It’s never easy to get a handle on discussions inside China’s Communist party—debates that reveal the thinking of Chinese officials, as well as the parameters and direction of policy. There’s so much about the political system here that is opaque at best, closed to outsiders, and frequently tough to get a clear sense of.
But it’s not impossible.
In Chinese politics, words are actions. What’s presented in State-controlled media reflects attitudes and arguments among officials about policy options, about the trajectory of the Party and the country. Editorials are issued to instruct other departments and lower levels about what Beijing is thinking and why, and sometimes to air alternatives. There’s substantial diversity and dissent in commentaries and essays, as well as the current Party line. And it should provide important indications of arguments in the run-up to this year's 19th Party Congress.
Obviously, if one presumes that Chinese politicians struggle for power and are driven to pillage; that leaders only want loyalty and loot; and that’s what the 19th Party Congress will focus on—Xi securing power (finally, after many light years)--then it’s a waste of time to actually read what’s in the Party media.
But that's absurd, because seeing what officials and their advisors are writing about allows one to begin to capture and comprehend the state of the debate in China—what’s seen by cadres as pleasing, and what’s viewed as worrying.
One example of the latter is an editorial that was carried in Nanjing Daily and some other papers earlier this month, and republished in some Party media outlets since then.
The editorial’s author is Shi Zhongquan [石仲泉], former Deputy Director of the Central Party Research Office, an arm of the Central Committee that’s responsible for collecting information and issuing policy recommendations for the political leadership. Shi is ostensibly retired, but no high-level cadre in China ever is: He’s written on the Long March and its legacy, and his essays are clearly authoritative, reflecting what at least some Party advisors think are major issues of the day. When Shi writes, others are sure to read.
Shi argues in the editorial that there are currently three major misunderstandings among some Party members concerning how the organization is run—“errors [误识] in thinking…that need to be clarified.”
That's Party-speak for "there's a problem here that still hasn't gone away."
The first misimpression is the belief among some in the Party rank-and-file that the current pressure on cadres is never going to end [压力没完论]--that its “endless character” is seen as detrimental to members and thus, the Party itself.
Continuing with strict oversight and supervision—enhanced Party discipline—is crucial, Shi contends, because history and recent years have shown that without rigorous regulation of officials, waste and corruption results. Shi insists that there’s no need for cadres to keep looking over their shoulders, so long as they retain a regular daily work routine and attend to their responsibilities as Party members. The "endless nature" of the crusade is necessary because the problems being faced are profound.
The inference in the editorial—the confirmation, really--is that there’s a climate of fear in official circles, but there really shouldn’t be. That is, if cadres did their jobs to start with. That many still aren't doing so is another reason why the campaign continues, Shi implies.
The second misunderstanding, Shi writes, is the presumption by some cadres that, as a Chinese maxim [成语] has it, “cutting chives is useless”; that graft will grow back no matter no matter how extensive the crusade against corruption; that it’s a hopeless harvest [割韭无用论].
Shi argues that those who think “that there is no fundamental solution to the phenomenon of corruption because of the conditions of the soil” [没有从根本上解决产生贪腐现象的土壤] ignore the progress already made, because by continuing to slash at weeds, graft has nowhere to take root and grow. There’s in fact been, Shi maintains in the editorial, significant progress [重大进展] in reshaping China's political landscape, frightening off those cadres who would otherwise be tempted by corruption. The anti-graft crusade isn’t just some seasonal culling, but something more permanent, he insists.
The third misperception of some Party members is the assumption that there’s no cadre can meet the requirements to abide by all the regulations [“there will be nobody left”--无人干事论], and that therefore at some point soon as officials are found wanting, no one will be in charge because they've all been removed, and these rectification campaigns will then have to be reduced.
Shi baulks at that conclusion, stating that “these initiatives have already won popular sentiment and the hearts and minds of the party” [这些举措深得党心民心]. With such support, Shi says, efforts by some officials to wait out these campaigns will fail. And there will always be outstanding candidates for cadre positions, Shi adds, implying that those who continue to lag will lose out.
In one sense, we’ve been here before: This isn’t the first time that Chinese commentators have made the case that Beijing’s anti-corruption crusade and the rectification struggle isn’t about to be closed down just because some are complaining about it. And these pieces remain admonitions--warnings, but not purges (though accusations of "errors" comes closer to threats of the latter).
Still, Shi’s attempt to deflect what is apparently a litany of grievances shows that despite Beijing’s best efforts, some Party cadres remain unconvinced and concerned--years after the campaigns began. That Shi was tasked to respond to this reluctance signals some worry in leadership circles that actual organized resistance isn’t going away but could actually be growing.
But whether that defiance results in a showdown over reform before or at the 19th Party Congress has yet to be written. Never mind the "power struggle" narrative. The real story here and to come is whether the reforms thus far will end up getting rolled back.