Cracking Open the ‘Party-State’

For a long time in China studies we’ve talked about the ‘Party-state.’ There’s a good reason for that: China has one ruling party, which is so influential that to speak of a ‘state’ but not of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) seems like an omission of the glaringly obvious. The problem is that conflating the Party and state actually obscures more than it reveals. It causes us to overlook dynamics of, or misinterpret phenomena and trends in, Chinese politics. This is what we argue in a paper published this month in the Journal of Chinese Governance. 

What needs to happen?

Decades ago, some of the most influential China scholars chose to mothball the matter of the Party’s influence on the state, and vice versa, suggesting that someone, somewhere down the line, should revisit the decision to overlook it. Notwithstanding occasional attempts to jettison the ‘Party-state’ concept and ‘bring the Party back in,’ we have all but ignored the relationship between Party and state and let conflation become the norm.

Prizing the Party and state apart to account for their influence on each other is not something a couple of researchers can accomplish in one or two papers. It’s a cognitive shift in the way we—a community of researchers, analysts, and anyone else interested—approach Chinese politics. It requires the expertise of people working across the gamut of fields in China studies. This being the case, why bother disrupting an entrenched way of thinking?

Why differentiate between Party and state?

First, the Party and state have different, sometimes conflicting rules, systems, and imperatives. If we don’t treat Party and state as separate, we don’t see the importance of the effects they produce when they meet. 

An example is the interplay between the Party’s personnel management systems and state policy aims, explained brilliantly by Carl Minzner. The former, used to govern a huge bureaucracy beset by principal-agent problems, can incentivise behaviour that conflicts with the latter. This can result in unintended outcomes in the way state policies are implemented, like heavy-handedness that leads to social discontent.  

Another example is the relationship between sporadic displays of Party prerogatives and everyday state policy. The CCP can use the amorphous notion of ‘political responsibility,’ and the personnel systems that give it teeth, to trump any other consideration in civil servants’ implementation of state policies. An effect of this Party habit is to warp attempts to build functional and sustainable state accountability systems.

Second, if we don’t first examine the makeup of each separately (and their changes over time) we can’t fully explain how they interact together. Under Xi Jinping, the CCP is being reconfigured through a systematic overhaul of the Party regulatory system and the codification of new rules. To understand the implications of this, we need to first understand the newly reconfigured Party, then think about how these changes, compared with the past, affect the Party’s influence on the state.  

Third, if we overlook the Party-state relationship, changes over time in the political system can also go unnoticed, or be unexplainable. The most obvious example is Xi Jinping’s strategy of merging Party and state. What does it mean for the Party to swallow up state agencies—whole or piece by piece—and take over state roles in, say, supervision, civil servant management, religion, publishing, the media, and cyber security? If we don’t know how these roles used to be divided, how can we understand the implications of their being merged? 

This may all sound fairly abstract. A practical example in the non-profit sector shows dimensions that become evident only when we think about the Party’s relationship to the state. Particularly worth noting is the Party’s reliance on, and need to work through, both the state and society to realise its demands. 

Controversy in the non-profit sector: state-facilitated Party building in society

In 2018, the Ministry of Civil Affairs released a set of draft regulations on managing domestic NGOs. The draft’s issuance was controversial in part because it was a clear break with the approach taken since the late 1980s. Instead of regulating foundations, societies, and civic organisations separately, it lumped them together under one document. 

If we think about the state and Party separately, we see something else striking about the draft: it incorporates explicit and direct attempts to use state regulations—reliant on state implementation—to systematically institute Party demands inside NGOs.

The draft stipulates that all NGOs, on registering with the state, must submit a draft charter that clearly details how it will conduct Party building and a work plan for establishing a Party organisation. 

For a subset of NGOs, the draft sets out an extra layer of checks: audits of charters, oversight of charter compliance (including Party building content), and external leadership over Party building activities.

Party building has been asked of NGOs for a long time, but in the past the Party has relied largely on self motivation. Whether or not to set up a Party organisation in an NGO has usually been, both technically and in practice, a voluntary decision. There were few substantive penalties for not doing so. 

However, combined with broader changes affecting the sector, these draft regulations, if passed, would change this voluntariness and expunge any space for opting out.

The broader changes are important. Understanding them also requires us to think in terms of Party, state, and society. All NGOs are meant to register with the state or may be deemed illegal and closed down. This has long been the case, but until recently the state implemented this policy so loosely that millions of unregistered small, autonomous grassroots organisations simply existed off the state books. 

If an NGO didn’t exist in the eyes of the state, documents calling for NGO Party building were essentially toothless. First, by the state’s definition these NGOs were ‘illegal’ or ‘illegitimate’ and therefore inappropriate sites for Party building. Second, without state structures, rules and procedures to facilitate implementation, there was little to prompt adherence.  

But as state implementation has been streamlined, further codified, and ultimately tightened up, those more autonomous NGOs have begun to find little choice but to register or go under. This is game changing. 

Enter the draft. If it is passed (it appears on this year’s legislative agenda), NGO Party building requirements will no longer be optional. The optional element is removed because of changes in the state, not just the Party. NGOs must register with the state, and to do so they must actively demonstrate their willingness and plans to engage in Party building. Performing acts of Party building (or being perceived to be doing so by the authorities) while also preserving an NGO’s original values and aims may, for some, be a challenge. But as observers, we would be wrong to assume that doing one necessarily means failing in the other. If we are to understand the new dynamics this produces, alerting ourselves to the tensions between state, Party, and social interests and imperatives would be a useful place to start.

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