How the CCP Does Job Promotions

"We cadres can't be Bodhisattvas." How the system makes it hard for anyone to do the right thing.

With Washington abuzz about nominations for administration positions, I thought it would be fun to take a step back and look at how bureaucratic musical chairs is played in the CCP (aside from with a soundtrack like this).

Wang Dongjing, then vice president of the Chinese Academy of Governance, a branch of the Central Party School, in 2016 published an article titled “The Three Laws of Chinese Officialdom” on Chinese bureaucracy’s structural challenges. It made the rounds again this year, though some links on WeChat were eventually taken down. The piece helps illustrate why the Chinese bureaucracy struggles to promote “good guys” and illustrates many of the themes I discussed with Yuen Yuen Ang in our podcast and my subsequent write-up on how corruption works in China.

Wang’s discussion of how hard it is for young officials who get any real power to receive promotions reads particularly true today. Xi’s crackdown has caught thousands of the type of official Wang calls “profiteering.” His discussion acknowledges the difficulty of navigating the Chinese bureaucracy without being corrupt. As Wang puts it:

“The probability of success for a young cadre who holds real influence and power to become a big official is only 1%, while the probability of failure is 99%.”

This hints at the success Xi has had in purging any remotely powerful potential opposition figures. 

Also of note is Wang’s focus on the communist principle of democratic centralism. Wang, who worked in an institution responsible for drafting the political and theoretical underpinnings of the CCP, focuses on various “failures of [western] democracy” that, if left unchecked, could lead to the weakening of the Chinese political system.

Thanks to Tony Louthan for his work on this blurb and the translation below.

First Law: The poorer the place, the more people want to be officials

For example, if the economy of the north is not as developed as that of the south, people in the north like to be officials more than those in the south; if the economy of the interior is not as developed as that of the coast, people in the interior like to be officials more than those on the coast; if the economy of China is not as developed as that of the United States, people in China like to be officials more than those in the United States.

In recent years, the media has exposed a steady stream of cases in which people have bought official government positions. As a result, many officials have been dismissed from office. These all happen more or less in poor provinces, or in poor areas of developed provinces. Why are there so many cases of buying government officials in poor areas? Economic analysis suggests that this is typical of human nature under economic constraints.

When economists speak of ‘homo economicus’, it has two meanings: one is that man is rational; the other is that man is selfish. Since people are selfish, they must pursue the maximization of their own interests; since people are rational, they will certainly seek ways to maximize their interests under economic constraints.

For example, in poor areas, people have low incomes, no capital to invest, and no market to do business. So to improve their circumstances, they have to get involved with the government. Because in these places the proportion of the state-owned economy is high, and the state-owned economy is managed by the government, it is necessary to work as an official if you want to personally benefit from the government’s wealth.

I once heard a friend tell a joke. During the Spring Festival, a migrant worker from Sichuan went south to work. While in a crowded train he accidentally broke the glass on the train. The conductor asked him to pay for the broken glass, but he said, "The train belongs to the state, state assets belong to the people, and I have a share in the state's assets, I don’t want anything from the state, but right now I want this piece of glass.” But the conductor retorted, "This glass is not yours, you still have to pay for it.”

I have no way of finding out if this is true, but it at least illustrates the truth that state-owned assets are said to be the assets of all the people, but the common people have no control over them.

The state-owned economy is, in fact, a government-owned economy, and everything the government owns is dictated by officials.

Imagine if it wasn't the private citizen who broke the glass, but one of the railroad commissioners, would the conductor make him pay? Perhaps the conductor would explain that the civilian worker travels for private reasons while the director travels for public reasons for the benefit of the country. Since it's a privilege to damage something without paying for it, who do you think wouldn't want to be an official? That's why people in poor areas want to become officials, mostly because they fully recognize the special relationship between being an official and the state economy.

If ordinary people want to survive, they need food to eat. It doesn’t matter that eating is a routine thing, food is everything to these people. However, if you are an official, the way of eating is completely different! Ordinary people who eat at a restaurant certainly have to pay for their meal with their own money, but if an official holds a feast, they can take the receipt back to the danwei [government work unit] for reimbursement. Once I accompanied a domestic delegation to visit the United States. After dinner, we asked the waiter for an invoice, but the waiter did not know what an invoice was, so we talked to the boss and explained to him that we need an invoice so that we can be reimbursed back in China. The restaurant boss listened to us with great bewilderment. He asked, “Aren't you eating for yourselves, so why are you having the government pay for it?”

In China, ordinary people eat for themselves, once they become officials and then become state cadres, eating is for the country, so the state has to pay the bill.

This isn’t only true for food, but also holds true for transportation. When ordinary people go out, they have to pay for their own buses; for normal cadres, they can ask their danwei to send a car; for bigger officials, they can have a special car. In short, as long as you are an official you can get the state to pay for any number of things. With this in mind, of course people in poor areas who want to become officials.

government officials hugging a statue of an official personifying the work unit

Nowadays, there are only two ways for people to get rich: one is to operate illegally, such as drug smuggling; the other is to have an administrative monopoly through which you can use your power for personal gain.

