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August 1, 2019

Re-Writing the Rules

Assessing Civil Servants’ ‘Political Quality’ Will Influence the Rules they Make for NGOs

Against a backdrop of talk of a “new cold war” between China and the U.S., it is more important than ever for international NGOs, scholars, and policymakers to understand the dimensions of the environment in which their Chinese counterparts work. In this context, two political trends in China merit attention: first, changing incentive structures for government officials, including those who are charged with overseeing civil society affairs; and second, narrowing definitions of permissible civil society activity. These two trends have the potential to significantly reshape and further restrict space for civil society activity in mainland China.

Revisions to China’s Civil Servants Law, which went into effect on June 1, are a clear illustration of the first trend. The newly amended Law seeks to shape the behavior of all employees in state-salaried administrative posts (行政编织, xingzheng bianzhi) who perform public duties. This includes ministers and mayors but also millions of lower-ranking public employees. The Law alters their incentive and penalty structures by putting “politics” front and center. It institutionalizes the use of a person’s “political quality” (政治素质, zhengzhi suzhi) as one of the two dominant criterion in assessing their work, breaking with the practice of, for over three decades, focusing primarily on “work achievements”(工作实绩, gongzuo shiji). Now, these two major areas of assessment are mentioned together in the Law, with "political quality" placed first. Decisions on all appointments and promotions must emphasize “political indicators” and prioritize “morality,” which has long been defined in vague political terms. The fuzziness of each of these terms leaves the task of interpretation up to individual civil servants and those assessing them, who will likely take their cues from things like political speeches, drives, documents, and online apps to determine for themselves how they are expected to behave.

The shift follows a bold reform plan in 2018 under which the Chinese Communist Party (C.C.P.) Organization Department swallowed up the government’s State Bureau of Civil Servants, placing the whole civil service under direct C.C.P. management. The changes in the Civil Servants Law are striking in part because they facilitate more direct Party demands on government. At the same time, they also show a downward expansion of such demands: While some demonstration of political loyalty has always been required of “leading cadres,” it has typically been less important at lower levels. The new rules apply to the entire civil service. New regulations on Party groups (党组, dangzu)—one of the Party’s main mechanisms for directly influencing decision-making in government departments—demonstrate what is at the heart of these changes: the relationship of the Party to the government and to the governed, and its role in managing both. The new regulations address the “problem” of Party groups “grabbing professional functions and Party-building with one hand firm and one hand limp.” They are only a small part of two sweeping five-year plans (2013–2017 and 2018–2022) to reshape the whole system of C.C.P. regulations. The systematic institutionalization of “political” assessment criteria is an important element of efforts to shape the behavior of actors throughout the Party and government system.

These changes in the law seem to bring back a question that has long remained dormant. While Mao Zedong spoke of the need for cadres to be “red and expert,” in the late 1970s Deng Xiaoping made clear the need to prioritize expertise. He argued that experts’ participation in a socialist system, and their dedication to their professional fields, was sufficient to demonstrate their correct political views. This was an attempt to eliminate an atmosphere in which practical work was secondary to demonstrations of political rectitude. Deng wanted to put an end to people’s having to “study stacks of political theory books . . . and attend many meetings that have nothing to do with their professional field.” Throughout the 1980s, China’s leadership attempted to create a civil service that, while still loyal to the Party, was largely assessed on the basis of its specific bureaucratic functions, rather than on displays of political fealty. Even as other reforms stalled in the early 1990s, the “tweaks to rules and incentives within China’s public administration” continued. The basic criterion that determined how a person fared in the civil service was how well they performed their professional functions. Today, however, the structural and doctrinal changes described above are recalibrating Beijing’s priorities such that political considerations once again outweigh expertise.

The second trend, unfolding over the last few years, is an overhaul of the official language and policy related to civic action. For example, what used to be widely referred to as “public interest” (公益, gongyi) activities have now been compressed into a “charity” (慈善, cishan)—or public-interest-cum-charity—box. This is meaningful because official conceptions of “charity,” or variations thereof, are more limiting than notions of “public interest.” When the Charity Law was passed in 2016, scholars found reason to be sanguine about what they understood to be the law’s broad concept of “charity”—broad, at least, by comparison with the concept used earlier in the drafting process. Yet since then, the Party, government, and their affiliated agencies have qualified and narrowed the concept of “charity” through specific language employed in speeches, guidelines, and policies. This linguistic overhaul has, in effect, altered the rules of the game for both domestic and international organizations who hope to keep playing. The veil of conceptual vagueness remains intact, making it impossible to clarify precisely what the official notion of charity includes and excludes. However, as an example, “public interest” has often been understood to include advocacy for the rights of different constituencies, including advocacy for women’s rights, environmental rights, LGBTQ rights, and so on. While not expressly forbidding any of these activities, the shift toward “charity” and away from “public interest” activities gradually nudges them out by precluding support and space for them.

