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Home arrow Political science arrow China’s Ethical Revolution and Regaining Legitimacy: Reforming the Communist Party through Its Public Servants


Tension Between the Legal and Moral

In China, corruption is normally seen as a practice using government power for private gains in violation of state laws, government policies and regulations, and Party disciplines (Wu and Zhu 2011: 437). Practices, such as embezzlement, misappropriation, bribe-taking, bribe-giving, holding a huge amount of property with unidentified sources, unauthorized dispersion of state properties and dereliction of duty are all seen as corruption (Ko and Weng 2011: 370). As one official told us: “In China, corruption is the violation of the rules by using public power for private purposes. If it involves the violation of laws, it is certainly corruption. If so, the violator won’t be just fined or dismissed, he may be investigated and affixed legal liability.” Thus, if the criminal law is applied to corrupt activities, corruption is an economic crime (Zhou 2006: 6). That is to say, corrupt behaviours associated with illegal private gains (mainly economic gains) are seen as the main characteristic of corruption in China. In this sense, corruption is, first of all, a juridical problem.

However, this way of defining corruption is in actual fact a discourse that enables the Party to target “Party enemies” through using juridical-economic means to accuse the suspected officials within the moral discursive field of corruption. The economic aspect of corruption cases has become the easiest way for the Party to investigate, arrest and to punish officials in accordance with state laws. As Wang Qishan, the Party’s chief disciplinary official says:

Now, our ability to find problems is greatly improved, and the ability to deal with the problems is far more satisfactory. We use the patrol, audit, or social cases to find out the problematic officials. But there are still many obstacles in locating them.

This discourse serves more as a means to hold corrupt officials legally responsible and punishable than being the primary aim of Party’s anticorruption practices. That is to say, there is a transverse from moral discourse to legal discourse. In this sense, President Xi’s crusade against corruption in the CCP, military and official ranks is a technique of identifying moral defectiveness among officials, which are seen as the source of corruption. This is why “tigers” are more easily tackled than swarms of “flies.” However, the Party clearly wants to do both: in a report, it is stated: “We should not only intensify the fighting of ‘tigers,’ but also put more efforts to fight against the ‘flies.’”2 This is why the official from the disciplinary department told us:

This year we will concentrate on the investigation and punishment of corruption and the prevention of unhealthy tendencies around the ordinary masses. It needs to be controlled early as it starts from small affairs.

In actual fact, corrupt practices may not be necessarily seen as criminal acts as some corrupt behaviours are considered social and ethical violations and as such they may be processed administratively (Yu 2008: 162). Behaviour such as the dereliction of duty and violations of social norms that are not included in criminal laws and are not motivated by private gain are also regarded as corrupt (Ko and Weng 2011: 359). The dereliction of duty is very comprehensive. It includes behaviours associated with damage to public property, the abuse of power, neglection of duty, the engagement of state functionaries in malpractice for the benefit of associates, serious accident involving serious consequences, bigamy and other behaviours deemed to be damaging to public interests (Ko and Weng 2011: 369). As Zhou finds, higher-level local government officials often use public funds to build apartments for employees and give themselves bonuses (2006: 4). These local government officials have a reputation for spending considerable government monies on sumptuous repasts, for example, bowling, sauna bathing, vacationing in sanatoriums and sightseeing trips abroad (Gong 2008a: 93).

Although not punishable by law, these kinds of misbehaviours are seen as corrupt and tackled by the central leadership. As President Xi points out:

Some unhealthy tendencies also belong to corruption, such as accepting gifts and distributing bonuses improperly. Some people thought it is normal that lots of people have small problems, as the state is too busy to supervise.

So many officials drifted with bad currents instead of keeping their own integrity. It will take time to sweep those small problems and the law cannot punish numerous offenders, so they hold the brave expectation to enjoy this. Slight negligence may lead to great disaster. We now say that they must be punished. (May 9, 2014)

Cases that are subject to disciplinary settlements are often considered to be less serious and categorized as “unhealthy tendencies” (Yu 2008: 163).

