Watching the Number Ones: The Centre’s ‘Opinion’ on Overseeing the Party’s Powerful

By Holly Snape

On June 1 Xinhua publicly released the “中共中央关于加强对"一把手"和领导班子监督的意见Central Committee Opinion on Strengthening Oversight of ‘Number Ones’ and Leadership Groups” that were promulgated on March 27, 2021.

I wanted to do a deeper dive and so I reached out to Holly Snape. She is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Glasgow. Before moving to Scotland, she was a fellow at the Research Centre for Chinese Politics at Peking University’s School of Government where she studied Chinese domestic politics and political discourse under Prof. Yu Keping. Her current research focuses on the relationship between the Communist Party and its state, and you can follow her on Twitter here. In January 2021 she wrote Analysis of the revised Regulations on the Rights of Party Members: New-Era Obligations in the Name of Rights? for Sinocism.

What follows is her detailed analysis of the Opinion and what it means for the Party and its cadres going forward. This is another in what I want to make a regular series of deep dives by academics for broader audiences. You all have gifted me a remarkable platform and I want to start spreading the wealth a bit. If there is topic you think the Sinocism community would be interested in please reach out and we can have a discussion. I will pay for your work.


‘Oversight over Number Ones (一把手) is still a weak spot.’1 This is a conclusion that Xi Jinping came to in January 2013. Eight years later, in June 2021, the CCP Central Committee released a document citing precisely the same problem and claiming to tackle it. 2 While the Party has, since 2012, been busying itself creating and re-writing oversight regulations, efforts have been ‘weighted toward ordinary Party members and routine work.’3 Meanwhile, ‘Number Ones’ have continued to operate in an oversight ‘blind spot.’4 The document opens with the assertion: ‘the Party’s committees are the command centres for the Party to govern and make the country prosper, Number Ones are leaders of the flock (领头雁) in developing the Party’s endeavours.’ Far from clipping the wings of these ‘leaders’ it silently but stubbornly refuses to do so, letting them retain their unchecked power, and instead cultivating a ‘political ecosystem’ that directs them where to fly. 

To give a sense of the extent of a Number One’s power, someone who once was one explained ‘another county secretary once joked to me, you can dream about something one night, and the next day make it happen, the power in your hands is that great.’ 5 Number Ones have the power to make decisions, and to control how those decisions are executed. ‘When it comes to using people, on what kind of person to use, and on who to promote, what the Number One says goes; when it comes to approving construction projects, whether to give approval, who to give it to, and how much money to approve, the Number One’s word goes.’6 The ‘weak spot’ Xi spoke of is all too well known. Farcical though it may sound, Number Ones can even interfere in their own oversight because the agencies charged with overseeing them must also answer to them.7 The result: ‘the leaders of specialist oversight agencies do not venture to oversee the ‘Number Ones’ who decide their destinies.’8 

But the point of this new document—the ‘Central Committee Opinion on Strengthening Oversight of Number Ones and Leading Groups’9—is not to finally fundamentally check Number Ones’ power. Most striking (and perhaps most predictable) is that even while recognising that their power is unchecked, it flatly declines to institute changes that would correct this. 

Instead, it seeks to ‘translate the advantage of the oversight regime with Chinese characteristics’ into ‘governance capability.’ Smattered with clippings from the distended mass of Xi Jinping speeches, instructions, and compiled books, and ‘reiterating, further elaborating,’10 and ‘making more concrete’11 recent regulations, the Opinion pulls together strands of the current Party leadership’s notion of a ‘modernised’ system. For that, it merits attention. 

The vision it peddles is one with neither independent checks and balances, nor the ‘intra-Party democracy’ thinking of an era past. The CCP of today rejects the approach conveyed, albeit unemphatically, in the early 2000s in the trial version of its Intra-Party Oversight Regulations.12 That old-era approach had sought to develop some degree of ‘intra-Party democracy’ and to ensure basic Party member rights vis-à-vis the Party to facilitate internal oversight. The new approach, quite to the contrary, seeks not to check the power of ‘Number Ones’ but to press them into becoming loyal subjects of the Party Centre, and to channel their energies into fulfilling the Centre’s goals. 

