How to Discipline 90 Million People

Can China's president reform the world's largest one-party state by reforming its officials?

China’s extensive crackdown on government corruption, which has already ensnared hundreds of thousands of officials in the People’s Republic, is now spilling over the country’s borders. The State Department recently confirmed that China’s legal authorities had provided a list of 150 corrupt Chinese officials believed to be hiding in the United States, and vowed cooperation to help extradite them. That announcement came amid rumors that China’s anti-corruption czar, Wang Qishan, would visit the U.S. sometime this year, ostensibly to lead the chase overseas to catch China’s government crooks and their ill-gotten gains.

No one is immune, not even Communist Party leaders who once seemed untouchable. Just last Friday, Zhou Yongkang, the former security chief and retired Politburo Standing Committee member, became the highest-ranking party official to be indicted under the effort, following his arrest last December. Top military officials have come under investigation, and there are rumors a former vice president could be next. According to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the government body spearheading the campaign, since Xi Jinping took leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in late 2012, 414,000 officials have been disciplined by the party for corruption, and 201,600 prosecuted for the infraction in court. In Shanxi, one of the most corrupt provinces, some 15,450 officials were convicted of corruption last year, an increase of 30 percent over 2013. State propaganda refers to the strategy as “killing tigers and swatting flies,” where the tigers are the powerful and the flies the petty officials.

While these efforts have made headlines, however, they are only one part of what appears to be a larger strategy to reform the very political culture of the Chinese Communist Party. One of Xi’s most pressing concerns since becoming president of the largest one-party state in the world has been re-establishing the CCP’s authority over its nearly 90 million members. The central government can issue laws and formulate policy, but given factionalism and competition for power among officials at all levels, it has struggled to get the rank and file to implement those policies or uphold those laws. Local governments, for example, often collude with businesses to enrich themselves at the expense of the people, soliciting backlash in the form of mass protest and social unrest, and threatening the party’s power.

These problems are made more urgent by a slowing economy. When double-digit growth powered investment and production, there was enough wealth to go around—people were employed and their living standards rose. Now, with manufacturing jobs moving to Southeast Asia and growth slowing to its weakest rate in two and a half decades, Xi has publicly spoken of the need to “actively restructure the economy.”

Reform, however, requires the ability to enact policy. That in turn necessitates bureaucrats who follow the central government’s orders. Two common ways to deliver this kind of accountability in the modern world are through direct democracy and an independent judiciary. But Xi has flat-out rejected these institutional measures.

He has instead embarked on an apparent effort, unprecedented in the modern world, to transform the people who make up the state, rather than the structure of the state itself. He appears to be betting that transforming the moral character of officials will enable him to leave intact the institutional structure of the one-party state. But is such a feat even possible? It’s clear from his public statements that Xi is mindful of the precedents of China’s imperial past, and is turning to the example of centuries-ago rulers for inspiration on how to discipline a large, unwieldy, and unaccountable bureaucracy. At stake is not just the position of the Communist Party and the political practices of its officials, but the future of China itself.

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What is political culture, and how can it be changed? It consists of the assumptions and norms that inform the political dealings of a society—from voting patterns to paying bribes for building permits. The writings of Xunzi, a second-century B.C. Confucian thinker, help explain Xi’s reforms in this context. Xunzi held that good government involved more than just applying laws and meting out punishments. Because it is ultimately human beings who issue judgments and enforce regulations, it is necessary to have good, upright people holding office. Should each official cultivate righteousness in himself and let morality guide his actions and decisions, a well-ordered state and society will naturally result. It’s not that Xunzi rejected the importance of institutions, only that he saw them as secondary to the people running them.

Modern-day state-building efforts in the Middle East and Africa have confirmed much of Xunzi’s thought. It is not enough to set up independent courts or to hold elections. For democracy to flourish and the rule of law to reign, citizens and those who govern them must share a set of values to inform behavior and promote collective goals. When this works well, people are invested with a sense of common purpose, whether in electing their president or administering a locality.

Political culture is intimately intertwined with popular ideology. America’s political culture, for example, is often spoken of in terms of individual liberty. In imperial China, the political culture was informed by Confucianism, which emphasized the hierarchical organization of social and political life as well as adherence to proper conduct and moral norms. In the mid-20th century, the CCP developed a political culture of revolutionary spirit and liberation from landlord exploitation. As part of this culture, party members were to obey the absolute authority of the party and perform their duties with a work ethic of serving the masses diligently. Those seen by the party as running afoul of this culture were summarily purged, prosecuted, and imprisoned. Since market reforms in the 1980s, however, China’s communist ideology has eroded—and with it, perhaps, the culture of obedience among party officials.