Even though there are enormous profits for selling drugs, the risk of doing so is also very high. If there is a mistake, you lose both your life and your wealth. No one can do these sort of dangerous things unless one has the guts to do so. However, for officials this is different. They have the power in their hands to do as they please and can openly gain significant wealth.

Like in the past, people exploited the dual-track pricing system to profit from the differences between internal and external prices. Who knows how many people grew fat and profited off that system. And in the past few years, quite a number of people grew rich overnight by flipping government land grants. Ordinary folks call these people "profiteering officials,” since if they are not officials they would be powerless and unable to make a living.

As an official, you can become rich without any capital; everyone knows this. Especially in poor areas, people have no way to get rich. Therefore, it is only reasonable that thousands of people travel and compete along the crowded road to become an official.

[food for thought from the comments section: How strong would the appeal of being an official be if their power were as constrained as it is in other countries?] 

Second law: The more power you have, the harder it is to be a great official

Every official has power, but depending on his or her position, the power can be real or imaginary. Some officials hold high ranks and have only imaginary power while others have low rank and significant power. For example, if you are the head of a division (处长) of a government department, there will be some people who are in charge of the money, some who are in charge of things, others in charge of personnel, while others are just in charge of uploading and distributing documents. In different departments, the power of the head of the division (处长) is less than that of the section chief (科长) [in the lingo of Chinese officialdom, the section chief (科长) holds a lower rank (and theoretically less power) than his/her superior, the head of the division (处长)]. This is very common.

The real power we are talking about refers specifically to control over property, material, and personnel.

The laws of economic research must be distilled from universal facts. As a general rule, there is a phenomenon in the bureaucracy that those who have great power and influence when they are young often find it difficult to become big officials [later in their career].

Why? The second assumption of economics here refers to the resource scarcity assumption. If you look at it from an economic perspective, real power is a scarce resource, and the more real power you have, the more scarce it is. People want what’s scarce. In economic jargon, this is an example of demand exceeding supply. Since the supply is small and the demand is large, the competition to become an official is much fiercer than for ordinary jobs.

When you hold real power as an official, there will be many people who will want to replace you and take your job. So if you are an official who holds real power, you must run a tight ship, otherwise, if you are a little careless, sly and ambitious people beneath you will overturn the ship. If you make a mistake at work and someone catches you, not only will a promotion be hopeless, even your current position will be in jeopardy.

“The failure of democracy” is another economic explanation for why it is usually difficult to be a big official with real power.  Decisions in the political marketplace are usually governed by the principle of majority rule. For example, to elect someone as a head of the division (处长), a majority of the cadres must approve. Theoretically speaking, the principle of majority rule is a far superior process of decision making than a single person haphazardly calling the shots. In reality, however, the difficulty lies in understanding what is meant by  "majority rule"?

In economics, the majority has at least two meanings: the majority of the minority and the majority of the majority. If the decision to elect a new head of the division (处长) is made by three bureau directors (局长) [bureau directors are one level higher than the heads of the division in the Chinese civil service], the "majority" is two; if the election is made by the whole department, the "majority" may be dozens or even hundreds of people.

It is important to recognize that the perspective of the bureau director electing a person will be different from that of an ordinary cadre. It is likely that the bureau director’s (局长) preference for the new head of the division (处长)will be different from the preference of the regular cadres. If the bureau director's choice prevails, the result does not represent the will of the majority of the whole department. This example highlights the “failure of democracy.”

It is this minority selection of officials by their superiors that makes it often difficult for young officials who hold power and influence to receive promotions.

Suppose a certain head of a division (处长) is in charge of project contracting. Project contracting is something that many people covet, and naturally many want to get involved. In this way, officials in more senior roles than the head of the division may write a letter to introduce a few engineering teams to the head of the division.

For this one project, the head of the division may be introduced to 20 different engineering teams. Each official will want and or expect the head of the division to choose his/her preferred team. In this situation, there is no way for the head of the division to please everyone. the head of the division has to assess which of the officials, who made the introduction, can most benefit his career. He can only give the contract to the engineering team introduced to him by an important leader.

cartoon showing a corrupt official flipping a land sale for personal benefit

However,  by pleasing one leader, the head of the division has offended 19 of his superiors. In the future when they meet to discuss his promotion, only one person will be in favor of promoting him while 19 will be against it. We all know what the result will be.

Then again, what about all the senior officials who wrote the letters introducing the engineering teams to the head of the division? If they want to get involved, they have to offer bribes. Even if this head of the division does not accept bribes, yet 100 people offer him bribes for a project, and he refuses 99 of them, but one of the teams is introduced by his mother-in-law, he will take it. But unexpectedly, this bribe is exposed and he is sued by the disciplinary committee. The disciplinary committee will not see how many times he refused to take bribes, but instead will see whether he has ever taken a bribe. Even if it was only one bribe, the head of the division will be removed, justice will be served; the law is merciless.

