By Jing Chen, Guest Blogger
When the sixth plenum of the eighteenth Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee began on October 24th, 2016, the official Xinhua News Agency published the full text of a new regulation issued jointly by the general offices of the CPC Central Committee and the State Council. This new regulation is entitled “The Method of Enforcing the Accountability System on Handling Petitions.” What is new in this substantial regulation that consists of five chapters with 19 articles? Why is it announced on this special day?
Earlier in 2005, Article 7 of Chapter 1 in the 2005 Regulations on Letters and Visits had called for the establishment and the improvement of the accountability system for the work on petitions by all local governments. In the same paragraph, it also pointed out that relevant local officials who neglected their duties or committed malpractice in handling petitions should be held accountable and exposed; this only pertained, however, to specific groups of local officials, not to all of them. It was also recommended that all local governments should integrate the assessment of petition work into the overall evaluation system for civil servants.
In contrast to the soft tone and limited scope of the 2005 Regulations on Letters and Visits, the new regulation expands its application to all CPC and State organs and staff including their dispatched agencies and affiliated institutions. Trade unions, the Communist Youth League, the Women’s Federation and other mass organizations also need to adopt this regulation; so do state-owned enterprises and state-holding enterprises. The new regulation directed all local levels (below the central government) of party and state organs to inspect their corresponding regional and departmental work on petitions at least once a year. The results of these inspections will play an important role in the comprehensive evaluation of leadership groups and cadres. In the cadre evaluation process, all local levels of organizations and personnel departments should heed the advice of the petition department and pay close attention to each individual cadre’s performance in the handling of petitions. State Bureau of Letters and Calls will conduct annual evaluations of all provinces, autonomous regions, and municipalities directly under the central government.
The new regulation most importantly describes how officials will be held accountable for failure in their work on petitions. For instance, Article 11 of Chapter 4 points out that when there is collective responsibility, the highest ranking official of the leadership group and the official directly concerned with the matter at hand both assume main leadership responsibility. Meanwhile, other members of the leadership group who participated in the decision and its execution take important leadership responsibility. Those who clearly opposed the wrong decision or behavior but did not prevail in the decision-making process do not take leadership responsibility. When there is individual responsibility, personnel who are specifically responsible for the petition work take direct responsibility, and the main leader of the leadership group and the direct leader take leadership responsibility. Cadres who have been found responsible for unsatisfactory petition work face penalties that vary widely, depending on the severity of the situation. They may receive a notification that publicly shame them, or they may receive admonishment in the form of oral or written warnings. If the situation is more serious, they may also be transferred, suspended from their posts, demoted, dismissed or forced to resign. They are also subject to punishment for violating party discipline. If their failure in petition work led to a violation of the law, their penalty will be determined on the basis of relevant legal documents and could lead to imprisonment.
The timing of the promulgation of the new regulation seems to be supportive of the theme of the 6th Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee: comprehensive and strict governance of the CPC. Two important documents were approved at the end of the 6th Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee: “The Norm of Political Life within the CPC under the New Situation” and “The Regulation on the Internal Supervision within the CPC.” The latter document particularly emphasizes the supervision of high ranking members of the CPC. The new regulation on enforcing the accountability system for petition work, by contrast, focuses more on the supervision of middle and low rank officials. This is connected with some unique features of China’s decentralized authoritarianism. Due to the large size of its population and territory, the Chinese central government has no choice but to rely on local officials as agents to implement its policies and govern the Chinese people at the grassroots. The CCP, however, fears the negative consequences of autonomous agents. One of the negative consequences of autonomous agents is that more petitions and grievances brought about by local officials’ misbehavior and exacerbated by their inaction or corruption could eventually damage the CPC’s legitimacy. The new regulation on enforcing the accountability system on handling petitions aims at putting pressure on middle and low level officials. The CCP appears to be striving to prevent petitions from occurring through an increased emphasis on effective governance at the grassroots level. This new regulation is therefore very much consistent with the Xi administration’s overall goal of comprehensive and strict governance of the CPC.
Jing Chen is assistant professor of political science at Hartwick College and the author of Useful Complaints: How Petitions Assist Decentralized Authoritarianism in China.