A new dynamic has been dominating China’s communist bureaucracy in recent years: Officials are now largely disloyal, or “harboring two hearts,” as the Chinese say.
The most typical symptom of their disloyalty is deliberately slacking off. The relationship between the bureaucracy and the regime’s leadership has deviated from an unspoken partnership of making fortunes together during the era of Chinese Communist Party leaders Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, to one akin to the cat–mice relationship during Mao Zedong’s time: “Many mice fear the one cat.”
Chinese Officials’ New Behavioral Pattern
China’s state-run media has recently published articles that are critical of the prevalent slacking among government officials. In January, Chinese leader Xi Jinping warned the Politburo that officials would be held responsible if they slipped up and let dangers spiral into real threats. The unspoken context is that the officialdom has been standing idle, despondently watching the escalation of dangers the authorities are facing, as if they weren’t part of the system.
Of all the dangers Beijing fears, the greatest of all is not public discontent or the occasional protests, but the economic risks that threaten the entire country. The Chinese economy has been on the decline for reasons I stated in the article, “2018: The Year of Chinese Economic Decline.”
In an autocratic system, the main strategy to stimulate the economy is for officials at all levels to use administrative tools provided by senior leadership to creatively boost local economies. During the Jiang and Hu eras, officials made all kinds of efforts to at least generate short-term growth. Today, the regime still relies on local governments to pull the country through economic hardship. But if the officials passively resist, Beijing’s attempts to save the economy will most likely fail.
The reality is, contrary to the leadership’s hopes, the new behaviors the bureaucracy is exhibiting during this most recent economic decline are what I describe as “quietly onlooking, slacking off, and mindlessly executing.” By quietly onlooking, I mean the officials have no true concern for the deteriorating economy. Instead, they just wait and see what the leadership can pull together, not without a sense of amusement. By slacking, I mean the officials just sit around and do as little as they can.
After all, fewer actions mean fewer chances of making mistakes, and their bosses can’t fire them for doing nothing. By mindlessly executing, I mean they take leadership instructions literally and simply copy without any consideration for the actual impact on society. “I’ve executed the orders, and I don’t care if it’s useful or necessary,” they’d say.
For the regime’s senior leaders, the bureaucracy’s new behaviors pose a major political threat, not just because it would be difficult to implement measures for saving the economy. More importantly, such a response from officials marks disloyalty, and a conflicting relationship between the regime’s central leadership and its officials below them.
Officialdom ‘Honeymoon’ During the Jiang, Hu Eras
To understand why the leadership–officialdom relationship morphed into disloyalty, we need to first understand the partnership they had during the Jiang and Hu eras. At the time, both the senior leaders and local officials focused on exploiting profits for themselves, and sharing gains with each other for their own benefit and security. As each official found his or her own pool to exploit from, they reached a certain mutual understanding and harmony. The result was a jaw-dropping degree of corruption that spread throughout the Party.
Such a situation is by no accident. In a highly centralized system, an individual dictatorship like that of Joseph Stalin and Mao can’t be naturally extended to the next generation of leaders. The natural consequence is a collective dictatorship model. Such transitions occurred in the Soviet Union between Nikita Khrushchev and Konstantin Chernenko (though Mikhail Gorbachev later implemented an individual-dictatorship-based presidential system), and in China between Deng Xiaoping, Jiang, and Hu.
As personal worship and ideology fail as measures to motivate and control society as well as the officialdom, the “order–obey” relationship between the senior leaders and regular cadres seen during Stalin and Mao’s time morphed into a profit–exchange relationship in which each party offers certain benefits in exchange for what they need. In other words, the senior leaders provide official positions, privilege, and benefits in order to buy the officials’ obedience.
Thus, the leadership and the officialdom are bound together by an unwritten contract, which maintains the stability and interaction between the top and bottom of the system. Such a “honeymoon” state inevitably led to nationwide corruption.
In China, the corruption during Jiang and Hu’s time was unparalleled because of the much deeper market reforms than what the former Soviet Union had. Before economic reforms induced privatization, corruption manifested as privileged access to consumption goods and bribery of cash, precious metal, and artifacts. But once privatization took off [in China, this started with former Chinese premier Zhu Rongji’s reformation of state-owned enterprises in 1998], corruption took off with full force.
Officials were given ownership of companies, capital, and real estate, and they were able to invest their assets abroad. This is how the leader–officialdom “honeymoon” in the Jiang and Hu eras came about.
Once the officials turned into capitalists via corruption, their greed knew no bounds. Political accomplishments were no longer the only way to promotion, and higher rankings were now associated with higher personal security. Officials who moved up the ladder in such a political-economic environment often actively took all measures to stimulate the economy, not only for promotion, but to collect more assets for themselves.
The Source of Slacking Off in Xi’s Age
At its root, the disloyalty among cadres results from the extreme animosity against the senior leadership’s anti-corruption campaigns. The nostalgia for the Jiang and Hu eras is, in fact, a preference for the “corruption for cooperation” policy of the previous leaderships. The hostility toward the current leadership reflects a resentment toward their “forced cooperation with anti-corruption campaigns.” The nature of such sentiments is the love for corruption and a frustration for not being able to achieve it.
For the corrupt officials who haven’t been targeted, the loss in a sense of security has given rise to animosity. The loss of open access to profits and a luxurious lifestyle only fuels such animosity. Finally, they also lost their escape route to live a comfortable retirement somewhere abroad with their overseas real estate and financial investments. Years of planning and building up fortunes have become nothing but a dream.
For the officialdom, the dilemma lies in the fact that no one dares to openly protest the anti-corruption campaigns, because that is no less than a confession for their own crimes. All they can do is hide the hatred in their hearts, and let it ferment. But the hatred will not turn into longings for democracy, because they know all too well that corruption is not tolerated in a democratic environment. What they yearn for is a different type of relationship with senior leadership.
As a matter of fact, the current leader–officialdom relationship resembles the cat-mice relationship during Mao’s time. Pro-Beijing news outlet Duowei News published an article on March 29 titled “The Endless War Between Zhongnanhai [the Chinese regime headquarters] and the Bureaucracy.” The title says a lot. The partnership between the Party leaders and the officialdom has obviously gone for good. The article warned that “the stability of the authorities relies on the entire officialdom environment.” Apparently, both the authorities and the officialdom are very clear about the wide gap between them.
On the surface, the disloyalty by officials looks similar to the mindset among Soviet Union officials before it fell apart, but the political implications are very different. I shared one of my new opinions with a think tank in Washington in 2016: The compatibility between privatization and democracy is determined by the sequence of their occurrence. If democracy comes first, then the two can coexist.
An example is that in Russia, the democratization didn’t pose barriers for former red elites to continue building their fortunes. The red elites could actually leverage new opportunities that come with democratization. If privatization happens first, as in China, then the communist capitalists will stop at nothing to stomp out any efforts toward democracy, because democracy is now lethal for them. Because China falls in the second scenario, the officialdom, though disloyal, won’t rebel. They share the same determination and motivations with the senior leadership, which is to maintain the current political system.
As a result, China may have the longest road toward transitioning out of socialism.
Cheng Xiaonong is a scholar of China’s politics and economy based in New Jersey. He is a graduate of Renmin University, where he obtained his master’s degree in economics, and Princeton University, where he obtained his doctorate in sociology. In China, Cheng was a policy researcher and aide to the former Party leader Zhao Ziyang, when Zhao was premier. Cheng has been a visiting scholar at the University of Gottingen and Princeton, and he served as chief editor of the journal Modern China Studies. His commentary and columns regularly appear in overseas Chinese media.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.