Therefore, the probability of success for a young real power cadre as a big official is only 1%, while the probability of failure is 99%.

If you don't believe me, you can look at the officials you know. The ones who have made their way up the career ladder, most of them are from the Communist Youth League, or are those who had little real power when they were young.

The reason why cadres coming from the Communist Youth League progress quickly is because the Communist Youth League does not care about money. They only care about getting a job done and coordinating work so that there is greater work efficiency. On the other hand, because there is no real power in the Communist Youth League, you will manage few projects and have little access to money. Because it is difficult to offend anyone in the Communist Youth league your chances of promotion are actually much higher than for other officials.

Third law: A good man is not necessarily a good official.

The "good man" in this context has a specific meaning, that is, someone whom everyone says is "good." There is a saying to describe this kind of person, called "Mr. Good" whom Chairman Mao criticized for seeking wisdom to protect himself without taking risks in fear of making a mistake. In reality, there is no shortage of this type of “good” person. In the view of the leadership, the shortcomings of these officials are not obvious; in the eyes of the masses, their impression of these officials is not bad. Therefore these “good” people become incredibly successful and rise rapidly up the ranks of officialdom. 

However, these "good men" do not necessarily make good officials.

Being an official is a responsibility in and of itself. To fulfill one’s responsibilities as an official, there is no choice but to offend some people. Only those who do nothing offend no one.

Like in a temple, both good people and bad people burn incense for the Bodhisattva. Because people want to get promoted and get rich, they want the Bodhisattva's blessing; the Bodhisattva, on the other hand, doesn't do anything, so he doesn't offend anyone. If the Bodhisattva can really promote an official, or help someone get rich, then those who have not been promoted would file a letter of complaint against the Bodhisattva. The reason why the Bodhisattva can be admired and worshipped by all is that he never does anything specific.

We Communist Party cadres can't be Bodhisattvas.

If you want to maintain a level playing field, if you want to crack down on counterfeiting, then those who make and sell counterfeits will hate you so much that they will want to overturn your family's grave in the middle of the night. If you have done something bad, such as harming public interests, the good guys will never forgive you. So to be a "good official", you have to do good and cannot offend the good guys, but at the same time you have to dare to offend the bad guys. The more bad guys you offend, the more competent you are as an official.

But this is where the problem lies. As an official, you have to take “public opinion” into account. But "public opinion" is a complex concept because hundreds of people have different attitudes and perspectives. Those officials who dare to do good have no guarantee that they won’t offend someone. Although some of the people who an official might offend are not necessarily bad people, officials have to pursue the interests of the department.

As we know, it is hard to accommodate a multitude of perspectives and interests. Because people have different interests, some people will say something is good, while others will say it is bad. When it comes to evaluating people in a democratic manner, those officials who have achieved things often fare far worse in their careers than officials who have done nothing. From an economic perspective, this is another kind of democratic failure.

So when electing officials, democracy is important, but you cannot have blind faith in democracy; you cannot only look at the votes. The correct approach should be to insist on the principle of "majority rule" and to centralize decision making on the basis of democractic centralism.

After all, in our society, the good guys are in the majority and the bad guys are in the minority. If an official receives 70 percent of the votes, the person is already a good official; on the other hand, if the official receives 100% of the votes, the person may be a "good man", but as an official, he is not getting the job done.

cartoon showing an official doing nothing and ignoring urgent matters

It is not difficult to imagine that, if under the guidance of democratic centralism, we elect those who have the support of the majority of the people and entrust them with important tasks, then the bureaucratic culture will change greatly. In this way, there will be no market for those who are political ‘social climbers’, who only seek to curry favors with others but don’t seek to accomplish anything. If we can do this, those who are upright and dare to work for the people will have no worries.

Officials are only human and should be allowed the occasional misstep. Particularly at this time of reform, there are so many things that have never been done before that we have to cross the river by feeling for stones [here, Wang is quoting Deng Xiaoping’s famous saying about reform]. Since we are crossing the river by feeling for stones, we have to allow for mistakes. Otherwise, who would dare to pioneer and innovate?

It is true that there are some people who do nothing, but they always tell us what to do behind our backs: “this is not right, that is not right”, but they are not doing anything about it. If we are all like that, all talk and no action, then who is going to promote our cause?

China's reforms have always been governed by one rule: breakthroughs are made at the local level, while rules and regulations are made at the central level.

This is true of rural reform, and it is also true of enterprise reform. China would never have gotten to where it is today if the reforms had not been allowed to be tested. Economics is not against being a "good guy", but for economic development, what you need is a good official.

Our analysis proves that a good man may not be a good official, so my suggestion is: for the country's strength and prosperity, it is best not to let "good men" become officials.

One last beat from a Zhihu commentator discussing the importance of studying official behavior as a matter of science: “the behavior of officials is a scientific discipline, it should be studied professionally as a scientific subject, just as understanding sexual chemistry is a scientific subject. Chinese people are generally too embarrassed to openly discuss matters of sexual harmony, and likewise are too ashamed to investigate the logic behind official actions.”