Carl Minzner on Dawn of the Counter-Reform Era

I am really happy to have as part of the occasional Sinocism book series an excerpt from Carl Minzner’s new book End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining its Rise (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Carl is a Professor of Law at Fordham University (bio) and an expert in Chinese law and governance. He started working on this incredibly timely book long before the Communist Party of China announced the New Era of Xi Jinping.

The following excerpt is adapted from Chapter 3, “Internal Decay and Social Unrest.”   Footnotes have been removed.

By Carl Minzner

… With China facing spreading decay inside the Party itself, and new forms of social activism emerging outside, Xi Jinping ascended to power in 2012.  He was convinced of the fierce need to act. Xi has since shaken the Party to its core with a tough anti-corruption campaign, while dramatically recentralizing political power in himself and a few trusted aides. He has also launched the most severe domestic crackdown on dissent, civil society, and the media since the immediate aftermath of 1989.

Naturally, this has led to a loss of hope among many who had hoped that the twenty-first century would see China gradually transition to a more liberal, more open society. As veteran legal activist Teng Biao phrased it:

Xi has done much to bring back the ideological patterns of the Mao Zedong era, including the recycling of old slogans, the shutting of NGOs, the arrest of dissidents and enhanced controls on the spread of information.

Not all are so negative. Since 2012, there has been a strand of opinion that runs along the following lines. Sure, Xi is tough. He is harsh. He is running roughshod over state and society alike. But tough times call for a strong leader. Xi is addressing the dangerous weakness and ineffectiveness that had characterized Hu Jintao’s administration. He is centralizing power. And at the end of the day, he is building new institutions to govern China. Naturally, these will be highly illiberal, authoritarian ones. But regardless of how one might normatively feel about these trends, they represent a renewal of the Party’s rule.

Such arguments aren’t just coming out of China’s state media. They resonate with those advanced by serious academics outside the mainland as well, who draw attention to judicial reforms and Party disciplinary reforms launched since Xi assumed power in 2012…

One could point to such developments and assert—correctly—that they reflect a trend toward centralizing power. One could try to go yet further and assemble this together into an argument that China is seeing an evolution of a new, more centralized, more institutionalized one-Party state—a “perfect dictatorship” (Stein Ringen), or a swing back toward “hard authoritarianism” (David Shambaugh).  Still others assert they represent the next step in the development of “rule-of-law with Chinese characteristics,” purged of deviant Western liberal notions that had crept in during the reform era, and more faithful to China’s own authoritarian Legalist traditions.  

This may indeed be Xi’s intention. He appears to be searching for a way to reinstitute some version of China’s classical top-down governance system—a hybrid fusion of imperial Chinese and early 1950s Party practices. Think of this as the “red dynasty” scenario: power highly concentrated in the top leader in Beijing and his courtiers, a tamed and reformed Party apparatus disseminating the center’s will to the provinces, and with Party disciplinary inspection commissions (DICs) playing the modern role of the imperial censorate…

Perhaps this will succeed. But intentions are one thing; actually turning them into political institutions, quite another. The mere desire to centralize power is not the same as institution-building. And there are three key reasons to doubt that political institutionalization—defined by Huntington as the creation of “stable, valued, recurring patterns of behavior”—is taking place.

First, many of the trends currently playing out in Beijing are less about building up institutions, and more about wresting control of specific bureaucracies to strengthen Xi’s personal rule. Rapid concentration of power in the hands of a single individual in the midst of a heated struggle for power should not be confused with greater institutionalization of an authoritarian system.

Recent years have seen a proliferation of nebulous leading small groups (lingdao xiaozu) chaired personally by Xi Jinping. These bypass other Party leaders and allow him to directly exert a broader influence over a wider range of state power. Economic reform is one example—the small group chaired by Xi has effectively marginalized the role of the premier (Li Keqiang), who had borne responsibility for this portfolio in prior administrations.  Domestic security is another. By 2010, the expansion of the Party political-legal apparatus as a tool to handle social unrest had led created a vast fiefdom under the thumb of the former security czar, Zhou Yongkang. The purge of Zhou in 2013 gave Xi the opportunity to seize control of this turf. The newly created National Security Commission absorbed the domestic security portfolio (along with agencies aimed at foreign threats) and rendered them directly responsible to Xi. Not to existing Party institutions, such as the Politburo standing committee, but to Xi himself.  But since then, there has been no clear definition regarding how this new commission is to actually operate. What was an ill-defined political-legal apparatus has been upgraded to an even less well-defined security apparatus under the control of China’s top leader.

