Watching the Watchers: China Centralizes Its Anti-Corruption Drive

9 MINS READMay 19, 2015 | 09:15 GMT
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Wang Qishan arrive at the Monument of People's Heroes on September 30, 2014.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection Wang Qishan arrive at the Monument of People's Heroes on September 30, 2014.


  • Reforms in personnel appointment policies will transform the relationship between central and local anti-corruption bodies, removing conflicts of interest and improving effectiveness.
  • New appointees will help deter passive resistance and give the central government a voice in Communist Party standing committees at all levels.
  • There may be additional attempts to expand central control over other branches of provincial and sub-provincial governments to ensure the proper execution of reform policies.
  • The changes will strip local administrations of some of the flexibility they need for economic vitality.

As China's economic growth slows, the need to structurally reform the economy has become more urgent. However, despite this recognized need, Beijing is running into its perennial problem of resistance at the local level. There is evidence that local officials are not enforcing, or even publicizing, the central government's edicts, which they fear would rob them of the benefits they enjoy under the current status quo. In a recent series of editorials on the slowing Chinese economy, the state-run People's Daily identified local officials who are "outwardly devoted to economic adjustment while harboring inner opposition" as the greatest obstacle to successful economic reform in China. These officials, the People's Daily said, have stalled key initiatives such as Hukou reform and electricity price liberalization. The editorials warned that the Party would disabuse local, lower-level cadres of the belief that "not acting means not coming across problems."

Under President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party has adopted an intense anti-corruption campaign, led by the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), to eliminate this sort of passive resistance. The commission is a powerful organization under the Party's Central Committee that is rightly feared for its ability to investigate and detain Party cadres. However, the commission has limits to how much it can handle. To take on a large number of local corruption cases, it must, in turn, delegate the bulk of its work to the lower-level disciplinary commissions beholden to local party committees rather than to the central government. This delegation of work to anti-corruption bodies loyal to local party committees has allowed many lower-level officials to skirt disciplinary measures and escape scrutiny.

Beijing has now moved to address the gap between local and state enforcement. In late April, the General Office of the Communist Party of China published a new set of regulations strengthening the CCDI's ability to exercise top-down control of the anti-corruption system. The changes will increase Beijing's control over anti-corruption processes and make it more difficult for local officials to deflect or divert the campaign. After the new rules take effect, there will likely be personnel reshuffling in local anti-corruption bodies starting at the provincial level (either by reassignment or purge) and working down as the CCDI deploys handpicked appointees to watch lower-level cadres.

A Brief History of Personnel Appointment Policies

The strengthening of the CCDI's power over provincial disciplinary commissions is not an innovation. Rather, it harkens back to an older version of China's "nomenklatura" system — a Leninist staffing arrangement borrowed from the Soviet Union involving lists of names from which higher party committees could appoint the members of lower-level organizations. From the founding of the People's Republic in 1949 through 1984, party committees at all levels had nomenklatura lists that gave them the power to make appointments up to two ranks below them. For example, the Central Committee, which sits above provincial party committees, was able to appoint both the provincial committees and their subordinate departments, including provincial anti-corruption commissions. This created a system in which sub-provincial officials had a greater incentive to satisfy the central authorities rather than their own immediate superiors. The central government's control kept abuses by local cadres in check, but central meddling and the rigidity of the system had detrimental effects on economic growth. 

Under former leader Deng Xiaoping, the decision was made to delegate more control to local governments, allowing them to implement growth-maximizing policies. To support this delegation of power, the "two ranks down" system was modified into a "one rank down" arrangement to maximize local efficiency and minimize meddling from the central government. One result was that only the top officials (i.e. the party secretary and deputy secretaries) at every level were directly appointed by the level above. These officials would then have total control over the next level of appointees. Though decentralization gave local governments much-needed flexibility and stimulated economic growth, it often led to local governments functioning as fiefs, ruled by the local party chiefs. In the context of the current anti-corruption drive, the legacy of 1984 was that the local disciplinary bodies aligned with their respective party committees rather than the central leaders in Beijing, and the CCDI had difficulty exercising real control over them.

