Formalism and Bureaucratism: Tension Between Meritocracy and Virtuocracy

As we will discuss below, the problem of formalism and bureaucratism is mainly seen as a consequence of the tension between the “duty of officials” and the “personal will of officials” to “work for the masses.” In many ways, this problem is often associated with the tension between meritocracy and virtuocracy. In contrast to meritocracy, where selection and promotion is according to one’s professional or intellectual ability, a person’s moral worth, in this context, is being viewed to be just as important as merit status (Hualing 2013: 4). There are many officials who claim that the degeneration of the moral standards of communist officials is due to the Party’s “original sin,” namely the leaders’ concentration of power amongst a few leaders, for example:

The system of assessing official’s performance within the Party played a role in generating formalism and bureaucratism. In practice, leaders value as more important the traditional code of conduct of judging their subordinates for promotion. This judgment is not based on objective standards.

It is up to the leader to balance flexibility and principal. (Mid-level official, general official of a provincial government)

The discourses of low payment, the lack of an economic or political stimulus apparatus within the government, and the unfair and nepotistic promotion of officials are seen as institutional problems that cannot be easily solved. In the past, however, virtuocracy was an important source of legitimation for the Party, and the Party won popular respect through taking the risks and sacrifices associated with rejuvenating the country (Hualing 2013: 11). For example, an official compares the current system with the past:

Before the reform (after the liberation up until the Cultural Revolution), our moral system hadn’t been affected. People had lived in a more harmonious way of life. They had their own thoughts, ideals and faith. Why people could still persist even when they were poor, with little material resources? What we need to reflect on is that a lot of values are gradually forgotten when the economy develops and people have begun to live a better life. (Mid-level official, Policy Research Department)

In this discourse, “better economic conditions” and the consequent changing of values among the people in general and officials in particular are seen as the primary factors leading to the degradation of the Party system. We will focus on this issue in Chap. 7. Suffice it to say that officials view the virtuocratic system as having become marginalized by the meritocratic system in the context of “better economic conditions” and this, for many of the officials we interviewed, has been to the detriment of the Party. In particular, they perceive the problem of the current virtuocratic system as being aligned with “rewards and incentives” in the Party, which reduces collegiality amongst cadres. As a female official from the Land Management Department explains:

Except policies targeting formalism, we do not have another formal mechanism that encourages normal officials to work for outstanding achievements. There are no prizes and awards. It is like one policy fits all, it will demotivate people, and people will become slack. As you can always be right by doing “nothing.” I think this is a disadvantage of our system. With the same salary, civil servants who have fixed hours at the office usually make an excuse of not doing assigned work. He knows the work will be done by the others anyway. He might think that we have the same income, why should I take risks and work harder?

From this, we can infer that the culture within the Party has not fully adjusted from the static rewards, recognition and promotion system that cadres have been socialized into. The new context in which serving the masses is paramount also includes elements of Confucianism, in particular emphasis on officials’ personal ethics and moral obligations to be accountable to the people irrespective of financial rewards and recognition (Hualing 2013: 4). This is also partly why the ethical revolution within the Party is important. At the core of Confucian values is the commitment to hierarchy, authority and loyalty. In Confucian culture, the foundation of social order is not the law but the stability of social relations built on an individual’s fulfilment of their roles (Yu 2008: 170).

Traditionally, legitimacy in China comes from the Mandate of Heaven, and the Mandate of Heaven comes from the morality of the rulers. In order to maintain the Mandate of Heaven, the rulers have to maintain their morality, which means the emperor was expected to be the supreme moral example for all his subjects. The ruler was to be a role model for moral behaviour, displaying benevolence, filial piety, faithfulness, courtesy, integrity and frugality (Tong 2011: 199). The Mandate of Heaven is supported by circular reasoning: whoever ascends the throne has the mandate; whoever has the mandate ascends the throne (Hu 2000: 24). In other words, politics in China is moralized, that is, political authority is vested with moral authority, by which morality becomes the justification of political power; therefore, the political and moral orders are inevitably intertwined (Tong 2011: 200). As Pye notes, in China “morality and government is blended, means and ends became indistinguishable, and ethical conduct was not only the guide for government, but government was there to improve the ethical conduct of all” (cited in Tong 2011: 200). In other words, in contrast to the West, in China state institutions are responsible for preaching moral principles (201), since Confucianism does not have its own institution and is attached to the institution of the state (202).

