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


The Tension Between Party Members and Non-Party Members

For many Party members, the main impetus of joining the Party is that it can bring certain privileges, for example, political promotion, the ability to look after family members and relatives, and even economic benefits. For many the primary attraction of being an official is the security of tenure and the prospect of “grey income” (Smith 2015: 599). However, the boundaries between legality and illegality are often blurred. As a female official from the Bureau of Land Management comments:

Because civil servants’ actual wages are not high, their income mostly is from the grey income, or corruption. Grey income is not always illegal, it can be somewhat legitimate in the current legal framework, it is reasonable. For example, housing, officials can get an apartment with a very low price. The civil servants’ wage is very low, but it is worthwhile if you can get the apartment cheap which will usually cost hundreds of thousands or a few million.

Grey income in this sense is a kind of supplementary income that is associated with the privilege of being an official. It is grey because it is neither legal nor illegal, and it is what the official calls “reasonable.” It is operating at the borderlines between the authorized and the unauthorized, employing the rhetoric of the powerful and exploiting divisions within the state

(Yeh et al. 2013: 921). As a low-level official from a provincial government tells us:

I have found that the reporting of corruption has been greatly increased recently, so officials’ access to grey income has been blocked. The policy of allocating specially prepared housing for civil servants has also almost ceased, the new comers may not enjoy such benefits, at most they will be given a dormitory room. Given the low income, tough entrance exams, which are even harder than the college entrance examination, and the new restrictions on housing and other benefits, a considerable number of people will quit. This is an inevitable process. People will not think it worthwhile becoming an official this will lead to a new trend where nobody will be interested in this job.

In response, as Bregnbaek finds, many university students in contemporary China can be both a Party member and an intern in a foreign company, and thus they are keeping various options open (2012: 744). The moral obligations and the spiritual superiority of being a communist have been largely ignored. Thus, the current anti-corruption and austerity measures are seen as a “leftist movement,” in which officials are being reminded of their fundamental duties and obligations. Many officials we interviewed exemplified the following sentiments:

Once the Party is strict with its members, some people will criticize its leftism. The purpose of joining the Party for those people who raise such questions is to enjoy privilege rather than serve the people. As the Party’s oath says when you join the Party, it is not the Party that is strict with you, but you should be strict with yourself. You have to struggle for all people. Besides, it is not the question of being strict, it is because you didn’t obey the set rules of the Party. It is quite wrong to think it strict, once you are required to obey these rules, you just want its interests, power to gain privileges through becoming a Party member, then you are not really for the cause of the Party. I think these are misconceptions. The Communist Party is the vanguard of the people, and Party members are not purely ordinary people, they must hold higher moral standard to strive for the people. (Low- level official from a provincial government)

In this discourse, there are tensions between being morally higher (through service to the people) and being privileged (as a powerful official), between the status of Party members and that of ordinary people, between the actual practices of members and the oath of joining the Party.

Becoming a Party member requires certain ritual requirements, such as the expression of one’s political convictions. It has little to do with inner beliefs and is more a pragmatic attempt to open up a path to the future (Bregnbaek 2012: 747).

This tension between the oath of communist members and their actual practices merits further investigation. As Agamben finds in his The Sacrament of Language, the oath is in actual fact the sacrament of political power (2011b: 2). The oath confirms a meaningful proposition, whose truth or effectiveness it guarantees (5). It contains three elements: an affirmation of truth and belief, the invocation of the gods as witness and a curse directed at perjury. In other words, the oath is an institution that joins an element of reciprocal trust and an element of curse (31).

In the act of oath making, faithfulness is essentially the correspondence between language and actions (23). On the one hand, the name of god (in the Chinese context, the Party as an omnipotent sovereign) expresses the positive force of language, namely the just relationships between words and things; on the other hand, it expresses the weakness of language, namely the breaking of this relation (36). Repentance thus is guaranteed by the oath, by which the subject is to wipe away sins, of returning to the purity he or she had acquired, in our case, on swearing the oath on joining the Party. Thus, the purpose of the oath is not to establish an identity (such as becoming a communist) but, on the contrary, is to mark the renunciation of oneself, the rupture with oneself (Horujy 2015: 54).

