Who’s at the Wheel of China’s Anticorruption Drive?

Since China’s anticorruption drive kicked off five years ago, it has had a tremendous impact on the country’s politics. The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), until recently led by President Xi Jinping’s close ally Wang Qishan, has targeted officials both high and low—so-called tigers and flies. According to the CCDI’s own data, more than 70,000 officials at or above the level of county head have been investigated, and close to two million officials have been punished in some way. The drive has also ensnared a few senior figures who, during their days of freedom, where among the most powerful men in China, including Zhou Yongkang and Bo Xilai. The CCDI’s power does not stop even at China’s borders: According to official statistics, by the end of August 2017, over three thousand fugitives had been repatriated from more than 90 countries.

But the drive is now shifting gears. Last October, in his speech opening the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) 19th Party Congress, President Xi laid out plans to “deepen reform of the national supervisory system” and establish a new body, the National Supervisory Commission (NSC), to spearhead anticorruption efforts. The NSC is expected to consolidate and institutionalize the hitherto campaign-style anticorruption efforts of the CCDI. (While the exact structure of the NSC is still unknown, it will be based on lessons learned from pilot projects – the so-called Provincial Supervisory Commissions (PSCs) established in the city of Beijing, as well as Shanxi and Zhejiang provinces.) The new anticorruption system outlined by President Xi for the national level is likely to have four major effects:

  • First, the NSC consolidates all anticorruption functions from both the CCP and Chinese state under one roof. This means that CCP discipline inspectors will share with government prosecutors office space, investigative tools, operational profiles, and, most crucially, bosses. The desire to direct anticorruption from Beijing was an important motivation for the original CCDI anticorruption campaign. As Renmin University Professor Deng Jinting has explained, before the CCDI began its current drive in 2012, anticorruption work in China proceeded on a “dual track” system: first, CCP disciplinary organs would investigate an official, and only afterwards would cases be referred to local judicial organs. Professor Deng explains that the dual track failed to combat local corruption effectively because both tracks were primarily controlled by local party leaders. While the CCDI-led anticorruption drive got around this problem by increasing Beijing’s control of party disciplinary control, it didn’t fundamentally alter the dual-track system. The NSC reform, by contrast, eliminates dual tracks by placing all anticorruption work within one body. Moreover, it avoids the problem of local elite capture by giving the national, rather than local, CCP officials “leading control” over anticorruption work.
  • Second, the NSC reforms institutionalize what had previously been campaign-style efforts led by the CCDI and Mr. Wang. There was much speculation preceding the 19th Party Congress that Mr. Wang’s anticipated retirement would signal a reduction in anticorruption efforts. Though Mr. Wang did indeed retire, it seems that President Xi intends to consolidate and strengthen the anticorruption effort, giving the NSC a solid basis in law and a constitutional status equal to some of China’s highest governing organs. An important part of institutionalization will be defining the NSC’s investigative powers, and what procedures it will have to follow. On this point, while many observers have celebrated the decision to forbid certain abusive investigatory procedures – chief among them the notorious CCDI practice of shuanggui – others worry that the NSC’s powers are still too broad, and the procedures still too opaque to allow for the protection of human rights. Though the NSC’s powers will be defined by the state rather than the CCP, this isn’t enough to quell doubts. After all, China’s police, whose powers are similarly defined, have often been accused of human rights abuses. Moreover, the question of the effect of the NSC’s establishment on China’s court system is still unresolved: While the CCDI would choose which cases to refer to the judiciary only after exhausting internal processes (often dogged by allegations of torture), it’s not yet clear how the NSC will interact with China’s courts, and whether the judiciary will be able to exert significant influence on the targets or procedure of NSC investigations.
  • Third, the NSC’s remit will extend not only to party members, but to all Chinese government officials—including all those who serve not only in core government offices, but also those in local “People’s Congresses, political consultative conferences, hospitals, schools, and other personnel,” and presumably also universities. This may not seem like much of a change, since most officials are party members anyway, and those who aren’t could always have been prosecuted by the Chinese state (as opposed to the Party). But it’s important not to understate what an enormous expansion of control this represents: The same body will now be responsible both for administering Party discipline and for enforcing ordinary anticorruption law. The difference is important: the CCP mandates that members follow a distinct, and more stringent, set of disciplinary regulations that don’t apply to normal Chinese citizens. Yet many observers worry that the consolidation of enforcement functions in a single body will ultimately lead to the application of CCP Party Law to the wider Chinese populace. This fear is amplified by reports from the existing PSCs, where personnel from non-Party organs consolidated into the PSC have undergone training on “party discipline inspection.” Says one cadre, “Before, we considered the problem [of corruption] from a legal point of view, and our standards were guilt and innocence, but now we are expected not only to enforce the law, but also to enforce [Party] discipline; we not only look at official crimes, but also seek to raise consciousness of Party discipline.”
  • Finally, though frequently unstated, an important and widely-acknowledged goal of the NSC is increasing the central CCP’s power over the state. This isn’t necessarily sinister—as noted by Professor Deng, the ability of local officials to block investigations was one of the main reasons that corruption in China had reached such endemic proportions. But it does mean that observers shouldn’t kid themselves about who is in charge of anticorruption work in China. The problem with centralized Party control is that discipline processes are not visible to outside observers, and so it is impossible to assess whether the number, distribution, and targeting of investigative measures is unbalanced. As long as anticorruption work is driven by opaque Party processes, without a transparent legal framework, there will always be questions about the motivations. And while current plans vest control over the NSC and PSCs with the National and Provincial People’s Congresses, respectively, this is unlikely to represent a serious check on abuse, as China’s legislatures are not exactly praised for their independence. Similarly, existing plans for day-to-day supervision to be conducted by a separate cell established within the NSC itself hardly seems like a recipe for independent, rigorous oversight. Those expecting the foundation of the NSC to result in a spring for rule of law in China are therefore likely to be disappointed—unless what they mean is rule by Party Law.

