Bureaucratic Strategies of Coping with Strongman Rule: How Local Officials Survive in President Xi Jinping’s New Order
Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been attempting to transform the Chinese Communist Party into an ideologically committed, organizationally disciplined, and politically loyal regime. His efforts include enforcing strict discipline and curtailing the perks of officials. This attempt appears to be unpopular among the party’s rank and file and has encountered various forms of resistance. Resourceful local officials have attempted to protect their interests and resist the leadership’s efforts to strip them of the perks and benefits that until now they have taken for granted. Their passive resistance appears to be a serious obstacle to the realization of Xi’s ambitious vision. Ironically, many of Xi’s own policies, such as emphasizing ideological indoctrination and suppressing civil society, have made it more difficult to combat the subterfuge by local officials. The party’s top-down approach is unlikely to succeed in converting ideologically cynical CCP officials into true believers, while local officials have no feasible means of forcing the top leadership to change course. This political stalemate is likely to continue.
One of Xi Jinping’s most ambitious and prized political objectives is the transformation of the Chinese party-state into an ideologically revitalized, organizationally disciplined, and politically loyal instrument of rule. During his last seven years in power, Xi has devoted enormous political energy to achieve this objective, relying primarily on an unrelenting anti-corruption drive to instill fear among Chinese officials. In addition, he has issued numerous new rules to cut the perks previously taken for granted by local officials, such as spacious office space, free use of government cars, and generous entertainment budgets. At the same time, he has launched a vigorous campaign of ideological re-indoctrination to strengthen the commitment of Chinese officials to regime values. Taken altogether, it is not an exaggeration to argue that Xi has replaced an incentive-based system with one centered on fear and ideology. The former, according to Xi’s speeches on corruption, was responsible for endemic corruption, loss of ideological commitment, and lax organizational discipline. In Xi’s view, continuation of such a system will threaten the long-term survival of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The question is whether the solution adopted by Xi—the revival of rules, policies, and rhetoric reminiscent of the Stalinist and Maoist eras—has been effective.