Or look more closely at developments in the Party’s own internal disciplinary apparatus. Scholars who had examined its evolution up until 2012 found a steady trend toward centralizing control over disciplinary inspection commissions (DICs) in the hands of provincial Party standing committees, and (since 1992) a greater professionalization in their work. DICs appeared to be increasingly focusing on anti-graft work rather than (as in the past) rectification of political errors.  Notably, even when they were used to eliminate high-profile rivals (such as Jiang Zemin’s toppling of Chen Xitong in 1995, or Hu Jintao’s removal of Chen Liangyu in 2006), the charges brought were for corruption, rather than for politically challenging China’s top leader. One could plausibly assert that such developments represented a shift—albeit partial and incomplete—toward greater institutionalization.

Now consider what has taken place since 2012. Control of the Party disciplinary apparatus has been centralized in the hands of Xi Jinping’s close ally Wang Qishan. The massive campaign that has unfolded over the past several years has begun to mutate. It is moving beyond mere anti-corruption work. New targets include Party cadres suspected of disloyalty to the top leadership (i.e. Xi), government employees who exhibit sloth or inaction, and professors who voice improper opinions in class.  

This is a reversion to patterns drawn from the 1950s and 1960s—one where the discipline committees are being used as a top-down political tool to shake and purge the entire Party apparatus. Nor is this being accomplished by the organic evolution of China’s institutions of supervision and oversight. Instead, it is marked by the expanded use of central inspection teams that descend on designated government and Party organs in sudden raids, detaining targets according to black-box rules.  Since 2015, official Party parlance has shifted to warn cadres against violating unclear “political rules” (zhengzhi guiju), in addition to the specific (but still extralegal) mandates of the Party’s own charter and internal regulations. Many interpret this as a sweeping catch-all provision aimed at allowing Xi to pursue all behavior and opinions he finds objectionable. A pervasive sense of uncertainty and fear has descended across the Chinese bureaucracy. Suicides have multiplied, with fifty-four cadres perishing from “unnatural causes” between January 2013 and April 2014.  All of this represents devolution away from institutionalized governance, not progress toward it.

Second, centralization of power in Xi’s hands reflects a broader trend. Partially institutionalized elite political norms that had emerged under China’s reform era are breaking down. Xi’s takedown of Zhou, which flagrantly violated tacit norms exempting current or former Politburo Standing Committee members from prosecution, is but one example.  The 19th Party Congress in fall 2017 saw others topple as well.  In a decisive break with reform-era norms, Xi was elevated to a level within the Party ideological canon approaching that of Mao.  And contrary to practices dating back to the 1990s, no obvious successor to Xi was designated.  Both raise the possibility that Xi might seek to continue to rule on in some form after the end of his second term as General Party Secretary in 2022.  As veteran China watcher Willy Lam has noted, this would “constitute a body blow to the institutional reforms that Deng [Xiaoping] introduced in order to prevent the return of Maoist norms.”

Third, the mechanisms that Beijing is using to influence society at large are sliding toward deinstitutionalized channels. Consider other recent trends—all of which break with patterns established since 1978.

• Cultivation of a budding cult of personality around the central leader, complete with fawning videos bearing titles such as “If You Want to Marry, Marry Someone Like Big Daddy Xi [Xi Dada].”

• Pivoting away from the Communist Party’s revolutionary roots in favor of the revival of an ethno-nationalist ideology rooted in history, tradition, and Confucianism (see Chapter 4).

• Return to Maoist-era tactics—televised self-confessions by journalists and lawyers, unannounced disappearances of state officials and civil society activists alike—inducing what Minxin Pei has aptly termed a “rule of fear.” 

Rule by fear, tradition, and personal charisma. These are not efforts to promote institutions of governance. As the sociologist Max Weber pointed out, these are the antithesis of institutionalized, bureaucratic rule.

And that’s exactly right. China’s reform-era trajectory is being reversed. Beijing’s failure to deepen political reform when it had the chance to do so—during the last two decades of the twentieth century and in the first decade of the twenty-first—is now leading the entire system to cannibalize itself and its own prior efforts at political institutionalization. Step by step, Xi finds himself needing to break more and more of the system in order to combat internal opposition, protect his position, and advance his own interests…

You can buy End of an Era: How China’s Authoritarian Revival is Undermining its Rise here on Amazon

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