29 Jan 2018
By Amos Wittenberg
Since Xi Jinping ascended to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party in 2012, his anti-corruption campaign has ensnared almost a million and a half officials.
The vehicle for this grand sweep has been the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (“CCDI”), an internal party body that, until last year, was run by Xi’s right-hand man Wang Qishan. (Upon Wang’s retirement the job passed to Zhao Leji—whose previous role, Party Personnel chief, involved filling the vacancies left by those who had fallen afoul of the campaign.)
Since last September’s Nineteenth Party Congress, plans have been underway for an upgrade to the CCDI. It will be replaced by a state agency, the National Supervision Commission (“NSC”), which will have jurisdiction over the whole of China’s public sector.
Earlier this month, the CCP Central Committee confirmed that the NSC will be written in to China’s constitution when the country’s parliament meets in March.
In the first update to the document for fourteen years, the new Commission will accompany the ideological update, the enshrining of “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”, of which much has been made.
The NSC will bolster Xi’s anti-corruption campaign in a number of ways. Although the CCDI has broad powers, including the ability to detain suspects in secret for up to six months, as an internal body of the Communist Party its jurisdiction is limited to party members.
This is a broad playing field — the CCP is the second largest political party in the world, and its 90 million strong membership includes many ordinary citizens who have nothing to do with running the country. But there are also plenty of people on the government’s payroll who are not party members, including doctors, university lecturers and employees of state owned firms.
Once the NSC is up and running, these individuals — numbering perhaps 60 million — will find themselves fair game for the anti-corruption campaign.
As the CCP Central Committee put it in a recent communique, “the reform to establish a national supervisory system [is] a major decision to strengthen the self-supervision of the Party and the state” (emphasis mine).
There is an additional significance to moving the anti-corruption campaign out from within the party to the broader apparatus of government. Officials in the NSC will be able to act more freely than their CCDI counterparts could.
A degree removed from party politics, they may have a better shot at individuals the party is unable to target—because they are too powerful, or for fear of looking like it is turning too aggressively on itself.
In addition, government officials rather than the party will take the blame for any botched or unpopular investigations—a tactic used successfully back in the 1980s to couch Deng Xiaoping’s bold economic reforms.
The NSC proposals have attracted an unusual level of criticism, in particular from China’s academic community. In late 2017 a group that included a special inspector of the CCDI published “seven questions” about the proposals as they stood at the time.
They highlighted the NSC’s proposed ability to detain suspects, and to deprive them of property rights, without granting legal counsel. The draconian extent of such powers could, they suggested, open the door to torture and other illegal methods of evidence collection. Such evidence, if legal proceedings were to arise from an investigation, would be admitted unconditionally.
As the authors of the “seven questions” are keenly aware, the NSC will compound an atrophying of China’s legal system. Currently the courts are involved only at the final stages of an anti-corruption investigation, when evidence has been gathered and the outcome is more or less fixed.
The legal system, as a result, has come to lack both the experience and the resources to undertake corruption cases on its own terms.
The new Commission will make this state of affairs official: it will be a super-legal agency with powers parallel to, rather than governed by, the country’s legal system. Detained suspects will gain access to legal counsel only once their case has been handed over to the judiciary.
This setup is a manifestation of a contradiction at the heart of China’s governance. As Beijing historian Hong Zhenkuai, quoted in a recent New York Times article, puts it: “The party says it acts within the Constitution and law, but now the party also says it leads everything […] How can you abide by the law if you also lead everything and are above the law?”
The CCP tries to have it both ways, claiming that it governs with legal and constitutional authority but regularly disregarding those institutions—Xi Jinping, in fact, has openly criticised constitutional government as a liberal idea.
This is hardly an isolated example of mixed messaging from the CCP. The anti-corruption campaign itself serves a dual purpose, checking the graft that might genuinely pose a threat to the party’s legitimacy, while at the same time allowing Xi to consolidate power and eliminate opponents.
Chinese citizens are aware of the campaign’s political nature, but the anti-corruption message is still powerful, and will be an important aspect of Xi’s legacy. It is fitting, then, that the NSC will be written in to China’s constitution at the same time as Xi Jinping Thought.
Anti-corruption is core to the President’s ideology. By way of the NSC it is to be institutionalised, upgraded from an internal party campaign to an independent arm of the Chinese government.
Amos Wittenberg is a freelance writer and former editor of KYC360. He is currently studying in Beijing.
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