But the Mandate of Heaven is now hybridized with the modern notion of power from the masses and thus becomes the mandate of the people. In other words, the current system in China is a “legal state ruled by men” (renzhide fazhi shehui) (Osburg 2013: 79). In this system, various mandates are manufactured which should give a high level of stability and coordination to the organization (Rothstein 2014: 14). In this system, the cadre’s key skill is the ability to understand and embrace the organization’s policy doctrine and to implement this doctrine in varying circumstances, in which the tools used are constantly adapted to the specific circumstances at hand (10). Thus, the efficiency of the Party’s operation is largely dependent on the individual Party member becoming his own policeman in thought and action through self-surveillance that is, “watching himself when alone” (shendu) (Nivison 1956: 52).

Officials’ duty towards the Party is thus blended with Confucian’s values in the context of hierarchical structure. This is the reason for the strong emphasis on loyalty and central control over the implementation of the system of hierarchically ordered mandates in this new context (Rothstein 2014: 15). Anti-formalism and anti-bureaucratism can be seen as another attempt to restore officials’ respect for the Party and to remind them of their fundamental duty. At the central level, the Party’s anti-four undesirable working styles initiatives and anti-corruption campaigns can also be seen as an attempt to restore the Party’s charisma by regulating the Party body: the officials. Through this process, it is expected that the Party’s ability to control itself, its powerful will, will gain the admiration and respect of ordinary people. As a result, mastery over the self (the Party) leads eventually to mastery over others (the Chinese people) (Chang 2011: 36). For the fulfilment of the China Dream and thus salvation from past humiliations, the Party’s attention must be turned towards the Party itself for its relegitimization process to be successful. In this sense, the discourse of the China Dream creates a relationship of gratitude, debt, affection and love between the Party and the Chinese people (Foucault et al. 2014: 64).

However, the influence of China’s traditional culture and long history of a feudalist society not only facilitated the (re)establishment of order within the country, it is also to blame for the rise of formalism and bureaucratism within the Party (Jianming and Zhizhou 2008: 49). As a mid-level official from a provincial government explains to us “I think formalism and bureaucratism is a tradition in China, from ancient times to the present, it is a culture of showing loyalty and respect to leaders. It has led to deep- rooted bad habits among the Chinese.” The problems associated with this system can also be seen in the process of how polices issued from the Party headquarters often get lost or distorted in the processes of interpretation and implementation in the local context (see also Zhang and McGhee 2014). As a low-level official from a provincial government informed us:

Our system involves passing on messages between different levels, it is only a game. The original meaning of the messages issued by the centre gets lost when passing on from one level to the next. Why? Because even if some leaders don’t want this complicated processes, but it is suitable to the traditions of our feudal society, in which we always stressed the importance of hierarchy. You cannot skip the necessary steps when issuing policy.

In actual fact, the so-called necessary steps activated by the “hierarchical order” within the Party are closely associated with formalism and bureaucratism. As a low-level official from a county office explains to us:

Most of the leaders are concerned about the form, that is, to see whether you are reverent and that you bow to him. He doesn’t care whether I respect him in my heart. Therefore, the nature of formalism is caused by the concentrated power.

Thus, the difficulty in distinguishing sincere actors from false ones creates considerable leeway for arbitrary judgements on the part of leaders. Even sincere Party members become disillusioned as they watch undeserving opportunists being promoted through favouritism (Hualing 2013: 13). The Party, as perceived by some officials we interviewed, is the barometer for wider societal health and the well-being of the nation. As a low-level official from an Education Department explains:

If the Party members are totally decent, people across the country will follow them. Ordinary people with unhealthy habits, as long as they are good, will learn from us, correcting their errors. Even the bad people will emulate good officials. On the contrary, if the Party ecology is bad, good people will become bad.

In a sense, the symbiotic relationship between the people and the moral ecology of the Party is at the heart of our argument. It is through the Party’s attempts to regain its legitimacy that we are able to expose the Party’s revolutionary aspirations to improve its moral ecology and ultimately the quality of its service to its people. For example,

The purpose of singling out the issue of “working for the people” is to point out that our work was not well done in the past. It needs overall efforts from all aspects. The Mass Line Education programme is the same. Since unsatisfied work styles have been so problematic, you need to try to solve it in view of its deeper causes, which is due to our loose governing within the Party in the past. So in the past, leaders can spend money as much as they want, but now we set up rules to restrict leaders’ wasting of money. (Mid-level official from a general office)

In this discourse, the technique of supervision is combined with the technique of self-discipline. As we will discuss in Chaps. 9 and 10, while the self’s past behaviour is made an object of the self’s knowledge, the self becomes conscious of the attitudes and roles of others and thus the self becomes worked upon by these others in an interrelational panoptic dynamic. In this sense, it is suggested that the Party must turn the gaze from seeing problems on a superficial level to seeing them at a deeper level through looking for the root causes, which for many have been identified as “the loose institutional environment in the past.” This is thus a problem arising from the inability of the virtuocratic Party to adequately control officials in the past.

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