China's secret? Maybe there isn't one.


Over at The Diplomat , there's a new article titled "China's Secret? Performance Targets," which describes cadre evaluations as a positive and (generally) effective way to maintain party legitimacy. Tucker Van Aken, the author, does a good job explaining the CCP's predicament, but I think paints too rosy a picture of the inroads the CCP is making on the issue of political legitimacy.

Van Aken, without using the same language as my essay on voice and exit in party reform, notes the lack of "exit" options for the Chinese citizenry. 

To avoid public dissatisfaction, “authoritarian upgrading” is key; but without elections and with infrequent leadership changes (every ten years at the highest levels) the CCP must also employ other, internal adaptive mechanisms.

The "internal adaptive mechanisms" Van Aken refers to are cadre evaluations (ganbu pingjia) and performance targets (kaohe zhibiao) , whereby the higher-ups set goals for cadres to meet in a tiered fashion and cadres are promoted or demoted based on how they match up to them.

Van Aken rightly explains the limits to these evaluations. Naturally, in such a competitive atmosphere, cheating is a problem. Cheating can take form of falsifying information, mis-reporting, etc. Van Aken also notes that these targets are usually quantifiable (but fails to note that legitimacy oftentimes comes from unquantifiable sources).

I worry though that the article gives readers a sense that these evaluations are working. Sure, there are some problems, but they are minor. Overall, these evaluations help keep the party fit and effective. I would argue to the contrary. There's a dark side to the cadre evaluation and performance target method. 

Ambitious local cadres are known to pursue these quantifiable goals (e.g., economic development, population control) with such tenacity that they run rough-shod over the people under them. The most well publicized cases are cadres engaging in land grabs to build large apartment complexes by pushing out local residents. The goal of the local cadre is to please the supervisor above him or her, not the people. Moreover, if the local cadre does well, promotion usually means relocation, hence the local population cannot even act as a constituency. From this perspective, evaluations and targets actually undermine party legitimacy. 

Van Aken seems to be arguing that this top-down strategy is working (please correct me if I'm wrong).  To make his case stronger, he should add bottom-up strategies to get a full picture of what the party is doing to maintain legitimacy. These bottom-up strategies include incorporating locals in fiscal decisions (e.g., public works investments), direct elections of representatives, and business associations.

Whether it be top-down strategies or bottom-up strategies, there is reason to be skeptical of how well these reforms are working. The exponential increase in mass incidents, particularly in rural provinces, seems to indicate "not so well." Economic reforms are not enough. People desire political reforms as well. Political reforms tend to happen in poorer areas because local cadres want to distinguish themselves form their peers, and economic growth is not an option.  "Inner party democracy" has in the past been a buzz word. But as mentioned above, cadres leave when they get promoted. When these innovative cadres leave, usually with high approval ratings from locals, the reforms deteriorate and the party returns to its inefficient and sometimes corrupt ways.

To keep the party from deteriorating and losing legitimacy, there are two options for recuperation: exit or voice. Exit is closed, as Van Aken has duly noted. Voice in the form of evaluations is good, but not good enough. Bottom-up strategies of voice are needed to keep local cadres in check, but the party will only allow a certain amount of voice for fear that things will get out of control. But the catch-22 is this: making room for local voices is critical for party reform, but the party cannot guarantee that local voices will be reformist rather than destructive (masterfully described in Joseph Fewsmith's newest bookThe Logic and Limits of Political Reform in China (reviewed here). This Catch-22 sets the limits to any truly legitimizing reform in the CCP.