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Bureaucratism: Tension Between the Centre and the Local

Tension Between Subjective Decision and Objective Reality

In comparison with formalism amongst low-level officials, there is a kind of bureaucratism from high-level officials. Similar to the anti-corruption campaign which is designed to de-privilege governing official, antibureaucratism measures also aim at officials who enjoy substantive privileges in all levels of the government. As Bernstein notes:

Bureaucratism at the levels of responsible leadership was held accountable for commandism at the basic level. Higher-level departments attempted to do too much too quickly without regard for objective limitations. They put blind pressure on local cadres in failing to define the scope and limits ofwhat it was they wanted done, hence the excesses. They were preoccupied with quantitative indices of performance, which they could use to demonstrate their merit. They were satisfied with the reported results, and they failed to go and see what was actually happening in the local. Bureaucratism at the higher levels caused commandism at the level of implementation, the basic- level cadres, under heavy pressure to carry out a bewildering array of complex tasks with inadequate knowledge, guidance and experience should have used the simplest method—coercion—to get them done. Bureaucratism also makes it possible for basic-level cadres to cope with the multitudinous demands by deceiving their superiors. (1970: 260-262)

Thus, bureaucratism is seen as a result of tension between decision-making from above and objective reality from below. As a consequence, bureaucratism can bring forth the “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 the below” (Yang 1988: 414).

In this discursive field, there is a notion of “duty” (duty to be and duty to do) that binds ethical being and moral praxis (Agamben 2013b: 107). In this sense, the discussion of ethics is not about virtue but about duty, as virtue is always in progress whereas duty is an infinite task of virtue; by which a virtue is in constant approximation to the ideal (107). In other words, the ethical subjectivity of officials is manifested by their practices of fulfilling their duties as officials.

In this notion of duty, there is a division between “having to do” and “having to be,” which can also be distinguished by the division between philosophical practice (a way of being, a mode of conduct, a set of values and a set of techniques) and political life (Foucault 2005: 154). Having to do here is problematized as formalism and bureaucratism, while having to be is problematized as hedonism and extravagance. Thus, the acts of officials, thanks to the operative inclination of virtuous habits (the disciplinary discourses of the Party), should be an example of the execution of a duty (Agamben 2013b: 103). The duties of the official that result from obligations (in this case, working for the masses) configure normative outline to a practice that is not exhausted in an individual action, but defines a definite conduct of life (i.e., being a communist) (Agamben 2013a: 58). In this sense, duty transforms the whole of life into an office by way of temporal sanction (at the moment of swearing the oath of service on joining the Party) (22).

As we have shown throughout the book, it is assumed that there is little respect among officials towards their duty in contemporary China’s officialdom, and this necessitates the introduction of a culture of fear among officials through anti-corruption (and related strategies) to reconstruct this respect towards their duty (as discussed in Chap. 4). In other words, they must first be blamed for all their past blameworthy acts, that is, corruption, hedonism, formalism and bureaucratism. Only then, through this culture of fear and displeasure, can a moral practice be possible, which can further (but not necessarily) create a sense of debt because they have not done what they were and are able to do. In this context, as will be revealed in the following chapters, the austerity measures are acting as an external exclusion from enjoying pleasure and peace in order to create a sense of debt within officials.

Lower-level officials, because they are more closely connected to the people they serve and are most affected by the dysfunction resulting from undesirable working styles, offer unique perspectives on what is at risk if the Party continues in this way. Bureaucratism derives from the privilege enjoyed by powerful bureaucrats, which, as we discussed in Chap. 4, is a result of tension between the centre and the local. Thus, the people’s perception of officials enjoying unearned privileges could fundamentally endanger the legitimacy of the Party. As a low-level official working in a county government explained:

The administrative cost in China is very high. It will leave a bad impression to the people. Everyone thinks that it is good to be an official, who can use government cars for private purpose. This will have bad effect. This is bureaucratism. This will further result in the decline of the legitimacy of the Party to rule.

Thus as Smith argues, compared to Weberian relations (elites-masses and cadres-masses), the relationships between political elites and ordinary cadres are more crucial to understanding the resilience and legitimacy of authoritarian regimes (2015: 595). In other words, socialist governmen- tality is in actual fact the governmentality of the Party (as illustrated in Zhang and McGhee 2014). This is why the anti-four undesirable working styles campaign is important for understanding the remoralization process within the Party. While formalism and bureaucratism are more concerned with the practices of officials in fulfilling their duty, anti-hedonism and anti-extravagance focus on officials’ ways of being. The problem of the former is the perceived lack of criteria for rewarding effectiveness and performance of work among officials in the context of anti-formalism and anti-bureaucratism; as a consequence officials can become demotivated. The problem with the latter, as we will reveal in Chap. 7, is that many officials are experiencing “a loss of faith” in the Party, which is articulated as a series of disconnections: in terms of their obligations as ethical beings.

It is sufficient to say that the Party, through the reformulation of disciplining governing officials’ practices, is attempting to bring officials’ work on track (individual ethics) and consequently reframing Party ecology (collective morality). As a result, both officialdom and virtue are brought into the same circle: the good (the virtuous) is such because it acts well and acts well because it is good (virtuous) (Agamben 2013b: 101). This is probably the rationale behind what Wang Qishan calls the transition from “Dare not,” to “Cannot” and ultimately the transition to achieving the status of “Do not want to.” In other words, the combination of officialdom and virtue in fact has the goal of conferring effectiveness to virtue (Dare not) in the governance of habit (Cannot) and potential (Do not want to) amongst officials (98).

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