However, whether through charging officials with criminal acts or reprimanding them for unhealthy wrongdoings, the Party’s recent anti-corruption movement is not only concerned with criminal acts, but more importantly with the whole gambit of the immoral behaviours of communist officials. Thus, corrupt behaviours are not only confined to the economic misbehaviours of individual officials but also perhaps more importantly these misbehavers could damage public interests (Ko and Weng 2011: 371). In this sense, the meaning of corruption is not limited to illegal behaviours regulated by the state law, but is more broadly defined as the unethical behaviours of state functionaries (363). The following statement from one of our interview participants is indicative of many of the statements from other officials included in our research:

The power of officials should be in service for the people, for the masses. Whom or what this power is used for is a fundamental question. So how to supervise and restrict power, it needs the legal system, discipline of the Party, supervision of the masses, as well as the self-discipline of officials.

The consensus in China seems to be that corruption needs to be tackled and punished by the Party’s disciplines. “However, a number of unhealthy tendencies,” as President Xi suggests above, such as the misuse of public funds for entertainment and gift-giving are not only widespread but are also accepted as a normal parts of official life (Young 1984: 45). Thus, what is seen as unhealthy (or abnormal) by the Party leader is often regarded as normal by the local officials.

As many officials view corruption as being primarily moral corruption, they often attribute the degeneration of moral values in China to the post-Mao era. It was in this period that the Chinese people also lost its faith in Marxism and Communism and as a consequence many Chinese believe that moral standards became blurred (Zhou 2006: 22). Thus, for many, the baseline societal moral standards in present-day China are reduced compared to the traditional Chinese ethical standard (23). One male middle-level official from an educational department described the noble ethics required that should be observable in great leaders:

You should see when he distributes the benefit; it is simple to know these people’s moral virtues by watching him allocate interests. If he took a minimum piece of cake for himself and forever, he is a man of noble ethics.

In the Confucian tradition, an ideal of public good that is essential for the Party’s legitimacy takes the form of the honest administrator or the virtuous emperor, representing the public good (gong) as opposed to private interests (si) (Fabre 2001: 460). As President Xi further elaborates:

The disciplines of the Party and finance were the high tension line that no one should dare to touch. But now these disciplines become the most relaxed low-tension wire in some local authorities. The breaches of the disciplines of organization and finance are not seen as serious by them. Some people bring the whole family to go out in holidays or even not the holidays, they eat, sleep, play and enjoy the best. They go everywhere only with public money, the Bureau of Finance became their personal wallet, and the director of financial bureau became their private cashier. (May 9, 2014)

That is to say, the misuse of public fund is not necessarily associated with illegally taking possession of public funds by individual officials, but can take the form of practices whereby officials spend public funds hedonis- tically and extravagantly. As we will examine in Chap. 6, this problem although not punishable by law is being tackled by the Party’s discipline in the name of anti-four undesirable working styles, which involves the introduction of a series of prohibitions. This kind of definition of corruption in actual fact shows the Party’s reluctance in discerning the boundaries between legal and moral, and the boundaries between private and public. As will be discussed in Chap. 5, these blurred boundaries allow the Party to declare a state of exception to deal with the problems of authority in the name of moral improvement through the anti-corruption movement.

The tension between the Party’s discipline and the law is not about their relevant authorities and priorities of implementation, but the seriousness of the consequences the Party as a whole can incur in view of individual members’ misbehaviours. Furthermore, public funds are often misused to enhance officials’ private goals (not gains), such as “political showcase projects” as a kind of “corruption-based investment” to facilitate an official’s own promotion in disregard for and to the detriment of local public interests (Sun 2008: 69). In such cases, as Gong suggests, “monetary corruption may make officials materially content, but cannot satisfy their avarice for wealth accumulation, because monetary corruption only allows them to spend, rather than take possession of, public funds” (2008a: 93).

To conclude, individuals engaging in any public activities are part of the public sphere, and therefore, the morality of state functionaries is easily transformed into a public concept (Ko and Weng 2011: 372). In the end, wherever morality is being discussed, people immediately have legal categories on their lips, and wherever laws are being made and trials are being conducted, it is ethical concepts that are being brandished (Agamben 2000: 128). This can also be seen from the classification of corruption in China’s formal legal perspective. Party regulations define some behaviours as violations of social order, such as engaging in illicit land deals, gambling, vices, engaging in superstitious activities, engaging in real estate speculation and covering up for criminals; these activities are prohibited and are punishable by law (Ko and Weng 2011: 372). This list includes expected or typical types of corruption, such as economic corruption, but also includes immoral, irresponsible and socially unacceptable behaviours of officials; all of these behaviours are targeted by the Discipline Inspection Commission (DIC) (374). As we will examine in Chaps. 6 and 7, this is also how the Party’s disciplines, such as the EPC, are made possible for tackling the four types of undesirable working styles.

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