The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Corruption and a changing China

Plaques featuring Chinese leaders of the past and present are sold at a souvenir stall in Beijing. China’s Communist rulers declared that the country would embrace the “rule of law with Chinese characteristics,” official media reported last week after a key party meeting touted as heralding legal reform. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
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Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Jeremy Wallace, an assistant professor of political science at Ohio State University. His research focuses on cities, information and authoritarian politics, especially in China. He is the author of “Cities and Stability,” a book about China’s management of urbanization and authoritarian regime survival.

China is changing. What began as an aggressive anticorruption campaign has grown into something bigger. The Chinese Communist Party is centralizing authority, broadcasting the self-criticisms of local officials and calling for a new morality in public life. The party’s decentralized and technocratic rule is over, replaced with a new, more political mode of governance aimed at better controlling local officials.

The most recent stop on this path to change was a major meeting of the party’s Central Committee last week. It released a communique on ensuring the party’s leadership in “the socialist rule of law with Chinese characteristics.” While the tension between party rule and an impartial judiciary remains, the communique called for concrete steps that should allow judges to hold local officials more accountable for their actions. Courts with cross-boundary jurisdictions may let judges rule against local leaders without having their own resources cut. Future evaluations will also include measures of performance on rule of law indicators.

The centralization’s most noted component is the increased activity and prominence of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI). Under Wang Qishan, the CCDI has targeted more and higher-level officials than previous efforts in the reform era, including Zhou Yongkang, a former Politburo Standing Committee member and Xu Caihou, a former Politburo member and vice chairman of the Central Military Commission. The CCDI has expanded, and its officers have ascended in the local political hierarchy. The center’s agents in the provinces can now check local authority.

The centralization of authority can be seen even in domains such as urbanization policy. As I write in “Cities and Stability: Urbanization, Redistribution, and Regime Survival in China,” the Chinese government has managed urbanization throughout its reign, promoting urban stability and attempting to restrict migration to and the size of the largest cities in the country. However, in recent years, there has been a push in the opposite direction, towards building true megacities in and around Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou. Yet this push appears to be more related to the desire for increased central control than purely about urban planning, assaulting the “fortress economies” of the different regions. As Zhang Gui, a researcher at Hebei Technology University put it, “Right now, every official will think of his own region first – from the construction of projects to investment,” because they were judged by the performance of these statistical measures.

This change is more than just centralization. The party has revived the Maoist idea of the Mass Line, encouraging party cadres to share in the experiences of ordinary Chinese and avoid hedonism and extravagance. Some of these officials also engaged in self-criticisms that were broadcast on national television; Hebei’s party secretary Zhou Benshun stated, “I cared very much about development speed and economic volumes but not as much about people’s own interests.”

This self-criticism recognizes the disjuncture between the rapid growth of China’s economic aggregates and the everyday lives of Chinese. Local officials had been evaluated and promoted based on the growth of a few key statistics. How they went about achieving that growth was of less importance for the center. With a free hand, local officials grabbed, resulting in economic corruption and wasteful investments. Even more, I show in a forthcoming paper evidence consistent with local officials “juking the stats,” adjusting politically sensitive numbers (GDP growth rates) at politically sensitive times. The center’s inability to observe local officials may have emerged from a recognition that allowing them freedom of action might encourage growth, but as conditions have changed, that freedom has become threatening.

These economic pathologies come alongside political problems. The pervasive corruption that found China leading a global survey of bribery undermined public confidence in the regime. If the regime’s legitimacy had been in large part based on its performance, controlling local officials that threaten that performance makes political and economic sense. This new mode calls for upright officials to govern China in a traditional, moral manner. Moving the basis for the regime’s legitimacy away from economic performance when it appears that performance is likely to slow has some obvious logic as well.

The party has maintained that while local officials may be corrupt, the center is pure. By tightening the strings controlling local officials, the center is tying its fate to theirs, confident in its ability to change behavior. While the vision of a China governed by the humane authority of a sage ruler has some appeal, centralized power in the hands of a single individual comes with serious dangers. Rae Yang entitled her Cultural Revolution memoir “Spider Eaters” based on a quote from Lu Xun:

Many historic lessons were obtained through tremendous sacrifice. Such as eating food—if something is poisonous, we all seem to know it. It is common sense. But in the past many people must have eaten this food and died so that now we know better. Therefore I think the first person who ate crabs was admirable. If not a hero, who would dare eat such creatures? Since someone ate crabs, others must have eaten spiders as well. However, they were not tasty. So afterwards people stopped eating them. These people also deserve our heartfelt gratitude.

In this new China, the question becomes has the party learned the lessons of the disasters of Mao’s government by whim.