Beijing-London: in the labyrinth

A visit to the party organisation at the centre of China's anti-corruption drive is a lesson in the concealments of power.

Kerry Brown
17 September 2014

Beijing and London are two of the world’s great cities. But they have another similarity that might surprise visitors familiar to both places. They are locations which have never-ending concealed spots where the powerful congregate. They are global leaders in concealment.

In the case of London, anyone wandering around the great buildings of the establishment  (such as parliament, Whitehall, or Buckingham Palace) might be oblivious to the fact that in between these are a thousand other places - quiet boardrooms, clubs, offices, meeting points - where huge finance deals are done, discussions with geopolitical import are held, and judicial decisions made that ripple out far beyond the confines of the United Kingdom’s now somewhat diminished and impoverished powers.

For a democracy like the UK, these labyrinths with little evident accountability are one of the wonders of the world. Peeping inside is always unsettling - like getting a brief sight of a parallel universe to the everyday one and which for most of the time is hidden.

In the case of Beijing, a similar parallel universe exists. Alongside the massive, architecturally grandiloquent buildings that envelop the city's Tiananmen Square, with the remnant of ancient structures like the Forbidden City clustering in turn around them, Beijing also has plenty of unmarked and unprepossessing buildings. Places, for example, like the organisation department of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) where personnel decisions are made, or the propaganda department (somewhat tepidly rebranded in 1998 as the "publicity department"). It is in such buildings, in architectural terms utterly soporific, that the core strategic decisions about the future of the nation are made. Among the most important and mysterious is the one which hosts the central commission and inspection commission (CDIC) sits - China’s feared graft-busters.

The CDIC has been busy of late. In the space of just twenty-four months it has taken down both a sitting and a former member of the CCP's politburo. The commission's campaigns have focused on vast sums smuggled abroad and the deluge of moon-cakes that officials had been giving out to key contacts at the autumn festival, year after year.

The elusive heart

Visiting the CDIC is a disquieting experience. The doorways are like any other government building across the country, except for being a bit more austere and frugal in appearance. No ornate marble columns, or glorious red-tiled roves with dragons dancing down the eaves. Around the back are the offices, which look like offices anywhere, populated by computers and people quietly working. In the seminar theatre, where the officials deliver their findings, nothing looks amiss. Is this really one of the most feared organisations in China, and thus the world?

And then the presentations themselves start. A slide goes up, with talk of smashing the four new evils - formalism, extravagance, hedonism, bureacratism. Another gives the raw data: 51,600 officials investigated in the last year, 67,679 cases and claims handled - then the most dreaded statistic of all - 18,365 disciplined by the party. Amongst these, Zhou Yongkang and his band presumably figure. The presenter solemnly spells out the new strategy to beat corruption under Xi Jinping's leadership - first discover the problems, then prepare solutions, finally promote settlement of the problem. It sounds clinical and clean, like listening to a doctor's diagnosis. And then the final slide - a startling, bright image of a sword above a man’s head, with the words in English and Chinese: "The Sword of Damocles."

China is hunting for innovation, and even in the CDIC this quest is also paramount. One official talks of the "creative use of provincial tours," referring to the moment when the CDIC descends on a locality and starts to dig out problems. But on the other side, there is much creativity too in the deviance and venality, the innovative concealment and evasion, that the CDIC is trying to hunt down. It is challenging, as the presenters are describing the surface of this procedure, to imagine its lived reality. What does it feel like to be an official who knows that claims are swirling around, that patronage networks once warm and embracing have gone cold, and that the dreaded CDIC from Beijing has sent down a team who are slowly working their way towards you and building up a case?

The CDIC sits at the front of a process where the CCP is now seeking to restore its standing by means of internalising in the society the sense of its near moral mission. For years, the party has been wedded to deploying formal and informal violence to get its own way when pushed into a corner. The result is a tarnished public image. Today the party is trying to overturn that by promoting the notion of a non-egotistical, public-spirited, self-sacrificing cadre of leaders. In an environment as monetarised as that of China now, this is a hard act to pull off. The slightly puritanical air of China these days seems to run skin-deep when set against the vats of material corruption that lie all around.

The simple fact is that the CDIC with its concealment, its organised and tactical disclosure, and its harsh clinical language is really a deliverer of fear. That might deal with the symptoms of China’s current moral and spiritual malaise, but it does little about the root causes. The party has plenty of sticks in this fight, but very few carrots with which to goad people on - beyond the rhetorical appeal to a mission of national greatness which will only be achieved if the unity of party and country is preserved.

Leaving the CDIC in glorious sunshine, the group I was with were ushered onto buses. A young official suddenly appeared from one of the office doorways, wandering across the forecourt, and looking towards these diverse foreigners as they exited with a slightly puzzled look on her face, probably wondering what on earth they were doing in such a closely guarded place. The sight of one of the workers for this organisation made me think about what precisely they spent their days doing. Despite an afternoon of data, descriptions and talk, I left the CDIC in the state the party no doubt intended, no wiser in the end about what it did and why than when I had entered. It was an unsettling but familiar feeling, and it took me a few moments to remember where I had had it before. Then I remembered. This was precisely the way I felt when I came out of one of those concealed spots of power and decision-making in London. The CDIC is not so alien after all.

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