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.