In this sense, it is not only the oath but also the curse associated with the oath that functions as a genuine “sacrament of power” (Agamben 2011b: 37). It is this curse that acts as a means by which the Party’s discipline defines it scope (38). In other words, the one who disobeys the oath can be stripped bare and punished (38). In our case, by the act of oath making, the members and the Party form a relationship, in which the oath represents the threshold by means of which the suspected corrupt members who violate their oath are relegated to a bare life by the curse of the Party’s regulations (28). As will be discussed below, the state of exception that has been established to “cage tigers and swat flies” provides the Party with a parallel “justice” system (shuanggui), which is a variety of Party discipline operating outside the state law. Shuanggui in the form of, for example, the anti-corruption inspection practices, polices the boundaries of those who have taken the oath (of membership) and those who have not. As a mid-level anti-corruption inspection official told us:

Technically, we cannot take disciplinary measures to those businessmen who are involved in corruption activities. More importantly, they have been always the breaking point in the investigation of the suspect officials. But interestingly, in recent years, as those businessmen are getting rich, they want also to be leaders of local society or taking some positions within the government institutions. Thus, they always sought for Party membership when they get rich. So, this is good for our inspection work. They thought they can get official position by joining the Party, but they also give us power to investigate them, since they have become members.

Thus, parasitic corrupt businessmen with Party membership earned not only privilege but also became part of the game of the state of exception, by which the Party can investigate all enemies by disciplinary measures, rather than by state laws. In other words, through this route they become a hybrid between the people and officialdom when they can enjoy privileges as both business persons and Party members; they can also become a remnant when their privileges are investigated by the anti-corruption inspectorate. The former is the positive effect of the tensions between the Party and factions, whereas the latter is the negative effect of these tensions. As we will discuss below, the factions provide a method of defence against the central Party machine since they represent a pooling of the personal influence whereby each member of a clique acts through his or her own personal connections (Schapiro and Lewis 1970: 126). However, at the same time, the collective activities associated with factionalism can also result in faction members being vulnerable to investigation. The tension between the oaths and the practices of Party members can also lead to tension between the quantity and moral quality of the Party’s membership. As a low-level female official from the education department told us:

I feel that the Party should reduce the number of its members, to be the elite political Party instead of Party that anyone can join in. It doesn’t make any sense that the Party wins people’s hearts because the quantity of its members.

The Party’s anti-corruption strategy along with the accompanying publicawareness raising campaign (i.e., the Mass Line Education Programme, see Chap. 8), which we refer to together as “China’s anti-corruption movement,” are an attempt to stamp out corruption and rehabilitate corrupt officials through these measures. Through this movement, the Party attempts to both promote its moral superiority and improve its claims to moral superiority through being the servants of “the people.” Thus, President Xi argues, “[officials should keep in close touch with the public, listen to public opinion and turn their backs on privilege and displays of ostentation” (22 January 2013).

In this sense, the moral and ethical dimensions are important aspects of corruption (Ko and Weng 2011: 373), rather than the legal dimension per se. Second, through the anti-corruption campaign, we can observe the politicization of every aspect of social life in China, which enabled the formerly distinct economic, legal and cultural domains to become dissolved into “the political.” By so doing, the locus of the state is no longer circumscribed in narrow political institutions but moves into the heart of society (Yang 1988: 409). As such, the relationship between sovereignty and the subject is not only through the regulations of communist members but is also through the regulations of all persons involved in public functions. It is here that the blurring of “the individual” and “the public actor” in China can be observed; this also complicates the duality of governmen- tality (i.e., the relationship between the government and the governed), through processes of governing and disciplining the “the governing.”

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