Home Political science China’s Ethical Revolution and Regaining Legitimacy: Reforming the Communist Party through Its Public Servants
Cynicism as a Remnant
Local culture as manifested in the everyday life of subordinated groups is also a site of hegemonic control and struggle (Bevir and Rhodes 2010: 58). The existence of social and economic networks beyond direct government control ensures that alternative interpretations, or at least free spaces in which to escape official interpretation, will always thrive (Weller 1994: 204). As an official from a county government told us:
The most important thing is to avoid mistakes and keep the job safe. Yesterday I visited a friend who is a division chief whose position is very important, he told me that he visited an elder leader who told him that being careful is the most important thing at the moment. If the work is easy to do, you should do it. If not, put it aside.
That is to say, the position that officials take on moral issues can be influenced by abstract codified doctrine, but they can also be influenced by their own relational experiences that may even undermine principled moral absolutes (Schafer 2011: 59). For example, an official from a finance department complained about the wider impact of austerity measures:
Our entertainment at least can stimulate the economy. Our government would rather lower the GDP through promoting austerity measures. I think although this is morally right, there is no point in intertwining local economy and policies by the centre. Marxist political economy clearly stated government is the upper struggle and the economy is the base. It is important to find a balance point between these two things. Now we have changed it to another extreme. This way cannot be applied to anywhere. Like in my province, it is impossible to be accepted by others without drinking beer.
It is impossible to make friends with them by only preaching to them. The balance point is necessary.
As we have discussed throughout this book, the tension between modern managerialism and virtuocracy remains significant in China. Informal groupings are crucial to the flow of decisions; indeed, informal groupings are crucial to the whole conduct of Chinese political life (Lewis 1970: 16). This tension can also be seen in the tension between the truth of the Party and the truth of the self. This in turn leads to the fragmentation of the systems for delivering public services (Bevir and Rhodes 2010: 197). As an official from a provincial government tells us:
For example, our departments would often go to the countryside. But if you do everything yourself, you may waste a lot of time and public funding as you are not familiar with the local environment. After this campaign, we rarely go to the countryside to do research and a lot of work is left without anybody doing it.
Sometimes, officials’ innovative response to policies and other officially promoted values results in them failing to live up to a professed ideals (O’Brien and Li 1999: 2-3). In other cases, officials have emphasized economic issues and the specificities of local culture to outweigh the moral requirements laid down by the Party. However, these cases are often far from clear-cut, and a discourse of acceptable and unacceptable corruption emerges, whereby some corrupt officials who have been accused by the Party would not necessarily be seen as “bad officials” by their peers and associates. As an official from an education department explains:
Like the Liu Zhijun, the former director of the Ministry of Railway, who had always been thought of as a good person even if he becomes corrupted. He really made a huge contribution to the country’s high-speed train project, which everybody likes.
In some sense, every revolutionary ideology crystallizes from the mixed ideas that preceded it. Yet every new order itself immediately becomes vulnerable to processes of accumulating meaning that help to undermine its control and sap its power (Weller 1994: 187). Moreover, the truth of the Party is also in tension with the truth of the self in terms of interpersonal relations. We note that comradeship can come into competition with friendship. For example, a low-level official from a county government attempts to explain how networks and relationships are forged and reinforced among officials as they work, study and travel together over the years:
Actually it is only a transitional stage. Because in the early years, people knew each other well by learning together, being involved in joint research, being engaged in some recreational activities. For example, we may find something special with a colleague who is neither outstanding at work nor remarkable at interpersonal relationship. But through some healthy activities you can find your colleagues particularly good at, for instance, calligraphy, art or chess.
This relational ethics reveal layers of commitment, not to the single God (the Party) but to particularistic relationships, such as friendship, kinship and also those characterized by personal obligation and indebtedness (Yang 1988: 414). It is through these obligations and associated relationships that ethical subjectivities were forged in the past. However, as we have explored in Chap. 4, these types of relationships can become problematic through the process of factionalization, which can result in loyalties being split between the Party and the faction. However, that being said, these informal groupings are crucial to how Chinese officials and the Party functions. As Yang finds, “Like itineraries, relationship ethics represent a view of social relationships from the ground, instead of from an exalted universal and transcendent position that sees fixed categories of relationships and roles, of right and wrong: official/people; revolutionary classes/counterrevolutionary classes; peasants/workers/intellec- tuals; Party/masses; collective/individual; state benefits/private benefits; nationalism/nepotism/and so forth” (1988: 414-415).
The problem lies in the tension between governing traditions and governing reform. As Bevir and Rhodes find, the governing of traditions reshape reforms as reforms reshape traditions (2010: 170). In this sense, the inactivity among officials in doing their work is in actual fact a problematization of officials, and thus an impulse that paves the way for the Party to further act on the “problems” exposed as a consequence of their reforms. These problems are either seen as a remnant of tradition or as a distorted (hybrid) consequence of reform. Inherent in Communist political culture is the problem of combining, balancing and reconciling emotionalism and professionalism, enthusiasm and relationalism, which is associated with the aspiration that all officials are expected to be both “red and expert” (Pye 1968: 195).
Thus, having identified the unintended consequences associated with the current ethical revolution, President Xi launched a series of further initiatives to encourage officials to actively and positively govern in the process of fulfilling the “One Belt and One Road” strategy and for fulfilling the China Dream. In this unfolding context, “active and positive” governance requires not only politically loyal officials but also professionally trained officials who have to govern with a globalized outlook both domestically and internationally. These initiatives have rich implications not only for how authoritarianism and neoliberalism can be hybridized, but more importantly they reveal the internationalization of the China Dream through the “One Belt and One Road” strategy. Empirically, in this second (i.e., international) stage of governance within the Party, it is also worth noting how President Xi intends to release the potential of the Party memberships’ governing capabilities in the international context. In particular, what will be the impact of President Xi’s aspirations for (1) ethical reformation, (2) the re-professionalization of the current Party system, and (3) how power relations within the Party are to be reformed in order to achieve its international goals?
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