Party Self-Rule and ‘Oversight’ 

Under Xi Jinping’s watch, the Party has been re-building its own regulatory system based on a newly conceived13 model composed of four basic categories of Party legislation. ‘Oversight guarantees’ is one of the four, making this a core component of the entire regulatory system and a basic building block in the Party’s ‘comprehensive strict self-rule’ (全面从严治党). The Opinion fits within the bigger thinking behind this system.

In this system oversight regulations are meant to play a stick-and-carrot role in determining how Party organisations and cadres exercise power.14 They are designed not only to prevent and punish corruption and violations of Party regulations and law but to press for obedience to and fulfilment of the Party Centre’s goals and initiatives. As a core tenet of new-era oversight, they are also geared toward preventing and punishing political indiscipline. These obedience commanding and political disciplinary functions come across loud and clear in the Opinion. 

The document opines: ‘embarking on the new journey to comprehensively build a modern socialist country...it is by...using effective oversight to manage and use well the ‘key few’...that we can unite and lead the broad swathes of cadres and masses to triumph over the difficulties and obstacles on the path ahead.’ Oversight here is conceived of not as a check on power but as a means by which to flexibly calibrate the behaviour of leading officials. 

The Rise and Rise of Political Discipline and Political Protocol

This new Opinion is a thorough entrenchment of the rise of the ‘political’ already  underway under Xi. It calls for ‘foregrounding political oversight’ (突出政治监督) and, ‘as a key focal point,’ stronger oversight of ‘loyalty to the Party.’ As Li Ling has explained, the rise of the ‘political’ in the Party’s disciplinary regime is part of a paradigmatic change in the Party, reversing the course of de-politicisation over the past four decades.15  

The rise of the political has, step by step, been codified and persistently foisted on Party members through frequent campaigns. In the oversight regime, the Intra-Party Oversight Regulations were heavily re-written and premiered to great fanfare at a Central Committee Plenum in 2016 alongside a new Code of Conduct for Party members. The former version’s intra-Party oversight purpose of ‘developing intra-Party democracy’ was unceremoniously dumped in favour of ‘strict comprehensive Party self-rule.’ The gist of that re-write was tightening up on ‘intra-Party political life’ (the topic of the Code of Conduct), enforcing responsibility for ‘comprehensive strict Party self-rule,’ and demanding observance of political discipline and political protocol (政治规矩).16 A year later, the 19th Congress report called for ‘putting Party political building in top place’ (把党的政治建设摆在首位) and amendments to the Party Charter codified this rise. Charter amendments added obligations for all Party members to observe ‘foremost the Party’s political discipline and political protocol’; and, during criticism and self-criticism, to ‘courageously reveal and correct words and actions that violate Party principles.’17

In this vein, the Opinion demands that leading cadres abide by political discipline and protocol and that Central Committee members monitor each other in doing so. It calls on Party committees and Party Groups (leading Party bodies in government and other non-party entities) to press leaders to ‘strengthen their political consciousness’ and ‘continuously improve their capacity for political judgement (政治判断力), capacity for grasping political subtleties (政治领悟力), and capacity for political implementation (政治执行力). A far cry from checks on power, this might be better described as a kind of management by way of demanding sharp political instinct, making Number Ones ready to sense, and respond to, political signalling from the top. 

Integral to political compliance is the demand that Number Ones uphold the ‘Two Protects’ (protecting Xi’s position as ‘Core’ of the Centre and of the entire Party).18 They must ‘keep an honest household’ (which includes the project of developing a ‘clean and cordial’ relationship between the Party and business), and ‘oppose special privilege.’ 

But political obedience is not limited to stronger oversight of loyalty to the ‘Core’ and refraining from corruption. To be politically obedient Number Ones must implement the Party Centre’s decisions and recalibrate their actions to the demands of the ‘new development stage.’19 In other words, while obsequiousness to the top is doubtless part of the package, so too is a hyper-sensitivity to the goals and priorities of the Centre and a demonstrated ability to act on it.

Top-Down Oversight, Upward Accountability

The Opinion is clear on how this is to be achieved: ‘General Secretary Xi Jinping...stresses that insofar as Number Ones at each level are concerned, top-down oversight is most effective.’ The model is to have ‘each level grasp another level, and achieve enforcement layer by layer.’ 

