Reading China from afar: Is the Chinese system becoming more opaque?

Many of the reforms implemented by President Xi Jinping have made it much more difficult for foreign observers to understand what is happening in China. Party control, organisational change and restraints on citizens speaking to foreigners have made China more opaque than it was. Government officials, the public and even Party members find it hard to understand which decisions are made and why. For foreign observers it is more productive to use sources outside China, supplemented by periodic visits.

Analysing China’s domestic politics has proven to be a particularly difficult task since 2012. Then, on the eve of the 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the appointment of Xi Jinping as Party Secretary, China watchers were wondering what kind of leader Xi would become. The limited amount of information publicly available about him and the closely controlled and well-coordinated communication strategy generated myriad questions. Would he be a conservative or a reformer? All options seemed opened at the time. It was even harder to analyse his mind set or draw up a psychological profile. How had the Cultural Revolution shaped his political and ideological views? Some observers argued that he would be a ‘moderate’ leader, having personally experienced the consequences of ideological extremism. Others argued on the contrary that he had become “redder than red” (according to a leaked US diplomatic cable) during the revolution, embracing the Party line to survive.

The speed and extent to which Xi restructured institutions and consolidated his personal power since becoming leader, and the scale of his anti-corruption campaign came as a surprise and went against the opinion of many analysts, including that of leading China experts. It is much easier today to analyse Xi’s political and ideological orientation. His actions as president confirm that he is a conservative leader, and that he should remain so in the coming years. Still, significant challenges remain. For example, forecasting appointments before the 19th Party Congress (October 2017) and the annual session of the National People’s Congress (March 2018) remained an extremely difficult task.

A growing lack of visibility

The lack of transparency about the political system has been reinforced significantly since the beginning of Xi’s presidency. At least four factors explain this, in addition to the CCP’s traditional fear of infiltration by so-called Western hostile forces. First, Xi’s swift restructuring of many central institutions (civil and military) make it more difficult to stay on top of the most recent institutional changes, understand their specific responsibilities and the consequences of these changes on the decision-making process. Second, the reinforcement of Party discipline, which includes human mutual surveillance measures, in addition to technological surveillance, has led to a significantly stronger control of individual and institutional communications.

The reinforcement of Party discipline is promoted through the anti-corruption movement, which in itself represents a third and particularly significant factor reinforcing opacity. This movement has punished more than 1.3 million officials since 2013 according to PRC government figures published in October 2017 (Central Commission for Discipline Inspection), and has generated a sense of fear among cadres in the Party, the People’s Liberation Army, state media, state-owned enterprises (SOEs), and central and local governments. The anti-corruption movement also has had an impact on Chinese research institutions, universities and think-tanks. Researchers appear more cautious in their communications today than during the Hu Jintao era, and refer more frequently to approve official concepts, expressions and talking points. All Party- and government-affiliated actors, including researchers, are strongly encouraged to read several times and learn Xi’s main speeches and writings (such as his book “The Governance of China”) according to the slogan “study twice, implement once” (两学一座). This is not a new trend, but it has certainly been reinforced since 2014, when Xi called for the emergence of a “new type of think-tank with Chinese characteristics” that “should be led by the Chinese Communist Party and adhere to [the] correct direction” and “strengthen China’s soft power” (Xinhua, 27 October 2014).

Many in the PRC prefer to adopt a cautious approach as a result of these developments. They are less inclined to take risks and exchange with foreigners and even with other Chinese citizens.

Less transparency on multiple fronts

The greater lack of transparency is obvious on a number of fronts. The Chinese political system is certainly opaque to foreign observers. It is equally opaque to the Chinese general public who find it a challenge to access information given the reinforcement of media control domestically (traditional and social media). Likewise, it is difficult for government officials to access information given the strong hierarchical order between the Party and government. For instance, diplomats from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs—an institution that is, among many others, implementing the country’s foreign policy—certainly have less information, and a more limited view of the foreign-policy decision-making process than Party-affiliated institutions such as the International Department of the CCP (中联部). On topics such as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), the ministry will have a more limited view than the supra-ministerial National Development and Reform Commission (发改委), which supervises the project. Furthermore, the strong compartmentalisation that still exists between governmental institutions means that very few Chinese state officials can pretend to have the full picture of either the domestic or foreign-policy decision-making processes. Lastly, one should not forget that it is also hard for individuals within the Party itself, including at the senior level, to have access to information. Many Party cadres have been as surprised by decisions taken by Xi in recent years as government and foreign observers. For instance, many senior Party cadres did not anticipate the scale of the anti-corruption movement and all the new regulations that followed which have a direct impact on their work.

