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The Xi Jinping administration plans to institutionalize its anti-corruption campaign in a new powerful state organ, creating a permanent tool for investigation and prosecution. The reform suggests the introduction of extra-party supervision while it actually expands the CCP’s reach.

judge gavel in front of Chinese flag

China’s fight against corruption seemed to have hit a roadblock last year. Reports suggested that the harsh campaign had tarnished rather than lifted the reputation of the central government – fueling speculations that the Xi Jinping leadership might prepare to dial it down. As it turned out, the opposite was the case. It soon became clear that the campaign would not only continue in the future, but that it would actually intensify.

At its Sixth Plenary Session of the 18th Congress in October 2016, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) amended the Regulations on Intra-Party Supervision to strengthen the role of its disciplinary and inspection committees (DICs), which lead the anti-corruption efforts. And on January 9, 2017, China’s Ministry for Supervision announced the establishment of a “National Supervision Commission” (国家监察委员会).

CCP plans to merge party and state institutions

But the plans go far beyond this: In an attempt to turn the fight against corruption from an intra-party affair into a national project, China’s leaders seem to prepare to merge the party-led DICs with existing state institutions. Local experiments point in the direction of far-reaching institutional changes at the national level. On 7 November, the General Office of the Central Committee of the CCP released a Pilot Plan of Reforms of the National Supervision System in Beijing, Shanxi and Zhejiang. Success of the pilot projects will likely elicit an overhaul of existing anti-corruption bodies on a national scale.

These plans are arguably driven by the hope that the creation of such a powerful new state organ to oversee both party and state bureaucracies would change the perception of the anti-corruption fight – from a temporary political campaign to an institutionalized tool for enforcing good governance and ethical practices throughout the system.

At present, China’s anti-corruption bodies are spread across various levels of CCP committees, government authorities and judicial organs, resulting in the duplication of structures. Since 80 percent of government officials and 95 percent of those who hold positions above the rank of the county level are Party members, most cases could be prosecuted either by the party or the government bureaucracy.

Most cases are handled by the party bureaucracy

There can be no doubt as to which side normally prevails. Since the 1990s, the DICs, not the procuratorates, handled the overwhelming majority of anti-corruption cases. Official statistics suggest that anti-corruption bureaus at the government level have played an insignificant role in the daily work. Between 2013 and 2015, DICs around the country dealt with some one million cases involving sanctions of one million government officials. By contrast, procuratorates all over China filed fewer than 120,000 corruption cases (each involving one or more allegedly corrupt officials), sanctioning 160,000 government officials.

Combining these institutions is not an entirely new idea. As early as 1993, the CCP’s Central Commission for Disciplinary Inspection (CCDI) was merged with the Supervision Ministry (监察部) of the State Council: they have since existed as “one organization with two nameplates” (一个机构,两块牌子), i.e. one institution that can act under different names. In 1995, the General Anti-Corruption Bureau of the PRC (反贪污贿赂总局, GACB) was established at the Supreme People’s Procuratorate (SPP), but very little is known about it.

Observers in China have pointed out that the reforms are aimed at reducing fragmentation and redundancy in the party-state bureaucracy. Some have even celebrated the creation of a new body as taking power away from the CCP and vesting it in an institution outside the Party. At least on paper, the new body would generate more legitimacy than the current intra-party campaign, as it would oversee both party and the state bureaucracies.

But recent official statements have left no doubt that the goal is to increase rather than reduce the CCP’s influence. According to vice minister Xiao Pei, the new National Supervision Commission is to be composed of the members of the CCDI and it will perform the same tasks (一套人马, 两块牌子). At the same time, the CCDI’s deputy secretary Wu Yuliang stated that there could be no government organ in China that is not subject to leadership by the Party.

New organs would remain under party control

According to Ma Huaide, vice-president of China University of Politics and Law, the first step is to merge the existing anti-corruption bodies into supervision committees under the oversight of local People’s Congresses, China’s quasi-parliamentary organs. The Congresses would then “elect” (选举) the key personnel for the committees. It is too early to assess the impact, if any, of those new supervisory bodies on China’s political system. But it appears highly unlikely that it would create a situation in which the National People’s Congress could threaten the power of the CCP. After all, the restructuring is overseen by Wang Qishan, who heads the Central Leading Small Group in charge of the pilot projects.

The new supervision committees would allow the Party to continue to turn its anti-corruption fight into a permanent fixture of China’s political system. Their establishment would create a clear mandate for prosecuting cases against party cadres and government officials through one single strong organization.

Such an ostensibly external body is also needed to diffuse current criticism of the Party’s anti-corruption efforts. Rightly or wrongly, the campaign has often been perceived as a personal instrument of Xi Jinping and Wang Qishan to eliminate their political adversaries. By consolidating the disciplinary and supervisory power in an important new state organ, Xi and Wang could cement their political legacy in a post-Xi China.