Home Political science China’s Ethical Revolution and Regaining Legitimacy: Reforming the Communist Party through Its Public Servants
Tension Between the Party and the Masses
Widespread corruption in China is seen as undermining the government’s legitimacy, causing the government’s inefficiency, restricting the development of the economy, disturbing market order, widening the disparity between the rich and the poor and creating serious social discrepancy and conflict (Zhou 2006: 6). In short, corruption undermines the legitimacy of the Party in governing the masses. As an official says: “The masses can see and feel, and are pestered beyond endurance, they really hate it” (midlevel official, Policy Research Department).
This division between the governing and the governed is similar to what Foucault described as the tension between the powerful and the “plebs.” Plebs are not a sociological category but one defined by the fact that “there is always something in the social body that in a certain way escapes relations of power” (cited in Christofferson 2016: 14). The pleb, undoubtedly does not exist (Ibid.), that is to say, there is no specific group as such, but is interchangeably defined by the division between the ordinary and the elite based on privilege. Thus, it is privilege supported by one’s powerful positions that distinguishes ordinary people from the elite, rather than membership of the Party.
Thus, the notion here of the masses as ordinary people is ambiguous. The people (or the masses) are not a unitary subject but the set of members of a whole moral body, and the subset of the members as a fragmentary multiplicity of privileged and excluded bodies (Agamben 1998: 177). Ordinary people and low-level Party members can all be seen as the “people” (or masses). Thus, the division between ordinary people and the elite can become blurred.
The issue is even more complicated, as “the corrupt” as classified by the Party includes those employed in the public sector who are suspected of abusing their public office for private gains but also includes those lower- level functionaries engaging in public activities who might be unaware of the corruption they are involved in as part of their duties (Ko and Weng 2011: 359). Thus, the complex organization structures of the Party and hierarchies within them further complicate the division between ordinary and elite. As Smith explains:
It is not a simple matter to decide who the “elite” is and who an ordinary cadre is. Staffworking within the same bureaucratic system (or xitong) of local government enjoy different standings, depending on whether they are classified as leading cadres (lingdaoganbu) or enterprise staff (qiyeganbu). Within these categories there are further distinctions, which depend on the status of one’s organization within the country. These can change over time with shifts in bureaucratic priorities and economic conditions. (2015: 595-596)
That is to say, there can be a division between the elite and ordinary within the Party based on one’s standings and the status of one’s organization in the government system. Thus, the distinction between ordinary and elite does not necessarily refer to membership in the Party, but to the actual privileges one can enjoy inside and outside of the Party. As noted above, this is further complicated by the status of civil servants in China including both Party cadre and non-Party government officials (Rothstein 2014: 5). The difference is based on one’s standing or the status of one’s organization in the government, which produces an order of privilege and status that defines who is ordinary and who is elite. As an ordinary non-Party government official tells us, his relatively low status is sometimes misrec- ognized during visits leading to preferential treatment:
When I go the district to do research with the director of our unit, the chairman of the county’s federation for disabled people received us. He came and urged me to go to a night club. He thought, that I, as an official, (actually, I am not even a member of the Party and not a leading cadre) from the province should be entitled of enjoying a kind of privilege to go to clubs with government money. This is a common practice, even if I am not powerful.
Thus, the anti-corruption movement in China is in large part targeting those who enjoy considerable privilege from their work; those who have formed a privileged group or faction; and those who come from privileged families within the Party. This focus and these concerns have emerged in a context where higher-ranking officials have to sometimes allow a certain degree of freedom to local officials in order to motivate them and improve government working efficiencies. Thus, privileges are seen as an important source of motivation among officials (Hansen 2013: 64). As privilege is closely linked to economic crime, bureaucratism becomes one of manifestations of privilege (Young 1984: 35). Bureaucratism refers to such “bureaucratic ills as the over centralization of authority, the shirking of responsibility, the overregulation of social activities beyond one’s jurisdiction, hierarchical status arrogance, the enjoyment of special privileges, patriarchal authoritarianism, the use of public office for private gain, and the obstruction of social initiatives from below” (Yang 1988: 414). One mid-level official from the Department of Education attempted to explain this dynamic to us:
I think corruption is that you use your power wilfully through your position, for the equivalent exchange of interests (i.e., power and money). Bribes are a mastery of resources; you hold resources to distribute based on your will. You can use power to selectively help others. So there will be people who bribe. Generally, no one will come to bribe a person who has no power.
Individual morality within the Party was thought to evolve through socialization in the Party and through the positive influence of higher-ranking Party members by virtue of their significant and enduring immersion in the Party, which will generally be of higher moral quality than lower- ranking members (Hansen 2013: 63). In this sense, the anti-corruption movement in China is acutely aware of hierarchy and the relationships between higher and lower levels of command. It is notable that corrupt higher-ranked officials have attracted relatively harsher punitive sanctions for their infractions than more junior corrupt officials. Thus, whenever the need arises to address cadre corruption at any level, each individual case is addressed in a strategic manner that takes into account the individual’s level within the Party (64). Corrupt high-ranking officials are even compared with “terrorists.” The following is an example cited by many of the officials we interviewed:
As a leader in our Party, you should know what you can do or what you can’t do. The most fundamental reason for corruption is that high rank officials have nothing to fear. He doesn’t respect anything, neither does he need anything, therefore, he is not afraid. His only belief is money. Such individuals or the society consisting of such individuals is much more terrible than terrorism. He has no specification limits and can do anything, which will lead to the disorder of the society. (Mid-level official, Department of Auditing)
Disorder here implies the relationship between the governing of officials and the governing of Chinese people. It is asserted that one of the aims of the anti-corruption strategy is to win the hearts and minds of the Chinese people through demonstrating the vulnerability of previously “untouchable” officials and the possibility that corrupt officials can lose their status and privileges. The relationship between fear among officials and the winning of the hearts and minds of Chinese people, as will be discussed below and in the next chapter, are becoming more closely aligned in practice.
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