While much remains unknown, the fact that the creation of the NSC represents such a victory for the central CCP, at the expense of (admittedly corrupt) local party leaders, should give observers cause for concern. The reforms seem unlikely to lead to more transparency and accountability—instead, in anticorruption, as in so much else, the CCP will stay at the wheel.

9 thoughts on “Who’s at the Wheel of China’s Anticorruption Drive?

  1. Good questions are raised in this article that deserve a lot of attention. (i) Is creation of the NSC a cause for concern? (ii) Are anti-Corruption reforms unlikely to lead to more transparency and accountability? (iii) Is more centralized Party corruption control from Beijing going to make investigators, judges and prosecutors even weaker and more corrupt? The answers are clearly yes, yes and yes!

    Xi’s unprecedented crackdown on Rights lawyers, civil society groups, anti-corruption advocates and Internet and privacy freedoms, more-so than the sheer number of individuals prosecuted, tells the real anti-corruption story in today’s emerging China. The days of scholars writing and others dreaming about an independent judiciary, an engaged civil society and the possibility that systemic not just selective high level party corruption would one day be addressed are clearly over. So much for the rule of law in China.

    Another cause for great concern is whether the NSC is going to use its new seemingly limitless unchecked power to further censor and investigate those doing business within China or Chinese businesses anywhere. I think we all know the answer to that question as well.

    Excellent article and warning call to all1

    • Centralization of CCP’s power over the anticorruption campaign can certainly raise lots of doubts as to its motives and how this is going to affect China’s path to the rule of law, and yet it is too early to slide down the slippery slope where at the end everything is ruined. NSC unifies the pre-existing inconsistent practices at the state level while the Supervisory Law limits the wide discretion of the NSC and SCs. If we take a result-oriented approach, the anticorruption campaign would presumably be more effective and standardized and there would be less abuse of power. Compared to the current situation we must admit it is a progress.

      When we talk about China, we have to remind ourselves that development would always be incremental and political pushback is an inevitable component of the process.

      • Hi Helen, a work in progress it certainly is, and it will be interesting to see how the NSC operates in practice. The reason for my concern is that the materials I’ve read on the PSCs seem to indicate that the Party element will be very strong, in terms of personnel, procedures, and ultimately, selection of cases. Given this inherently political and opaque element, I find it hard to see how we’ll get the kinds of standardization that matter in a rule of law society. As for abuse of power, I’m not confident that the Supervisory Law will represent an adequate safeguard absent energetic judicial enforcement (after all, who is to police the NSC?).

        But as we’ve discussed in the past, it’s always a mistake to think you have China figured out, so I’ll keep watching.

  2. Really nice analysis of these changes, Tom. One of the common narratives about China’s anticorruption efforts has been that they are at least partly (up to mostly) to help President Xi consolidate power and neutralize political enemies. I wonder — how do these changes play into (or rebut) that narrative?

    • Hi Jacob, that’s certainly part of my take. I tend to agree with the line of thought that holds that many of the changes evidenced at the 19th party congress and before – from the insertion of Xi Jinping thought into the constitution to his earlier enshrinement as the nation’s core leader – make Xi into a much more powerful leader than anyone since Mao. It’s therefore hard to argue that the anticorruption drive doesn’t have the effect of targeting Xi’s opponents.. At the same time, I do agree with Helen that these changes are sincerely directed, at least in part, at reducing corruption in Chinese society as a whole. I guess I would say it’s 70% bad and 30% good, to paraphrase Deng Xiaoping.

  3. Pingback: Who’s at the Wheel of China’s Anticorruption Drive? | Matthews' Blog

  4. Great post, Tom, and I appreciate your bringing these issues into the conversation. I am curious about the disciplinary regulations. Do you think there is an argument that setting a standard of conduct above the rule of law has advantages in creating a culture in China that does not tolerate corruption? Also, in five years, I would imagine that President Xi Jinping and the anticorruption effort has tracked lessons learned and best practices – do you think this is just an iteration on the original form for improvement?

    • Thanks Janie! That’s a really interesting suggestion that I’d never thought about before – a quick search didn’t reveal any research done on whether higher disciplinary standards within a party have a spillover effect on the wider populace, in China or elsewhere. My instinct is that there isn’t much of an effect given the corruption that existed for so long in China (and in other countries with vanguard political movements) despite the disciplinary regulations.

      As for iteration, I suppose it depends on what you mean by that. While bureaucratically this represents a pretty significant reform (collapsing the CCDI and state agencies into a completely new, streamlined organization), for me the significant issue is whether or not this represents a change in Party-state relations such to make the anticorruption campaign less of an executive-led drive. I don’t really see any evidence of that, though it’ll be interesting to see what happens next!

      • The discussion raises some very interesting questions and reactions. I only want to note that global experience and research related to scores of many of the new Anticorruption institutions created in countries where corruption is systemic since passage of the UNCAC tells us that almost none have been effective in addressing or preventing corruption and that none, to my knowledge, have promoted more public trust in institutions or a rule of law culture. The reality in China, today and yesterday, is that corruption is still essential to get anything done and that now there are even fewer institutions, outside of Beijing, to potentially check totally centralized monopoly Party power.

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