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Chinese politics today exhibits a pervasive culture of patronage, factionalism, and cronyism. Or, as Xi put it in a speech in 2013, excessive bureaucratization, hedonism, and use of public funds and position for personal advancement and pleasure. Shortly after taking the reins as party leader, Xi spoke of changing this culture by targeting the moral character of officials. He outlined restrictions on their behavior and warned against abuses of power. He told them to be frugal in expenditures and upright in their dealings. In an instructional meeting with members of the Central Politburo late last year, Xi quoted Confucius saying, “Govern with virtue and keep order through punishments.” He implored officials to be honest, and to only use force to maintain stability. In his most recent book, published earlier this year, he quoted a second-century Han dynasty official saying, “Those who know the law, first apply it to themselves and then to others.”

With these amorphous admonitions have come extremely specific guidelines. A recent internal party regulation specified how many cars officials of various ranks and positions could have, the permitted size and value of their residences, and which officials could have secretaries or security details. More immediate have been the CCDI’s prosecutions. In Hunan province late last year, for example, 156 officials were disciplined or fired for infractions including drinking or banqueting at work, gambling, lying, absenteeism, allowing factions to form among subordinates, using one’s office for financial gain, and not responding to letters from the people.

Bureaucrats’ personal lives have also fallen under party scrutiny. Xi has repeatedly emphasized party regulations that require members to report any major life changes, including travel abroad, investments, and big purchases, “or anything else deemed important that the party needs to know.” Furthermore, regulations require the official to report if he or she is to remarry or divorce, and to give reasons and justifications for the decision.

Not all of these developments are new. Previous Chinese leaders have tried to crack down on corruption, after all. But rarely have such initiatives been pursued with this amount of vigor, and the last time similar actions were part of a larger apparent strategy to overhaul China's political culture was in the Maoist period. A 1940s rule against graft, for example, helped garner popular support for the CCP to win the civil war against the decrepit and corrupt Nationalist government; it is this rule that has been revived today to help clean up official corruption, no doubt with popular support similarly in mind.

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Can cultural reforms substitute for institutional reforms? Many China-watchers and even some within the party see the current government as doomed without the latter. The most progressive calls are for an independent judiciary and making officials more accountable to the people by, for instance giving individuals the ability to sue the state or introducing democratic elections—two scenarios that pose a direct threat to the authority and legitimacy of the Communist Party.

Given the leadership’s apparent determination to maintain the party’s dominance, however, it is not surprising that Xi has placed the burden of reform on the officials themselves rather than the political structure they inhabit. Some in the party, such as former premier Wen Jiabao, have expressed support for (albeit minor) political reform, but the current leadership has made clear that changing China’s political or legal institutions is out of the question. This crop of leaders has pursued what they seem to view as the safer alternative: the imposition of a new set of practices and standards to make people better adhere to existing institutions.

History suggests they may need to broaden their strategy. A similar campaign of cultural reform was undertaken by rulers of the Qing dynasty. In the mid-17th century, Emperor Hong Taiji incorporated politically and ethnically diverse populations into a single cohesive entity that became one of the largest land-based empires in history. He co-opted different ethnic groups and military leaders by giving them incentives like ranks and titles to join the new dynasty. Officials were moreover assigned based on merit and promoted for performance. All this meant that people’s individual interests were served by serving the goals of the state.

The circumstances of the People’s Republic of China today are much different than those of the Qing dynasty 300 years ago. For the ever historically minded CCP leaders, however, the lesson should be clear: Guarantee the interests of your officials and they will give you their loyalty. Punishing and threatening only ensures alienation, uncertainty, and fear. The anti-corruption drive will have to wind down at some point, and when it does, China’s leaders will have to better align the interests of rank-and-file party members with their own, in particular by rewarding performance and creativity as opposed to distributing patronage and promoting based on seniority. Xi may be able to avoid major institutional reforms by changing the political culture. But transforming the way government is run requires greater discussion about how government is run, and giving officials—especially lower- and mid-level officials—a greater voice. So far, Xi is only dealing with half the problem.