The CCDR, along with the other central commissions, is part and parcel of the centralized, even personalized policy making seen under Xi Jinping known as “top-level design”. Greater levels of direct top-down supervision are meant to translate into the faster and more effective implementation of important structural reforms by overriding China’s notoriously fragmented and poorly coordinated bureaucratic decision-making processes.
This perspective is supported by the data, but only to a certain extent. According to the lists issued by the central and local CCDRs, work on priority policies indeed seems to have accelerated. On the flipside, those policy areas without CCDR or other top-level agency involvement may be dogged by sluggish progress. The extent of the resources required by CCDR-related work (from policy drafting to reporting) in the ministries and departments involved is also unclear but, given the number of policies issued by the CCDR, must be non-trivial. This level of centralization also means that Xi and other Politburo members (and their aides) have to set aside significant resources to follow and supervise policy making on a vast number of issues. A shortfall in resources could therefore potentially clog the process.
A further disadvantage of the centralized policy-making approach is the lack of transparency. Thanks to the public documentation of the process in case of the CCDR (albeit still very limited but open compared to other commissions), it is possible to gain a picture of its involvement in policy making. In general, however, the work of the central commissions is highly untransparent. Rather less information can be found on the Cybersecurity and Informatization Commission, and even less on the National Security Commission (NSC) which also has a web of offices throughout China. While in theory all central commissions hold similar rank, the NSC should be seen as the most authoritative, given both the nature of its remit and the degree of securitization under Xi Jinping. However, it appears that the CCDR is most actively involved in regular policy making due to its broad “reform” mandate. It also appears to meet twice as often as other central commissions; only the Politburo and its Standing Committee meet more frequently.
The CCDR represents the institutionalization of a CCP organ at the top of a genuine policy-making system. It has broader responsibilities than any other ministry and higher authority than the State Council (which ironically still needs to formally pass the policies developed by the CCDR to legally codify them). It therefore provides an excellent illustration of the governance model pushed by Xi Jinping: an administration in which state bureaucracy is centered around the political core of the party and with Xi himself at the heart of decision making, holding veto power over all major issues.
While this approach may bring certain advantages, the CCDR example makes it clear that there will also be a price to pay when it comes to policy innovation, local flexibility, and the availability for decentral correctives to faulty central directives. With the 20th party Congress imminent, and Xi firmly in power, certainly the centralization of policy guidance, supervision, and dominance of central priorities will continue to weigh heavy on cadres at all levels throughout a still very heterogenous China.