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Irony and Overreaction

Instead of proposing alternative meanings, officials can also denature official meanings through too much enthusiasm (Weller 1994: 210). In other words, there is a type of resistance by overreaction. As an official from a provincial government explains:

Some officials intentionally make normal officials feel bad and then produce pressure on their supervisors. I can’t really understand their intentions. It seems to be a kind of rigid implementation of Party policies, but with other purposes. For example, some leaders suspended all material benefits in a unit in the name of following the eight-point code requirement. This results in normal officials feeling offended by their treatment and they end up resenting the eight-point code. In the end, resentment builds up against the central government. This is an evil strategy.

In this discourse, the official interviewed trusted the centre’s good intentions while being suspicious of their immediate leaders for harbouring self-serving, predatory and high-handed intentions (O’Brien and Li 2006: 43). The rationale underlying this kind of resistance is that there is a basic tension between ideologically determined norms of cadre behaviour emanating from the centre and the demands on local leaders to perform effectively (Lewis 1970: 10). Low-levels officials often interpret this situation as: “the scripture is good, but bad monks recite it incorrectly” (O’Brien and Li 2006: 41). As an official from an education department explains:

I heard from somebody that some local leaders tried to put pressure on the central leadership by encouraging public dissent. They are not totally against it. But they are very upset that all their usual entertainment activities are prohibited. These officials then attack the unpopular eight-point code and through this they attack the central government. This displays a lack of conscience and loyalty amongst some officials.

Complex oppositions and types of resistance like these depict disunity among Party members and how local leaders can fire the flames of dissatisfaction among their subordinates. This type of overreaction can lead to cynicism in the local context, and as such become obstacles to Party reform—all of which can be directly linked to intentional overreactions of local leaders. While the inherent ambiguities of saturation make for only ambiguous resistance, they also perform the crucial function of forcing all official language to be read for its own ambiguities, ironies and multiple meanings (Weller 1994: 207). Some of our participants explained corruption or more accurately susceptibility to corruption in “class” terms, that is, being associated with coming from an impoverished background and being, relative to other officials, less well educated. For example:

Since the communist Party is the pioneer, the requirements for its members should be higher than for ordinary people. Some members with impure thoughts will become corrupt and they mostly are from poor families. Well- educated people will seldom become corrupt; they have fine idealistic foundation. (An official from a finance department)

The attribution of officials’ vulnerability to corruption to poor family background and educational achievement makes the discourse of corruption even more ironic, as Party members are supposed to be “proletarians” rather than elites. There are similar ironic situations when examining how officials view the good and bad aspects of the anti-corruption campaign. As an official from the general office of a provincial government articulated:

Every coin has two sides. On the one hand, people greatly embrace the campaign, as people acknowledge that the problem of corruption had to be controlled. Now, people are no longer afraid of the so-called corrupted tigers. However, on the other hand, we have also come to doubt the effectiveness of the Personnel Department of Central Government and how it used to work in the past. How could so many corrupted leaders be promoted in the past? How does the Discipline Inspection Committee inspect a corrupted cadre? Is there any legal guarantee? So people felt happy when the “big tigers” were caught, but now people think how come It was normal, that there were so many of them. There is a sense of political struggle within the Party. People have said that if you are targeted, you will be inspected and punished anyway regardless of evidence.

Thus, irony in this case is seen as a result of negative dialectics. Moreover, many policies can be used by Party leaders to deliberately bribe normal officials to lure them away from moral improvement (Schapiro and Lewis 1970: 132), whereas sometimes the leader only wants to have a docile workforce, that is, robots religiously obeying the edicts of superiors and maintaining peace among themselves (133). A central theme of the dialectic is that major changes occur when one force overcomes another. In other words, once the preserved balance is broken, the dialectical forces will produce a new thing, while the two forces also search for a new balance. In our case, the old forces become balanced again, while they also produce a new type of officialdom. The result being that two processes exit at the same time, that is, the hybrid new thing and new balance of old opposing forces.

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