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  • Michael Laha

The National Supervision Commission: From "Punishing the Few" toward "Managing the Ma

[Yang Xiaodu, director of the National Supervision Commission, answers questions on the sidelines of the 19th Party Congress]

It has been over a year since the People’s Republic of China (PRC) passed the National Supervision Law, part of a major governmental reorganization that relocated a significant amount of power into the hands of the central leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The law created a new state anti-graft institution called the National Supervision Commission (NSC). The Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), a party organization charged with anti-corruption work, will be “co-located” with the newly formed NSC. Now, the CCDI and the NSC work jointly under an arrangement called heshubangong (合署办公), whereby CCDI and NSC staff work in the same physical office space and share resources (though the CCDI was similarly intertwined with other anti-corruption agencies before). An important change the law brought was the expansion of the CCDI’s jurisdiction, which was previously limited to Communist Party members. The joint CCDI-NSC (中央纪委国家监委) can now investigate those answerable to the Party in other ways irrespective of their party status, such as teachers and professors who draw their salary from the government, thus markedly expanding the Party’s capacity to control various sectors of society.

Earlier this year, a new structure for the CCDI-NSC was announced that sheds light on the body’s prospective focus. The most significant change the new structure brings is the retooling of the discipline and anti-corruption apparatus to expand and professionalize its supervisory capacities over minor violations, which are mostly related to party loyalty and are largely political in nature. This is part of a larger trend of “politicization” that Ling Li, an expert on China’s disciplinary and anti-corruption efforts at the University of Vienna, describes in her evaluation of Xi’s anti-corruption campaign, which he has waged since entering office in 2012. Under Xi Jinping, Li explains, the depoliticization of the party’s disciplinary regime that occurred in the 1990s has been reversed, and the enforcement of political discipline has once again become normalized. Fu Hualing, a scholar at the University of Hong Kong, also noted the growing clout of the CCDI apparatus during Xi’s first term. As a result, investigation of political offense and the investigation of corruption, officially kept separate over the last two decades, are now formally connected.

In increasing numbers, CCP functionaries have been felled with the explicit charge of not just having broken the law, but having wronged the party and having challenged the program of the central party leadership. The potency of the CCDI-NSC thus lies just as much in its expanded reach as it does in its reconfiguration for greater political control.

Separating Supervision and Investigation Work

A new organizational chart for the CCDI-NSC, dated May 6, 2019, documents the recent organizational changes that formalize and systemize this greater political oversight. Before the National Supervision Law, the CCDI had 12 so-called “Discipline Inspection and Supervision Offices,” (纪检监察室) which have now, under the CCDI-NSC, been reorganized into 16 new offices. The first 11 of these are called “Supervision and Inspection Offices” (监督检查室), and five entities are referred to as “Review and Investigation Offices” (审查调查室).

The charge of the Discipline Inspection and Supervision Offices is to “implement party charter and regulations, comply with and implement the party line, general and specific party policies, and resolutions...and promote comprehensive and strict party governance (全面从严治党).” “Comprehensive and strict party governance” is one of Xi Jinping’s so-called “Four Comprehensives,” a slogan summarizing a political program that Xi Jinping developed over his first term as president of China, which directly addresses corruption and party discipline. The second set of bureaucratic entities, the Supervision and Inspection Offices, handle investigations when there is “suspicion of serious disciplinary violations, [and] duty-related crimes...”

Ling Li says these changes are part of a larger process of professionalization within the CCDI-NSC:

”Certainly for a huge institution, you need to have a division of functions… Not all the cases will be sent for investigation. Some of them are minor violations. They expanded activities for routine supervision of disciplinary violations. Before it was not emphasized and regularized.”

This trend has been noted as well by other scholars, including Fu Hualing.

According to Li’s research, the Supervision and Inspection Office will handle things like processing complaints, receiving written inquiries, and compiling reports, and, based on a decision by CDI leadership, hand serious violations to the Review and Investigation Offices, which have staff trained (some with industry-specific skills to examine corruption cases, e.g: within the financial sector) to conduct a more in-depth investigation. This follows changes that were trialed as part of National Supervision Law-related pilot programs set up in Beijing, Shanxi, and Zhejiang in 2017. The pilot in Beijing, for instance, foreshadowed the split into two offices. The trial there involved the establishment of a Routine Supervision Department (日常监督部门) and a Case Investigation Department (案件审查部门).

Some staff from the procuratorate (similar to the prosecutor’s offices in the United States), which handled a great deal of the investigative work involving corruption before, have been folded into the Review and Investigation Offices, says Li. Indeed, even before the 2018 National Supervision Law, the CCDI would temporarily use investigators from the procuratorate to manage the greater caseload during Xi’s anti-corruption campaign. This shows that investigative capacities within other organs previously involved in anti-corruption have been absorbed into the CCDI-NSC, concentrating these functions in one body. Coercive investigative measures such as liuzhi (留置), a detention method criticized for its secrecy and liability to abuse, will be handled by the Review and Investigation Offices, says Li, though the decision whether to employ this method rests with CCDI leadership.

This change within the PRC’s anti-corruption and disciplinary apparatus formalizes the separation of supervision work and investigation work. This was referenced in the most recent CCDI work report, presented by CCDI head Zhao Leji to the Third Plenary Session of the 19th Party Congress in January 2019:

“Strengthening of routine supervision: To firmly grasp the basic duties of supervision, position towards an emphasis on supervision, orient duty towards supervision, and position power towards a supervisory trend. The establishment of the Supervision and Inspection Office, the adjustment and optimization of personnel allocation, not only firmly adhere to strict discipline but also grasp the synergy between discipline and law, to achieve effective collaboration of discipline enforcement.”

