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Tension Between Leaders and Subordinates

Contrary to the Weberian Western model of bureaucracy, the administration model in China follows the virtuocratic cadre system (Rothstein 2014: 1). The problem with this kind of system is, as we discussed in previous chapters, often associated with the abuse of power by privileged leaders. Thus, as a low-level official from the Disciplinary Department explains:


A major concern of the Party is: some Party members and cadres consider themselves as the “officials,” and forget they are members of the ruling Party. Once they gradually forget the values, the organizations will be slack, discipline becomes loose.

Thus, privilege seeking and the abuse of power inevitably lead to the loss of Party discipline, which in turn leads to the moral decline of the Party. As political virtue is broad and flexible, the rationality of virtuocracy is that it is more amenable to political control than distribution according to merit or ascriptive status. However, this is far from the case in contemporary China. A mid-level official from a Human Resource department tells us:

Leaders might directly get their subordinates promoted. I think this is not always a bad idea, in fact, this is a key objective. The key point is the standard. As the supervising leader knows his subordinates best, even if the subordinate does not have sound interpersonal relationships, he can be promoted with capacity and a strong sense of responsibility by the leader.

This system enables elites to use virtue standards to promote their loyal supporters and demote those who are considered to be a potential threat to them (Hualing 2013: 11). The way this works is the superior depends upon his/her subordinates to respond immediately and enthusiastically to him or her, thereby enabling the superior to demonstrate his leadership capacities. In turn, the subordinate depends upon his/her superior for good work assignments, and the allocation of resources to complete these assignments, and also favourable recommendations (Oksenberg 1970: 332). However, virtuocracy can facilitate the formation of factions within the Party, as we described in Chap. 4. As well as the tendency to lead to factionalism, these relationships also lead to formalism, as one of the low-level officials from the general office of a provincial government we interviewed explains: [1]

Formalism, thus, entails subordinates in the local context seeking to present their work for the purpose of impressing leaders rather than doing anything really meaningful for the masses. Since subordinates have to demonstrate their moral zeal by flattering leaders (Hualing 2013: 13), loyalty to the leader becomes the crucial criteria for their selection and promotion (19). This then further facilitates the efforts of leaders to build personal factions (183) and brings the connection between formalism and bureaucratism to the fore in the examination of the Party’s working culture, as elaborated on by a number of officials:

The bureaucracy is superior, distanced from reality, and local level officials try to cater to their leaders’ taste. The subordinates will, react to leaders with formalism. This causes the policies not to be disseminated to the grassroots community, decision-makers can’t obtain accurate information about the real situation, misleading policymakers to make wrong judgments, and finally leading to the deviation of the policy. (Low-level official from a County Government)

However, the criteria of “working for the mass” are a rather vague and subjective standard of evaluation in practical terms. It is often evaluated through monitoring officials’ behaviours, for example, how enthusiastically officials respond to political directives, what they say in meetings and whether they volunteer for unpleasant tasks (Hualing 2013: 12). That is to say, the virtuocratic official attempts to maintain an ambiguous combination of behavioural and ascriptive criteria for distributing opportunities (Hualing 2013: 16). This is what we call the ability of “balance,” which is a type of “hybridization.” Officials, especially of high rank, must “dare to balance,” to take up responsibilities, and thus to take risks. As President Xi argues:

Leaders cannot pretend to be a fool and to be too nice. No matter you are in Party Commission or Discipline Inspection Commission or other relevant functional departments, you should assume the responsibility of building a honest Party ecology and be duty-bound to defend your own territory. If there is a problem, there must be accountability. A situation in which the leading officials are inactive and their subordinates act recklessly should not be allowed. It is never “not your responsibility.” It is your responsibility. If you try to be a nice person to bad officials, then how can you serve the Party and people? If there is serious corruption in one place, and the relevant responsible person pretends to be a fool and not to notice, then he is not the nice person that the Party and the people need. If you want to be a nice person in front of corruption, and then you are the bad guy in presence of the Party and the people, you can’t be both. (26 June 2014)

From this, we can observe that if it is true that the power of law can only be exposed from its shadow state, it must also equally be true that the authority of moral rule can only be seen from the perspective of duty (i.e., the shadow that the duty throws on the subject). In this sense, respect for one’s duty is a sacrificial exercise on the self. Therefore, to purify the culture of work and thus restore the Party’s ecology is to be achieved through turning the subject’s gaze towards the self, in order to construct a sense of responsibility. This is why morality always turns back to past practices, and refers to blameworthy acts officials have committed (Agamben 1993: 43).

In this sense, as discussed in previous chapters, whereas the anticorruption campaign’s aim is to create a culture of fear, the austerity measures of the Party are to create this sense of displeasure among officials through connecting them to blameworthy acts. This then further enables the Party to urge its members to remember what they have forgotten: what it is to be a communist official, to act on the self, to be constrained, to renounce the past and thus to be reborn or undergo a conversion of the self to an ever better self (Foucault 2005: 208). This has an equally close affinity to the neo-Confucian notion of selfcultivation as freeing the individual from the tyranny of blind habits and unconscious selfish motivations (Nivison 1956: 59). Thus, when officials turn their gazes internally, into themselves, and reflect on what they have and have not done, they will experience a bad conscience, a debt of not fulfilling the self’s potential without having to commit any blameworthy act (Agamben 1993: 42-43). This is the site for the emergence of ethics.

  • [1] think subordinates’ focus is not to solve the problem but to cater to thehappiness of the leaders, as they know that submitting a report with tenpages, is far less favourable than submitting seven reports with fifty or sixtypages for one assignment, even if the contents might not be necessary.Because you would be seen as working very hard by the leader. The leadersof course will think you are distinctive and better because of the number ofpages. Isn’t this also an example of formalism?
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