not overlap with their state jobs. Many party branches are not publicly identified at all.

It is a good time to remember this movement of Chinese governance. Annual session of the National People’s Congress (NPC), the ceremonial legislature of the country, going on from March 5th to 13th. This year NPC the meeting follows a major party conference last October. At that gathering China’s supreme leader, President Xi Jinping, was awarded a third normal term and filled the highest ranks of his party with loyal supporters. Now Mr Xi’s new team has made headlines with a bureaucratic shake-up that will take away powers from several government ministries and agencies, including agencies tasked with making China self-reliant in high- technology and data management and financial markets. Many of these powers are now exercised by party-led commissions.

NPC the representatives proposed the changes in their parliamentary simulacrum with marble columns, crystal-chandeliered, because they know the drill. They will soon put their stamp on Mr. Xi’s latest move to impose the party’s will, meaning his own will, on China’s vast bureaucracy. When they do, outsiders have the right to remember those black and red signboards and ask an innocent question: in a country where government and party officials can occupy the same building to share – and it may be the same people – what it really means. the state to give power to the party?

In China’s opaque political system, one way to understand a new policy is to examine the old ideas it rejects. Mr Xi’s grip on power challenges lessons his predecessors drew from the chaotic rule of Chairman Mao Zedong, when loyalty to the leader and ideological fervor were the forerunners of good government. In the years after Mao’s death in 1976, economic reformers moved to a separate party and state. They sought to free enterprises from the stifling hand of central planners, and free farmers and factory managers from micro-management by party committees. They took political cover from the supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, who – although not politically liberal – publicly warned that “too much concentration of power tends to lead to arbitrary rule by individuals.” In the late 1980s, reformers promoted the idea of ​​a “defense party”, a smaller, more nimble party whose role it was to set an overall ideological line, not “try to control its everything”, remembers Professor Anthony Saich from Harvard University, who conducted interviews. reformist officials in China in those years.

Over time more power was devolved to local governments, and their officials were rewarded for overseeing rapid growth. In the late 1990s, when entrepreneurs could no longer be ignored, the party moved to co-opt them, accepting businessmen as members. Then came Mr. Xi. Shortly after becoming leader in 2012, he declared the Communist Party dangerously polluted by money and far removed from the everyday lives of the people. He has spent the last decade reasserting the party’s authority over all aspects of public life. This week Mr Xi announced that entrepreneurs need more “theoretical and political guidance” to understand their responsibilities to the party and the country.

Mr Xi speaks of the nearly 97m party members as if they were missionaries in an atheist church, emphasizing their self-sacrificing “red spirit” and paying tribute to “martyrs” who died for the revolution or in the service of the people. That religious language is useful to clarify. Most senior officials, whether in a ministry, mayor’s office, state-owned enterprise or university, are members of the party. One way of thinking of them is as non-false believers, with varying degrees of faith. Then there are party workers whose roles take them from a village party committee, say, to a post as a county party secretary or other public institution. They are more like priests, with a life controlled by doctrine, discipline and secrecy.

When ideology trumps knowledge

Jing Qian of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a New York-based think tank, describes important differences between state and party offices. Chinese government agencies are subject to (some) institutional and legal constraints. Party organizations are self-policing and their powers are limited only by the party constitution. He compares the professionalism of technocrats with the political motivations that drive the party cadres. For example, he imagines an official with 20 years of experience at the People’s Bank of China debating policy with a party group on a brief post to the central bank. The banker may be urging caution in the name of financial stability. But the party official wants to please senior political officials and earn a promotion. So the technocrat is overpowered.

The “zero-covid” campaign in China offers real-world evidence of professional judgments clouded by politics. As soon as the Omicron revolution arrived in 2022, some famous scientists called for more efforts to vaccinate vulnerable senior citizens and collect antiviral drugs. But Mr Xi had indicated that lockdowns and quarantines could defeat the virus, so suggesting ways to deal with covid-19 was heresy. Experts fell silent or were driven away. As a result, when zero-covid came down last December, the country was unprepared. After hiding many covid deaths, China’s rulers now say their pandemic controls are “a miracle in human history”. Every government makes mistakes. What matters is whether they learn from them. Mr. Xi’s record is not encouraging.

Read more from Chaguan, our China columnist:
Why aren’t China and America more afraid of war? (March 2nd)
China’s people are fed up, but not on the verge of revolution (February 23)
China is losing Taiwanese hearts and minds (February 16)

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