Home Political science China’s Ethical Revolution and Regaining Legitimacy: Reforming the Communist Party through Its Public Servants
Tension Between Officialdom and the Party
Tension Between Political and Economic Powers
For officials, the eight-point code is a strict regulation to “strengthen the financial management, especially the spending on reimbursement, dining and vehicles on government budget” (mid-level disciplinary official). Frugality and austerity measures, such as the ban on the use of luxury cars, the giving of lavish gifts, and reduced pomp, banquets, ceremony, bureaucratic visits and meetings are called “four dishes and a soup” (Yuen 2014: 42). As we have introduced in Chap. 4, the misuse of public funds is closely associated with corruption. One of our participants elaborates on the issue of the misuse of public funds:
The regulation clearly tells you what money that you can’t spend. Once the money was left, the leaders need to consider its further use rather than just spend it willingly as in the past when there were no definite rules to regulate the spending. And it is a key issue of the overall management. (Low-level official in the financial department)
Another mid-level official in a state-owned company adds: “I think it is a kind of specialisation that informs the government officials how to appropriately spend government money and what kind of activities should be conducted. It is not about spending itself, but about appropriate spending.” The discourse of appropriate spending is a mechanism for achieving “balance,” that between the forms of work and contents of work (formalism and bureaucratism), and between the culture of work and the culture of the self (hedonism and extravagant). That is, the convergence between the spiritual struggle of the individual to escape from the grip of power and the political struggle of a collectivity (officialdom) to change the outward institutions of government (Miller 1993: 305). As a low-level disciplinary official explains:
The lack of institutional control causes much corruption, I don’t feel we can rely on people’s consciousness, all people are economic people, and they will always want to seek personal gains, if there is no restraint.
In the Party’s fiscal structure, local governments have considerable freedom in terms of public expenditures; however, there are few regulations governing how they spend the money. Most public spending, until recently, has been non-transparent and this leads to the abuse and misuse of public money for private goals throughout the Party. For example:
In the past, whenever you had been for a business trip or you received any officials as guests, you could treat them to a lavish dinner, which would be reimbursed from the unit. But now, if I invite you to dinner, I as section or division chief can’t make the decision to cover the bill, especially if the dinner is very expensive. (Mid-level official in state-owned company)
As we discussed in Chap. 4, the misuse of public funds not only damages public interests it also has an imitative influence on those units who do not misuse public funds. In the past it was an expected practice that lower units or other organizations funded by a particular department would provide the latter with gifts to hopefully attract good favours. As one of our participants informed us:
If it is personal behavior, getting along well with those people will be more convenient to handle your business in the future. But if it is company, you’d better not do so. In the past, you could see everywhere in the education department moon cakes made by a logistics company affiliated to a University. (Mid-level official in an education department)
Thus, spending public funds to give gifts to higher units is not necessarily related to the immediate benefits of lower units. It is more about the building up of good relations (guanxi see Chap. 4) for future convenience. It is also believed that relations between individuals or between units are acceptable, but the relationships between individuals and governmental units are not. That is to say, exchange among public units and exchange among private individuals are acceptable, whereas exchange between public and private are not. In this sense, the “appropriate” also refers to purified relationships that do not cross certain domains (public, private, official, individual, etc.).
As a consequence, the “inappropriate” is associated with the blurring of relationships across different domains. The blurring of the private and public domains is the main concern and it is assumed as the main source of unhealthy relations in society. In other words, the Party attempts to maintain many clear-cut divisions within society in the name of purification, and by adopting the blurred legal and moral practices in the state of exception (as we discussed in previous chapters). However, in reality practices are much more nuanced and contextual, as a low-level official from an education department informed us:
If you were working in the same area, sending gifts is to strengthen the friendship or promote mutual understanding, for example, the experimental teaching department sent gifts to division on the related business. But it is totally unnecessary to give presents to all the divisions of the education department.
This insider perspective on appropriateness and inappropriateness in terms of gift giving opens up the discourse to terms such as necessary and unnecessary. In this sense, unnecessary refers to the excesses of relationships, such as from the normal relationship between one and another, to the relationships between one and multiple units. Thus, unnecessary gift giving might shift into inappropriate gift giving if the assumption is that the gift is to pacify or gain favour from a particular unit that expects such gifts.
If this is the case that unit could be accused of abusing its power of serving itself and being out of alignment with the Party.
The context in which all of this is unfolding is a little more complex than just official-to-official and department-to-department gift giving. We must also consider the relationship between government and state-owned companies. That is, as well as unhealthy relations within the Party, the eight-point code is seen as being more concerned with state-owned companies than other governmental departments. As a mid-level official from a state-owned company told us:
I think the eight-point code has been introduced to regulate the expenditures of the government and state-owned companies. As in the process of social development in China, the state-owned company always plays a dominant role. State-owned companies in China are privileged, as they have various filiations with the government, like getting support on the policies or getting the most updated news, therefore, they enjoy a better support for development. The appearance of the eight-point code is to regulate state- owned companies’ use of public funds to a higher degree.
Thus, in terms of attempts to control the spending of public funds, state-owned companies are the prime target for enhanced regulations. Some of the highest-profile corruption cases have shown that the state- owned companies have become higher officials’ private banks. As an official told us:
Financial misdeed is the key factor to evaluate the state-owned companies. Where are their profits going to? The top CEOs of those state-owned companies enjoy extremely high salaries these years. These people decide whether this income should go to their pockets or to the governments. We need better allocation of their profits which might go to the more important industry or to people who really need money. (Mid-level official from a state-owned company)
It is not only the heads of state-owned companies, but also high-level officials who collect money from state-owned companies. The governors of state-owned companies are often their former subordinates (as on the case of the disgraced high-level official Zhou Yongkang). All of the financial relationships can lead to a vicious rather than virtuous cycle. As the manager of a state-owned company argues:
The acts of violation of rules and laws by the managerial staff of state-owned companies might not only bring the economic loss to the state and the company, but also influence the company culture, even result in an unstable situation, which is hard to retrieve.
As we discussed in Chap. 6, the culture of official work is manifested by the freedom of officials assuming the functions of work. Thus, the company culture here refers to the alliance between the state-owned company and high-level politicians in view of their freedom in governing, which in turn causes unstable situations, such as “exploitation of public resources.” In this sense, “unnecessary” means “too much freedom” (or under regulation) of governing which will fundamentally escape the restraints of the Party—the official who is invested with a public function of governance are defined by their assuming and fulfilling a function or an office. In many parts of China there are anti-pollution projects launched by state- owned companies and exploitative real estate projects owned by them. These projects are often run by relatives of high-level officials and thus backed by those officials. As a result, the conflicts caused by these projects finally become the conflict between the ordinary people and the Party, as the high-level officials are perceived as being representative of the Party by the people most affected.
In the case of hedonism and extravagance, economic power is supported by political power and thus forms an even more powerful faction that threatens the authority of the Party itself. In these cases, officials are becoming the hybridized agents who are both working for the Party and for themselves. The conflict of interests between duty to do and duty to be is moderated into a harmonious situation, in which both the Party and ordinary people are mediated. In this context, it no longer makes sense to discern whether the manipulation of the centre’s policies by officials is sincere or strategic, reactive or proactive, or reflects rights versus rules (Yeh et al. 2013: 921). Cynical perspectives view the caging of tigers aspect of anti-corruption as more about President Xi’s attempts to control and marginalize powerful political opponents than an attempt to cleanse the Party of corruption. The truth, as they say, is probably somewhere in-between.
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