Written by Ling Li.

Campaigns, as an enforcement approach, are the antithesis to routine enforcement. It means that campaigns are first and foremost temporary and periodic, aimed at creating deterrence in a short span of time by mobilising additional resources and deploying them in a concentrated manner. The anti-corruption campaign, as it has been unanimously characterised in the media, launched by the Chinese president Xi Jinping upon taking office, has lasted without interruption for two and half years and shows no sign of slowing down or fading away. Cases still in the pipeline include the trial of the former member of the Politburo Standing Committee Zhou Yongkang, the Party official of the highest ranking ever to be put on trial since the trial of the Gang of Four. Another eagerly awaited high-profile case is that of Ling Jihua, former Politburo member, Chief of the General Office of the Party Central Committee and top aid to the former Party General-Secretary Hu Jintao. Thus, one cannot help but wonder whether the current ‘campaign’ still qualifies as a ‘campaign’, given its particular ‘longevity’, in contrast to the 28 months that the Party had engaged in campaigns of the same nature during the 1980s – 1990s combined, as estimated in Melanie Manion’s thorough study of 2004.

Another factor which prompts the question asked in the title of this piece relates to the findings of my recent study of the Party’s Discipline and Inspection Committee. By tracking the longitudinal changes of the operative structure and rules of the Party disciplinary institution, my study finds that in regulating its own enforcement agency, the Party has greatly institutionalised the decision-making process of all disciplinary activities. Pursuant to these efforts, two measures, identified in my study, have been employed in a systematic and institutionalised manner in the process of decision-making.

The first measure is the Party’s delegation of authority to the CDI. The delegation process started in the 1980s and accelerated in the 1990s. The CDI is not only an enforcement agency of the Party responsible for enforcing instructions, but also an agency that can take initiatives on its own in relation to specific categories of decisions, and one which serves as a supervisory body over disciplinary activities at subordinate levels. More importantly, the CDI has the exclusive power to conduct investigation, a power-gaining prominence especially after the authorisation of coercive investigatory measures for the purpose of interrogation. The coercive force of such measures makes CDI investigation particularly ‘productive’ in establishing disciplinary violations, which in turn makes the CDI more influential in shaping the final disciplinary decisions.

The second measure is the installation of a controlling mechanism through which the Party can impose its will upon the CDI, albeit with only a measured degree of engagement in the latter’s activities. This mechanism has two components. One is the introduction of a three-tier decision-making process, in which the authority to make, approve and veto a decision is split among three linked Party authorities: the investigating CDI, the supervising Party Committee and the supervising CDI. This three-tier decision-making process allows the Party Committee to preserve its discretionary power to make and alter disciplinary decisions, and at the same time, to measure its engagement in the disciplinary activities. The other component is the introduction of periodic interventions into disciplinary decision-making by the Party Committee. To this end, the CDI activities are segmented into four interlocutory stages. At each stage, the Party Committee can intervene so as to steer or change the direction of CDI activities. The periodic intervention provides the Party Committee with earlier and multiple opportunities to shape and adjust the CDI investigatory activities, the result of which has become more important in shaping the final disciplinary outcome.

My study has also identified three features of this institutionalisation process. The first is the concentration of disciplinary power in the executive bodies of Party Committees – the Politburo and its Standing Committee for the CPC and local Party Standing Committees for local Party institutions. This concentration of power in the much more compact Party executive bodies allows Party-leaders to expedite the process of collective decision-making and thus to reach a consensus more quickly. This is of critical importance in corruption investigations, since the element of surprise is crucial in curtailing the ability of the person under investigation to obstruct the investigation. A swift and firm decision also makes it more difficult for supporters of the fallen official to organise resistance.

The second feature is the centralisation of disciplinary power vertically from local CDIs all the way up to the CCDI. Centralisation makes the CCDI the most powerful disciplinary institution in the Party-state. It has exclusive investigatory jurisdiction over the elite Party-officials, who enjoy deputy-provincial / ministerial rank and above. It also has the power to approve and review, on behalf of the Party Committee, disciplinary decisions made by lower CDIs. In addition, the CCDI also assumes a quasi-legislative function: being authorised to issue policies and operational rules to guide disciplinary activities of CDIs nationwide.

The third feature is that in the institutionalising process, the Party has also gone through a significant policy shift, whereby corruption has replaced political offenses and has become the only nominally legitimate cause to expel Party members after 1989. Such a policy shift depoliticises Party disciplinary activities, at least on the surface, which helps to preserve the image of Party unity – a matter of crucial importance for the survival of the single-party rule. This latter finding adds to the explanation of the accelerated rise to prominence of anti-corruption activities in the Party agenda since the 1990s.

These findings suggest that the Party intends to standardise and routinise anti-corruption activities, rather than relying on ad hoc enforcement activities regardless of whether its purpose is purely political, or a mixture of politics and corruption-control. Under such circumstances, is it conceivable to take the view that by institutionalising the anti-corruption decision-making bodies and their procedures, the campaign-style anti-corruption activities can actually become a ‘new routine’ with enhanced enforcement potency? In previous research on anti-corruption campaigns in China, the consensual view shared among many was that such campaigns are ineffective because of their short-term effect, and that it disrupts the ‘institutionalisation of the rule of law’. Now, the question that I would like to ask is: what about the institutionalisation of the Party discipline, which is the most potent law of the land – would that help the Party to finally put corruption under its control?

Dr. Ling Li is a senior research fellow of the US-Asia Law Institute at the New York University School of Law. She has published widely on judicial corruption in China. Her most recent work includes: The Chinese Communist Party and People’s Courts: Judicial Dependence in ChinaThe Rise of the Chinese Communist Party’s Disciplinary Institution (1927-2012) – The operation of the Party anticorruption machine“Rule of law” in a Party-state – A conceptual interpretive framework of the constitutional reality of ChinaImage Credit: CC by Kevin Jaako/Flickr.