A speech earlier this month by Zhan Chengfu, Vice Minister of Civil Affairs, demonstrates this second trend. (Notably, Zhan assumed this position after the fall of former Minister and Vice Minister of Civil Affairs Li Liguo and Dou Yupei. Li and Dou were both accused of, among other things, failing in their “responsibility of managing and governing the Party” (管党治党, guandang zhidang), a political responsibility that the aforementioned Party group regulations institutionalized in 2015 and strengthened in 2019.)

Zhan was speaking at a meeting with the China Charity Alliance, a State Council-approved “non-profit membership association” with around 500 members, including many of the country’s most influential national-level foundations but also individuals like leading civil society scholars. His speech on this occasion was consistent with his earlier speeches in his role as Vice Minister of Civil Affairs, but the tone was clearer and the content was more direct and concrete. Shaping and narrowing the accepted definition of “charity,” Zhan listed four areas of work charitable organizations could and should be encouraged to undertake.

The first was poverty alleviation, which he described as the “natural duty” (天职, tianzhi) of charities. This indicates that charities may come under pressure to engage in poverty alleviation projects—a trend already apparent within the state system, where all kinds of ministries and enterprises are assigned poverty alleviation targets. Poverty alleviation is a “political task” that has been raised to the highest level of importance and will likely take precedence over other things that charities themselves believe they should be doing.

Second on Zhan’s list was social services, particularly ones that contribute toward creating a social safety net (保障民生, baozhang minsheng) or helping “groups in difficulty,” such as elderly care and services for “left-behind children,” people with mental health issues, and people living with HIV. NGOs that perform a service provision function are a direct aid toward achieving high-profile C.C.P. goals, like “building a moderately prosperous society,” which form an important part of the Party’s legitimacy-building. (It is worth mentioning that these sweeping goals sometimes produce political pressures on individual government departments in direct tension with actually solving immediate, on-the-ground issues. For example, a government official may wish to rely on NGO expertise to solve a specific problem, but may also see potential conflict between the NGO’s approach and the imperative for civil servants to shape all such work in terms of Party priorities.) Significantly, at the community level, the C.C.P. has recently stressed that only NGOs in which “Party-building is sound and complete” should get government service project contracts. The draft of a new set of regulations covering foundations, membership-based organizations, and social service agencies will, if passed, institutionalize specific obligations and mechanisms for oversight of Party-building, facilitating exclusion from service contracts—and even from the right to register as a lawful organization—on the grounds of incomplete Party-building.

Third on the list was participation in governance. Such participation, Zhan made clear, should align with the Central Committee’s requirements for social governance. To that end, he tasked the Alliance with guiding charities to foster social harmony and stability, as well as with strengthening industry standardization.

Finally, Zhan stated that charitable groups should promote a culture of charity. Hinting at what such a culture might look like, Zhan directed the Charity Alliance to champion “core socialist values and charitable positive energy” by promoting understanding of the laws and regulations on charity, promoting exemplars of good charity, and “castigating the fake and disgraceful.”

As well as listing what charities (and NGOs more broadly) should be doing, Zhan also made two clear points about what they should not be doing.

He first contrasted Chinese NGOs with their counterparts elsewhere, stating that China does not have “all-purpose” NGOs. Social organizations, as the C.C.P. calls non-profits and other non-governmental organizations, it seems, should be limited in terms of the number as well as types of different fields they can work in.

He then highlighted arguably the most important dimension that has shaped the environment for non-governmental organizations to operate over the past three decades: their ability to get around regulations, partly facilitated by the government’s weak or selective enforcement. Zhan stressed that when there are weaknesses or shortcomings in the system of regulations, NGOs should not use these to “overstep” or “not reach the mark.” Instead, he urged, people should stick to the “value orientation” of the regulatory system. Essentially, Zhan was referring to the vast grey space in which NGOs used to exist, implying that even if such grey space remains it should not be exploited. Zhan paired this message with the caution that innovation is not a matter of “misleading and performing tricks.” One could read this cautionary statement in different ways, particularly in terms of degree, but if applied strictly it might suggest that civil society groups will have much less room to “negotiate the state” than compared to even a few years ago.

How do these two trends—one shaping the rules for civil servants, the other shaping the rules for NGOs—relate to each other? The former may prove hugely significant because civil servants’ “political quality” will have to be assessable. The relationship of political indicators to recruitment, promotions, pay, and dismissals may prompt civil servants to wonder how one demonstrates oneself to be politically up to scratch. It may change the way that civil servants make decisions, perform tasks, and implement policies, including in relation to civil society, although we should be careful about making assumptions regarding the motives of civil servants tasked with implementation. The reshaping of rules for NGOs will alter the way that they assert their agency. For some, it will change the nature of their work. For others, it will change the way they go about their business: packaging their activities differently when interacting with the government or fundraising via officially-accredited platforms. For foreign organizations and individuals engaging with Chinese civil servants or NGOs, it may become more difficult to peer through that packaging. But do so they must if they are to continue to engage.

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Holly Snape is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Glasgow, where she works on Chinese politics. Before moving to Scotland, she was a research fellow at Peking University’s...