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Friday, 20 August 2010

Overtures Towards Openness

At a meeting of the Politburo on Friday 20th August (today), a document was passed instructing local Chinese Communist Party branches to be more open to Party members. This instruction will numerically have far reaching effects- as of the end of 2009, the CCP had in excess of 78 million members to its name, with over 3.5 million 'grassroots' branches and committees. In terms of categories of membership, farmers and fisherman accounted for just over 24 million members, and technical and professional personnel for another 17 million. This resolution by the Politburo is seen as a way of implementing the Party's 'Scientific Outlook on Development' programme launched in 2003, aimed (in the words of Hu Jintao) at “putting people first”.

Such an emphasis on increased openness has two primary aims- to counter corruption at the grassroots level, and to boost participation by ordinary members of the CCP in local affairs. While the Party has always claimed to serve the people, since the 1950s it has been plagued by the development of a class of party bureaucrats operating at sub-national levels of administration. This has inevitably seen the marginalisation of ordinary Chinese citizens from the workings of power, and a shift in emphasis away from the revolutionary classes to middle-managers and bureaucrats.

Chairman Mao recognised this phenomena in the early stages of the People's Republic's history, with movements like the 'Three-anti Campaign' of 1951 and the 1963 Socialist Education Movement both aimed at clamping down on bureaucracy. The Maoist concern over the Party 'losing touch' with ordinary Chinese culminated in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in which the Party and state apparatuses from the top downwards were violently purged of supposedly right-wing elements. This dramatic bid to re-ignite the CCP with a sense of revolutionary duty to China's peasants and proletarians was to all intents and purposes a dismal failure. Rather than bridging the gap between the Party and the people, the Cultural Revolution served to only destroy the CCP's ideological infallibility, and led to many 'crises of faith' in the Leninist notion of the vanguard party amongst the grassroots membership.

Following revelations this week over the rampant corruption still present in China's various tiers of administration, this attempt to boost accountability and political openness at the local level has the potential to yield positive results. However, the core reason why corruption exists is also the key hindrance to efforts to tackle the problem. As is to be expected of a country the size of China, the centre's control extends only so far. While ordinary citizens are able to take their complaints to Beijing (as happened with the 2008 Sanlu milk scandal), mediation of every local government transaction is of course impossible. Ultimately, China is too big to be governed effectively from Beijing, so trust is placed in subsequent layers of officials to manage the affairs of provinces, counties and villages. It is at these levels that corruption is most prevalent, and there is no incentive for local Party branch leaders to implement the Politburo's instructions. While this remains the case, it will be 'business as usual' at the grassroots level.

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