Tension Between “the Capable” and “the Moral”

Within the current communist system, there is a kind of fear associated with work amongst low-level officials: fear of risks, fear of input and fear of being blamed for mistakes (Chien 2007: 270). As a mid-level official from a provincial government informed us: “The biggest problem is that it is the outstanding officials who usually bear the brunt of attacks. Therefore, brilliant officials always hide their brilliance.” In other words, in the name of attempting to create a balance among officials, leaders either absorb or expel the exceptions between the more capable officials and the less capable officials in the name of maintaining balance in their teams. In this sense, officials have to attempt to be capable yet unexceptional. As a low- level official from an Education Department told us:

If you are more capable than your leader, what do you want the leader to do? If you have done the work beautifully, your colleagues would say, “What do you mean, showing off?” If you are capable, you have to do all the work on your own next time.

This fear of work should be distinguished from the culture of fear created by the anti-corruption campaign. As a result of the fear of work (or more accurately the unpredictable consequences of doing work), officials always try to avoid taking on responsibilities, for example:

Everyone is worried. In accordance with the will of the leaders, you’d better not stir up trouble, so every time we discuss how to deal with failing or non-attending students, all agree to give up. So, our university discipline has lost its power on punishing bad students. Therefore, if we are all having such an attitude, and hold the idea that this doesn’t stir up any trouble, how can we do things correctly? (Low-level official working in Higher Education)

This discourse also reveals tension within communist officialdom, that is, the tension between sacrifice and selfishness. Ideally, officialdom requires the subject’s boldness and courage, which enables him or her to stand firm not only against many beliefs that others wish to impose on him (the subordinates), but also against life’s dangers and the authority of those who want to lay down the law (the bureaucratic leaders) (Foucault 2005: 240). Rather than boldness and courage, the fear of work “culture” results in passivity, inaction and situated collusion between departments, for example:

Anyway, if it is the work of our department, I will require the best result. Once we have some overlapping responsibilities with other departments, I will let them take the lead and the responsibility. I will try to do my best in what I am asked to do but I won’t say one more word and won’t do one more thing. (Head of Department working in Public Affairs)

The eight-point code that has been introduced by the Party to tackle problems, such as these, has in actual fact led to an escalation in formalist activities. That is, formalism is being adopted to counteract anti-formalism. Thus, as a low-level official working in Human Resources told us:

The formalism, I think, is in fact related to the Chinese tradition of people’s obedience to authority. For example, if the decision is not good, but no one dares to defy it. I dare not say it out loud even when I think the decision is

not good. Therefore, I have to do it perfunctorily. This means as long as I

am doing the work (no matter if it is meaningful or not), it is good by me.

Thus, through the fear of work and associated risks the link between motivation and action becomes disrupted. Moreover, officials also run the constant risk of having their actions misconstrued (Hualing 2013: 12). Thus, in this context, going the extra mile, putting in a lot of effort and adding value through one’s work can actually harm an individual’s prospects. Thus, the tension between sacrifice and selfishness brings widespread social distrust and political cynicism. Being a “good” Communist official should be demonstrable through subordination of their individual interests to those of the Party. It is here that we can see connections between Chairman Mao’s “reform of bad tendencies” in the 1940s and President Xi’s recent initiatives. Both sets of initiatives seem to share a definition of “the good official.” Thus, the good official is by definition utterly selfless, he or she fears nothing and will happily sacrifice even his life for his or her principles. By such selflessness, he is morally liberated from the bonds of material circumstance. Having no “private-mindedness” he is fearless (Nivison 1956: 60).

The problem is that the system as it currently operates does not encourage selflessness but rather selfishness and self-protection. Being a good official needs to be demonstrable in safer ways. In this context, the taking up of “unpleasant work” is taken as a sign of working for the people. It is through sacrifice that moral superiority can be exhibited, while the privations of sacrifice can further enable the renunciation of officials’ previous way of living and practice as being hedonistic and extravagant. As we will discuss in Chap. 7, it is assumed that living ascetically is seen as a virtuous form of work, and consequently as a sign of ethical subjectivity. As such, perhaps the austerity measures are not a doctrinal principle but are for the purpose of creating a sense of sacrifice among officials (just as in the case of Chairman Mao’s “reform of bad tendencies”) that is essential for creating a sense of respect towards their duty. However, currently this is only possible through official volunteering for particular duties—rather than through the assessment of how well or badly these duties have been dispatched.

Thus, as one of our participants explained, many officials have just been “keeping the ball rolling, in other words, the job has been assigned to the local, the documents are issued to the local, and then the job is done”

(low-level official working in a provincial government). Thus, formalism is about keeping “the ball rolling” without shooting for the goal. In other words, formalism is a means without appropriate ends. Thus, formalism is a result of tensions between “the capable” and “the moral.” Formalism is the kind of work that includes forms without appropriate aims. Formalism is associated with the phenomenon of officials attempting to conduct their duty with the ultimate aim of self-preservation through risk reduction. Thus formalism is an endemic and systemic issue which coincides and is exacerbated, it seems, through some of the anti-formalism efforts of the Party.

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