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Tension Between Documents and Meetings

Formalism is often seen as a result of bureaucracy and the concentration of power in too few hands, along with the challenging task of working “for the masses.” In many cases, leaders in different hierarchies who have the decisive power in policy making do not necessarily have a comprehensive understanding of some issues. According to a mid-level official working in the general office of a provincial government, “the only thing the Party has taught us is how to hold meetings and issue documents, if they take that away, what will we do then?” Further, sometimes discretionary decisions are made by leaders based on their different dispositions, for example, the same official told us:

In fact, formalism is driven by the supervising authorities at each level, if you don’t follow, you can’t accomplish your work. Why? For example, if you are in charge of the city level office, with only 2 colleagues. In addition to other work, you sometimes have to write 6 reports a day for important projects. Of course you cannot handle all of this, so we have to deal with the bureaucracy by formalism, that is, so we submit the reports but they are full of copied materials from the internet.

The problem is that the reports these officials produce may play a significant role in decision-making. However, as the official emphasized above, it is impossible for them to complete such important work with their staffing and time constraints. The unrealistic workload and the importance of work assigned by high-ranking leaders are therefore contributing to formalism in the local context. Thus, what was described earlier as the “empty frame” is an extreme imbalance between the meaninglessness of work and excessive work styles. This results in tension between what officials ought to do (their duty) and what they are willing to do (their personal will).

Compared to the “empty words and knowledge without content” of bureaucratism, anti-formalism focuses on the relative importance of the practices of policy implementation (Nivison 1956: 67). Continued emphasis on quantifiable results within the Party, rather than the processes of implementation, means that the actions of officials are not only less meaningful but also often contradict the ideals and interests of the Party (Smith 2009: 59). As a mid-level official from a Human Resource Department explains:

The formalism is when the subordinate fulfils a task assigned by superiors, the subordinate actor does not make much effort to do it. So if there is nobody to evaluate whether he has reached the ends assigned by the above, then the subordinate would only work with formalism.

Thus, formalism is seen as a result of the tensions between the centre’s initiative and the implementation of the latter in local settings. As Zhang and McGhee (2014) also found, there is a great deal of difference in interpretation and selectivity between the central Party issuing a policy and local officials implementing it. In this process, meetings are seen as an important medium for interpreting policy and of implementing (or not) particular aspects of policy. Thus, meetings and tabling papers and reports are two complementary techniques of negotiating various tensions of decisionmaking and disseminating these decisions. Papers are produced and passed through meetings. Meetings are often held for the purpose of interpreting papers and for producing more papers. What is considered as formalism is not the meeting per se, as a form of work, but rather the relationship between the content of papers and the form of the meeting. This is what is also called “text governmentality” (see also Zhang and McGhee 2014). With regard to meetings, there are new rules which have been introduced to limit the length of leader’s speeches and the duration of meetings. The restriction on the length of leaders’ speeches, according to our participants, is not only a matter of preventing boredom but also reduces the burden on low-level officials in terms of attending long meetings rather than focusing on the more meaningful work of serving the people. In this sense, anti-formalism initiatives are directly linked with the process of the Party’s decision-making and decision-disseminating mechanisms. As a mid-level official from the general office of a provincial government further explains:

The real meaning of formalism is not about issuing official documents. It is a normal form of work. Not all the official documents are examples of formalism, but actually in government departments, all of work is done by means of meetings. I think only those low efficient meetings for the implementation of routine work is formalistic.

In this sense, meetings, as a normal form of work, are one aspect of official work. Thus neither obedience to the rule nor obedience tout court can constitute meaningful work. Meaningful work for the Party is that which conforms to the idea of a certain style, a certain form of work (Foucault 2005: 424). In this sense, meetings do not necessarily lead to formalism.

The reason for formalist working style is because of the mixture of the governing system of the Communist Party and traditional Chinese culture values. It is not only caused by the governing procedures of the Party, but more importantly caused by Chinese culture and traditional morality. (High-ranking official working in a provincial government)

Thus, it is not the meeting as a form of work that is the problem, but the relationship between the form of work and the ethics of work (issued and interpreted by officials) that is problematic. For formalists, there is no correlation between the ends they are aiming for and the means to be employed (Foucault 2005: 482). Formalism also reveals a certain ironic distance from the empty ideals in which the self-experiences a split between the roles he or she feels obliged to play and his or her inner thoughts, or between his or her public and his or her private self (Bregnbaek 2012: 745).

As we will examine below, the ends (or objectives) of officials’ work should be for the benefit of the masses and should correspond with the means, namely the ethical service of the masses by officials. Formalists only make a show of serving the latter, their primary aim being to minimize their effort (Foucault 2005: 239) and reduce the possibility of putting themselves at risk through their work. As a low-level official working in the general office of a provincial government tells us:

The fundamental reason of undesirable working styles is that they are totally opposite to the mission of our Party. The manifestation of undesirable working styles is very complex, such as formalism embodied in breaking away from reality, when this happens, we find that the decision making process doesn’t follow legitimate procedures and they are come to without consulting the masses. It is just the leader’s will that is required to make such decisions.

The problem of formalism in the local context is that it leads to tension with bureaucratic decision-making from the centre. We will discuss bureaucratism in greater detail in the next section. For formalists, they seek work in the form and for the form, instead of trying to achieve a balanced way of using meetings in accordance with meaningful discourse. In other words, there is a mismatch between the means and the ends. Thus, formalism is first of all a remnant between the form of work and form of life. This remnant is the figure, or the consistency, assumed by the people in the decisive moment—and as such, is the only real political subject. Thus “the real political subject is always a ‘remnant’” (De la Durantaye 2009: 299).

In this sense, what we mean by balance is the hybridization between the two. Hybridization is the creation of social forms and their ongoing transformative combination with other similarly generated forms (Beyer 2013: 25). In other words:

The supposedly natural categories of difference are themselves the product of historical “invention” or construction. Invention here does not mean creation from nothing, but rather the dissolution of received ideas and forms out of their previous contexts and their recombination in new ways with sometimes new characteristics to yield a new particular identity. (26)

Viewed in this way, the problem becomes a matter of working out a viable balance between tensions, such as between the self and the other, between public behaviour and private thoughts, as well as between political ideals and the messiness and contingencies of everyday life (Bregnbaek 2012: 735). There are many tensions within the self that the officials have to balance, for example, the relationship between loyalty to one’s family and loyalty to the Party (736). That is to say, it is impossible to think of a stable identity of any given subject since she/he is always the product of multiple overlapping and often competing apparatuses (Brassett and Vaughan- Williams 2012: 30). In contemporary China, the primary means whereby the Party is attempting to regain its legitimacy is through ensuring that the Party is working for the masses.

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