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What Party Control Means in China

Tonhe works China’s strength is not easy for outsiders to imitate. For example, visitors to some official buildings will see two vertical signs, one black and one red. Black letter marks indicate government departments. The scarlet letter is the organ of the Communist Party. In bureaucratic slang, this is called “party and government on one shoulder”. Sometimes the two offices oversee the same policy area and employ some of the same officials. They are not equally transparent. Especially when meeting foreigners, officials may show business cards with government titles, but remain silent on party positions that may or may not outweigh their national ones. Many party branches are not publicly marked at all.

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Now is a good time to remember this quirk of Chinese governance. The annual session of the National People’s Congress (National People’s Congress), the country’s main ceremonial legislature will be held March 5-13.these years National People’s Congress The meeting followed a major party congress in October last year. At that meeting, China’s top leader, President Xi Jinping, was given a norm-stomping third term and appointed loyal aides at the top of the party. Now, Mr. Xi’s new team is making headlines with a bureaucratic shakeup, taking power from multiple government ministries and agencies, including those tasked with making China self-reliant in high-tech and overseeing data and financial markets. Many of these powers will now be exercised by party-led committees.

National People’s Congress Delegates applaud their marble columns, crystal chandeliers simulating changes in parliament because they know the drill. Soon, they will rubber-stamp Xi’s latest move, imposing the party’s will, his own, on China’s sprawling bureaucracy. When they do, outsiders have the right to recall those black-and-red signs and ask a naive question: In a country where government and party officials can be in the same building—maybe even the same person—what is this? What does it mean for the government? The state cedes power to the party?

In China’s opaque political system, one way to understand a new policy is to examine the old ideas it disproves. Xi’s power grab challenges the lessons his predecessors learned from Chairman Mao Zedong’s chaotic rule, when loyalty to the leader and ideological enthusiasm were more important than good government. In the years after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976, economic reformers turned to the separation of party and state. They sought to liberate business from the stranglehold of central planning, and free farmers and factory managers from the micromanagement of party committees. They gained political cover from paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who, while not politically liberal, publicly warned that “excessive concentration of power easily leads to the dictatorship of individuals.” By the late 1980s, reformers were promoting the concept of a “vanguard party,” a smaller, more flexible party whose role was to set the overall ideological line, rather than “try to control everything,” according to Harvard University’s Anthony Say Professor Qi recalled that he was interviewed by reformist Chinese officials in those years.

Over time, more power was delegated to local governments, and local government officials were rewarded for presiding over rapid growth. In the late 1990s, when entrepreneurs were no longer ignored, the party began to include them, accepting businessmen as members. Then Mr. Xi came. Soon after becoming leader in 2012, he declared that the Communist Party was corrupted by money and removed from the daily lives of the masses. For the past decade, he has been reasserting the party’s authority over all aspects of public life. This week Xi declared that entrepreneurs needed more “theoretical and political guidance” to understand their obligations to the party and the state.

Xi spoke of the party’s nearly 97 million members as if they were missionaries of an atheist church, emphasizing their “red spirit” of self-sacrifice and paying tribute to the “martyrs” who died for the revolution or in service to the people. This faith-tinged language helps clarify matters. Most senior officials, whether in ministries, mayor’s offices, state-owned enterprises or universities, are party members. One way of looking at them is as lay believers with varying degrees of faith. There are also party cadres whose careers range from, say, the party committee of a town to secretary of the party committee of a county or other public institution. They are more like priests, whose lives are governed by doctrine, discipline, and secrecy.

When ideology trumps expertise

Jing Qian of the Asia Society Policy Institute, a New York-based think tank, described some important differences between the state and party offices. Government agencies in China are bound by (a number of) institutions and laws. Party institutions are self-monitoring, and their powers are limited only by the party constitution. He contrasts the professionalism of technocrats with the political motivations that guide 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 cadre at the central bank. Perhaps bankers are urging caution in the name of financial stability. But party cadres want to please their political superiors and get promoted. So technocracy was overruled.

China’s “Zero Coronavirus” campaign provides real-world evidence that professional judgment is being overridden by politics. Once the Omicron variant arrives in 2022, some prominent scientists have called for greater efforts to vaccinate the elderly and vulnerable citizens and stockpile antiviral drugs. But Xi Jinping has declared that lockdowns and quarantines can defeat the virus, so it is heresy to suggest a way to live with covid-19. Experts are either silenced or sidelined. As a result, the country was unprepared when zero-covid collapsed last December. China’s rulers are now calling their containment of the pandemic a “miracle in human history” after hiding many deaths from the virus. All governments make mistakes. What matters is whether they learn from them. Xi Jinping’s resume is not reassuring.

Read more from our China columnist Chaguan:
Why aren’t China and the US more afraid of war? (March 2)
Chinese public has had enough, but not on brink of revolt (February 23)
China is losing Taiwan’s hearts and minds (February 16)

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