Restrictions stiffen up exchanges with foreigners

The measures described above have had a significant impact on Chinese and foreign analysts. On the domestic front for instance, greater censorship has seriously restricted the access of Chinese diplomats or state-affiliated think-tank researchers to information from abroad. For example, a foreign-policy analyst focusing on France will not have access to the main French media at his/her place of work.

On the other hand, foreign researchers have seen their own ability to exchange insights with their Chinese counterparts significantly curtailed. Anti-corruption measures limit international exchanges and dialogue on foreign policy: Chinese delegations have seen controls imposed upon their visits abroad, limiting the length and frequency of such visits. Administrative approval procedures for travel to international conferences or other meetings abroad are now much stricter and time-consuming than under Hu Jintao, often resulting in the canceling or postponing of visits. In addition, the level of delegation members is lower, as high-level cadres are the ones facing more constraints. When exchanges do take place, they are often less informative, the Chinese side tending to repeat the usual talking points as part of an increasingly well-coordinated effort of public diplomacy.

How to understand China in this new context

In this context, can one produce informed and insightful analysis on the PRC today? And if so, how?

It should be noted that is now easier to analyse the PRC from abroad than it is from within the country. Fieldwork is still essential, but staying in China on a full-time basis may now prove counter-productive, as more sources are available outside the country. Periodic travel back to the PRC may be the best option when conducting research on China in the current context.

Although the PRC’s official pronouncements are known to use socialist jargon and empty phrases, white papers, action plans and speeches pronounced by senior leaders still must be studied carefully. Both the style and substance of these pronouncements can provide clues as to Beijing’s ambitions and intent. For instance, the re-emergence of expressions that were popular during Mao’s era (“mass line campaign” or “people’s democratic dictatorship”) help to interpret Xi’s ideological influences. As to policy content, a close reading of China’s official “Vision for Maritime Cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative”, published in June 2017, provides insights into China’s maritime ambitions as well as its intention to become a norm-and-rules setter in this domain.

Doing fieldwork, attending conferences and conducting exchanges with think-tanks and universities in China can provide a useful complement to the detailed study of official statements. But expectations must be managed ahead of time so that a real exchange of information and insights take place. At present, most Chinese delegations insist that their foreign counterparts first offer policy comments and suggestions—which may ultimately fuel their own strategic brainstorming—but are increasingly reluctant to share their own views.

Analysis of official documents and interaction with Chinese representatives are also useful to help identify policy patterns. Given the centrality of the Party, the coordination of the decision-making process and its heavily bureaucratic nature, the PRC’s domestic and foreign policy is pattern-based. Once decided by the central government, concepts and policies are implemented repeatedly in a number of countries and sectors. For instance, since Beijing decided to invest in regional cooperation mechanisms in the early 2000s, these mechanisms have burgeoned in most parts of the world. These include the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (2000), the China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (2004), the China-Central and Eastern European Countries Cooperation Forum, known as 16+1 (2012), the China-Community of Latin American and Caribbean States Forum (2015), and the Lancang-Mekong Cooperation Framework (2015). Their analysis is certainly helpful to identify the general pattern and methodology being followed by Chinese diplomacy, and anticipate new patterns that China may seek to implement elsewhere in Europe (such as in southern and northern Europe) in the coming years.

Those practical approaches may lead to original China analysis despite decreased visibility, which is likely to further intensify under Xi Jinping’s. It may also be helpful in underlining in greater detail the central role played by the Party in the decision-making process. Foreign senior political and economic actors unfamiliar with the Chinese context often underestimate the Party’s role and therefore tend to underappreciate the constraints facing their Chinese counterparts.  

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