This all creates a kind of ‘watching downward-plus-reporting’ mechanism. It obliges Number Ones to actively monitor their counterpart Number Ones at the level below and to report on their own performance in doing so as part of their own annual appraisals. In this way, Number Ones at every level are, through their own active performance of downward watching obligations, prompted to internalise the understanding that they too are being watched (thereby realising the demand that leaders ‘get used to working and living in an environment in which they are being overseen’). This is reinforced through other concrete tasks, like calling in their counterpart Number Ones at the level below for an ‘appointment talk’ when the latter takes office and regular ‘oversight talks’ with them thereafter. 

A responsibility system for ‘comprehensive strict Party self-rule’ (with Number Ones as first in line of responsibility) is put to the same use, with Party Committees and Party Groups charged with monitoring enforcement and keeping next-level-down Number Ones in check. The Opinion demands the beefing up of this responsibility system through an evaluation system that enables the use of evaluation results on Number Ones’ ‘comprehensive strict Party self-rule’ as an important basis for appointments and promotions. 

Downward watching and answering to counterparts above channels accountability upwards. This makes for a kind of loop: watchers (in this case Number Ones) must be constantly attentive to ‘political’ directions from the top down, digesting them, translating them into an understanding of what the Core wants, and repeating them in the process of watching those beneath them. Their performance in having done so is then fed back upwards for assessment. A corollary of this is that for local Party committees and governments ‘facing upwards to obey and implement the next level up’s demands becomes the most rational choice, and this results in their sense of responsibility to local citizens becoming increasingly weak.’20      

Sectoral Feedback

The Opinion regards sectors as ‘political ecosystems’ that can go bad or be healthy. It calls for robust mechanisms for analysing and judging their state of health and for situation reports on Party conduct within them. Party committees (and Party Groups) are called on to monitor these ecosystems, ‘regularly analysing the state of the political ecosystem in their own locality, department, or work unit, frequently listening to reports by discipline organs and Party work organs, [and] checking on salient issues in leadership groups.’ It calls on the discipline organs to analyse sector-specific political ecosystems, and highlights certain fields or sectors including ‘approval and supervision,’ construction projects, resource development, and finance and credit. It directs them to focus on discovering commonly occurring problems in the sectors under their watch, make topic-specific reports, and press the Party committee leadership groups to tighten up on managing those in key posts where problems are found, thereby creating focused feedback.     

Purveying the ‘Modern’, Pursuing Party Goals 

Overall, this Opinion is a stark reminder that when Xi Jinping—purveyor of the ‘modernisation of governance’—repeatedly calls for institutional cages21 and exhorts that ‘cow pens can’t hold cats’22 he does not mean that the Party’s power must be checked. 

The deepening reliance on political discipline and political protocol, the creation of mechanisms to channel accountability upward not outward, and the demands for loyalty to the Centre (or its Core) might all sound less ‘modern’ and more archaic as an approach to overseeing those with real power. Nonetheless, that the Party is developing itself in this way should not be taken lightly. Much of this oversight is geared toward making those with significant power in the Party work efficiently and responsively in line with top-down demands as part of a flexible machine able to drive ‘new development stage’ growth and pursue Party goals.

1

See Xi Jinping, 22 January 2013, ‘依纪依法严惩腐败,着力解决群众反映强烈的突出问题’ (‘Punishing Corruption in accordance with the Law and Disciplinary Regulations and Solving Major Problems Prompting Strong Public Reaction,’ ) In《十八大以来重要文献选编》(上)Selection of Post-18th Party Congress Important Documents, Vol. I, Central Party Literature Publishing House. 2014. p136.

2

《中共中央关于加强对"一把手"和领导班子监督的意见》 (Central Committee Opinion on Strengthening Oversight of ‘Number Ones’ and Leadership Groups) available at: http://www.gov.cn/zhengce/2021-06/01/content_5614784.htm

3

Liu Shifu (刘诗富) 2016 十八大以来党内监督的理论成果、实践探索与现实思考 (Theoretical Results, Practice and Thinking on Intra-Party Oversight Since the 18th National Party Congress) Gansu Theory Research (6)66–70

4

Liang Yuting and Shuai Jianhua (梁钰婷、帅建华) 2021 ‘党政“一把手”胜任特征研究综述’ (Literature Review on the Characteristics of Party and State ‘Number Ones’ Who are Up to the Job) Gongguan Shijie  (6):25–29

5

13 February 2020, 湖北恩施辞职县委书记说:你们看过的所有官场小说,都没我的经历精彩 (Resigned County Secretary of Enshi, Hubei Says: Not One of the Officialdom Novels You’ve Read is as Gripping as What I’ve Been Through) available at:

6

Lin Wei (林伟) “一把手”权力太大是导致腐败的主因, (That the Power of Number Ones is Too Big is a Main Cause of Corruption) CPCnews.cn, available at:  http://cpc.people.com.cn/pinglun/n/2014/0807/c241220-25424681.html

7

Discipline inspection commissions are also answerable to their counterpart agency one level up, but same-level Party Secretaries have still long been able to interfere. See Manion, Melanie, 2004. Corruption by Design: Building Clean Government in Mainland China and Hong Kong. Harvard University Press

8

He Zengke (何增科) 政治监督 (Political Oversight) In Yu Keping (俞可平) ed. 中国的治理变迁 1978–2018 (Governance Reform in China) Social Sciences Academic Press: China, 230–262

9

Supra note 2 above

10

‘The Opinion reiterates and further elaborates on the requirements of regulations such as the ‘CCP Intra-Party Regulations’, the ‘Party Committees (and Party Groups) Rules on Implementing Primary Responsibility for Comprehensive Strict Party Self-Rule, etc.’ See  解读《中共中央关于加强对“一把手”和领导班子监督的意见》(四)(Interpreting the ‘Central Committee Opinion on Strengthening Oversight of “Number Ones” and Leadership Groups’) available at: https://www.ccdi.gov.cn/toutu/202106/t20210601_243080.html

11

Sun Shaolong (孙少龙) 3 June 2021, ‘破解对“一把手”监督和同级监难题——七大关键词解读《中共中央关于加强对“一把手”和领导班子监督的意见》’ (Breaking Through the Tough Issues of Number Ones’ Oversight and Same-Level Oversight: An Interpretation Using Seven Keywords from the ‘Central Committee Opinion on Strengthening Oversight of “Number Ones” and Leadership Groups’ available at: http://www.moj.gov.cn/pub/sfbgw/gwxw/ttxw/202106/t20210603_425696.html

12

2003《中国共产党党内监督条例(试行)》(CCP Intra-Party Oversight Regulations [for Trial Implementation])

13

This “1+4” model was set out in an overarching 2016 Opinion on building up the regulatory system, and was incorporated into the new iteration of the Party’s ‘legislation law’ in 2019. The others three categories 1) organisational, 2) leadership (regulating Party interactions with others), and 3) Party building (i.e. inward facing)

14

See Song Gongde and Zhang Wenxian eds (宋功德、张文显). 2020.《党内法规学》(Party Regulatory Studies) Higher Education Press, p233

15

Li, Ling (2019) ‘Politics of anticorruption in China: Paradigm change of the party’s disciplinary regime 2012–2017.’ Journal of Contemporary China 28 (115): 47-63

16

‘Political protocol’ is the translation that Li Ling uses in her explanation of the concept’s origins. See supra note 15 above p51

17

Party Charter (2017) Article 3.4

18

‘Resolutely protecting General Secretary Xi Jinping’s position as Party Centre Core and core of the entire Party, resolutely protecting the Party Centre’s authority and collective unified leadership.’

19

新发展阶段 see Xi Jinping 30 April 2021 把握新发展阶段,贯彻新发展理念,构建新发展格局 (Grasp the New Development Stage, Implement the New Development Philosophy, Construct a New Development State of Play) Qiushi 2021(9) available at: http://www.qstheory.cn/dukan/qs/2021-04/30/c_1127390013.htm

20

He Zengke Supra note 8 p250

21

See Chapter 8 ‘把权力关进制度的笼子里’ (An Institutional Cage to Contain the Exercise of Power) In CCDI and Central Committee Literature Research Institute eds.《习近平关于党风廉政建设和反腐败斗争论述摘编》(Excerpts from Xi Jinping Expositions on Party Conduct and Integrity Building and the Anti-Corruption Struggle), Central Party Literature Publishing House, 2015

22

牛栏关猫是不行的’ see 9 October 2014, 在党的群众路线教育实践活动总结大会上的讲话 (speech at a review meeting on the campaign to heighten awareness of and implement the mass line) People’s Daily; 9 May 2014在参加河南省兰考县委常委班子专题民主生活会时的讲话 (speech at an internal Party meeting of the Standing Committee of the CPC Lankao County Committee, Henan Province)

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