Central-Local Relations in Anti-Corruption

Like the central government as a whole, the CCDI suffers from an age-old Chinese challenge: supervising such a large country from Beijing. The top anti-corruption body has a large staff — roughly 1,000 employees — but its investigators cannot be everywhere all the time. After Xi Jinping initiated the anti-corruption campaign in November 2012, the CCDI needed to run four investigation cycles to examine every Chinese province, taking up the better part of two years — an implicit admission of the commission's capacity limits. While these inspection rounds can be intense and can implicate enormous numbers of people, visits from CCDI teams last about three months at most — an insufficient amount of time to maintain a constant watch for passive resistance.

Despite this limitation, daily reports of new corruption investigations all over China give the illusion of CCDI omniscience. In fact, an examination of busts announced on the commission's website shows that the majority of corruption probes are actually executed, and usually initiated, by lower level anti-corruption bodies. Just as the CCDI is subordinate to the Central Committee, the local commissions report to their Party committee — the secretaries of the local bodies always sit on the Party standing committees at their respective levels, which gives them influence over local policies. They are vested with many of the same powers as the CCDI and can investigate, interrogate and incarcerate cadres suspected of corruption. As a result of these shared powers — and of the CCDI's reliance on local investigations — the activities of the lower commissions are conflated with those of the top body in most outside reporting.

The CCDI relies on these lower-level commissions to be its eyes and ears. While they formally fall under the top body's command, the CCDI generally does not appoint the lower-level leaders, who are two ranks down from the Central Committee. Instead, the personnel who constitute these enforcement agencies are appointed by and beholden to the local Party committees they are supposed to be watching. Local level anti-corruption cadres owe their career success to these committees, not distant authorities in Beijing.

The result of this career dependence is that local commissions often become both weapons and shields for local officials. The local authorities are often reluctant to initiate cases against local party bosses or their trusted subordinates unless compelled to do so by the CCDI. While provincial anti-corruption bodies often conduct investigations at Beijing's request, it is difficult to determine how many of the vast numbers of local officials that come under scrutiny are actually investigated in the spirit of Beijing's anti-corruption campaign. However, there are several known instances in which local commissions have been employed by local Party officials to settle personal scores — a waste of resources that tarnishes the legitimacy of the national campaign as a whole.

New Rules

The new personnel appointment rules sever the ties between local officials and local enforcement agencies and allow the CCDI to select the secretaries and deputy secretaries of provincial anti-corruption committees, along with the heads and deputy heads of the inspection teams dispatched by the provincial bodies. While it has not been completely unheard of for the central anti-corruption body to appoint one of its own senior officials to take control of a provincial commission, such actions have only occurred four times in the past two years. These appointments resembled takeovers more than normal personnel appointments. A notable case occurred in September 2014, when a CCDI standing committee member was appointed as the secretary of Shanxi province's anti-corruption commission amid a massive purge of provincial officials. Under these new regulations, centrally approved appointments will be the norm rather than the exception for provincial commissions.

Under the new regulatory framework, all lower-level anti-corruption bodies will have the responsibility to appoint commissions at the next level below them. This will mean that, through the trickling down of power, the CCDI will effectively exercise control over anti-corruption commissions at all levels. Furthermore, the lower-level secretaries appointed by the CCDI would be able to exercise power over the provinces through their seats on provincial standing committees, which simultaneously strengthens surveillance over other committee officials and gives the central government a voice in local level administrations. These rules will change the dynamic between the lower-level disciplinary bodies and their corresponding party committees and instill a truly independent regulatory bodies that hold no allegiance to the officials it is charged with monitoring.

Provincial disciplinary commissions have already begun announcing preparations to implement the new regulations. As these rules take effect, there will likely be significant personnel reappointments throughout the entire hierarchy of anti-corruption committees. The appointment of reliable anti-corruption officials may deter the passive, localized resistance that has stalled many of Xi's broader desired reforms. This would, in turn, eliminate many of the local patronage networks that had previously been protected by lower-level anti-corruption bodies.

By centralizing and empowering regulatory entities, China is hoping to stamp out both corruption and passive resistance by local officials. This increased supervision will no doubt be helpful to Xi as he tries to force local governments to comply with Beijing's macroeconomic policy reforms. However, this move should be understood not as a standalone act in the anti-corruption campaign but as a move toward the overall centralization of power under Xi. If the president finds that his broader reform agenda is not progressing at his desired pace, even with the anti-corruption reforms, he may need to enact more changes that give the central government more say in provincial and sub-provincial personnel appointments. However, reform efforts under Deng demonstrated that while new regulations may consolidate power around Beijing, centralization can also hamper local decision-making, instill inefficiency and do more harm than good.

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