The CCDI-NSC, then, is poised for an expanded supervisory role with greater emphasis on minor infractions and those of political and ideological concern for the Chinese Communist Party. The document continues by pointing out that the disciplinary organs received 3.44 million complaints in 2018, a large number that appears to be used to make a case for expanded supervisory capacities.

From “Punishing the Few” to “Managing the Many”


A later section of the Zhao Leji work report calls for deepening the use of the “four forms” (四种形态) of disciplinary oversight. The “four forms” are four increasingly severe grades of disciplinary violation that were designed to describe, identify, and penalize relatively minor infractions. These four forms or “four tiers” include “criticism and self-criticism,” “minor disciplinary penalties,” “severe punishment” and demotion of officials, and finally “prosecution for breaking the law.” The first two tiers are envisioned as relatively common kinds of control, while grades three and four are expected to be relatively rare. Importantly, the use of these four forms is a way to keep tabs on the behavior of those under the purview of the CCDI-NSC that serves a larger political agenda referred to as “expanding the punishment of the few to manage the many” (监督执纪由“惩治极少数”向“管住大多数”拓展).

The seeds for the recent organizational restructuring were sown many years ago and were discussed in several party publications. They shed light on the larger trajectory of the CCDI-NSC’s purpose. A document outlining the working rules for discipline and anti-corruption agencies notes the need to “educate the many.” Several provincial-level notices, including one from the Shandong provincial discipline and inspection commission in 2015, echoed calls for “using discipline to manage the many” (用纪律管住大多数) and other provincial CCDI-NSCs boasted of their progress towards managing the many.

In a 2015 article published in a CCDI-affiliated magazine, then-Sichuan Provincial Standing Committee Member and Secretary of the Provincial Discipline Inspection Commission Wang Yanfei wrote about the meaning of a September 2015 visit by CCDI head Wang Qishan to Fujian Province during which Wang Qishan spoke about the four forms. During his visit, Wang Qishan discussed party discipline and “comprehensive and strict party governance.” Wang Yanfei wrote:

Anti-corruption is an important part of the comprehensive and strict administration of the party, but not all. The comprehensive and strict governance of the party must reflect comprehensive and full coverage and use discipline to manage the many and manage the entire party.

This explanation of “comprehensive and strict party governance” clearly establishes the need to move from merely anti-corruption work (serious crimes such as embezzlement and bribery) to a framework that can capture the activities, including political activities, of more people (i.e.”the many”). This is in line with an argument made by Li that Xi’s anti-corruption campaign has “elevated the importance of the enforcement of political discipline.”

The idea continued to gain traction in several publications. The CCDI’s affiliated magazine published an article about the implementation of local CCDI-NSC in Sichuan Province. The author uses the phrase “pay attention to punishing the small evils in order to forestall the larger evil” (主惩小恶, 以诫大恶) to describe the preventative nature of this anti-corruption regime (elsewhere medical terminology is used to invoke the prophylactic quality of supervision work, see below). Discipline serves to prevent worrisome deviation from the party from sliding into serious corruption, at which point it is seen as more of a legal problem.

The article—and others like it—also talks about the need to employ the four forms in order to “watch the trees” and “manage the forest.” This metaphor involving trees appears in CCDI work reports from 2015, 2016, and 2017, all issued under Wang Qishan, the previous CCDI head. There is concern, expressed in a posting on a local CCDI website for example, that the party risks seeing the “trees but missing the forest,” in other words that corruption is dealt with, but the “overall health” of the party (i.e.: it’s adherence to party doctrine and rule) is ignored. So-called “rotten trees” have to be “pulled out” to help manage the forest overall, suggesting that a few major violators need to be prevented from negatively influencing the behavior of a larger number of people.

Discipline and law are now supposed to work closely together under the heshubangong arrangement. A graphic posted on the CCDI website explaining heshubangong shows two ropes, one depicting “law” and one depicting “discipline,” twisted into a double helix. This is in line with what Fu described as a “dual anti-corruption system,” whereby political and legal considerations are blended in China’s anti-corruption regime and have been in various ways over the past decades.The relationship between trees and forest also serves to define the role of a good Chinese Communist Party member. A 2017 article cites a visit by Wang Qishan to Guizhou Province where he called upon party members to be good “forest rangers” of the “political ecology,” which requires a clear understanding of the relationship between the so-called trees and forests.

In a recently published paper, Li Li of China University of Political Science and Law and Peng Wang of the University of Hong Kong draw on interviews with those working within the CCDI-NSC apparatus to point out that CCP policy priorities have indeed shifted. The strategy, so some interviewees report, is to move from “from punishment to ‘curing the sickness to save the patient’” via the enforcement of the four forms. The analogy serves to emphasize the need for prevention of violations as well as rehabilitation of violators through discipline rather than punishment. In an interview, an official working for the CCDI said: “[I]n daily practice, we need to understand the National Supervision Law from a political angle, rather than from a legal perspective; this is because you will not be able to realize the importance of ‘the four forms of oversight and discipline enforcement’ in anti-corruption work if you view it only from the legal perspective.” The idea is to ensure that political infractions do not go unnoticed and to prevent them from metastasizing into a serious corruption malady.

The recent changes at the CCDI-NSC mean that a vision that has been articulated well before the National Supervision Law of 2018 is being realized now. The CCDI-NSC and its newly retooled bureaucracy is designed to buffer the CCP’s ability to supervise a larger portion of its citizenry’s compliance with the CCP’s political program and ensure support of Xi’s central role in the party.

The author would like to thank Ling Li, Lecturer at the University of Vienna; Jamie Horsley, Senior Fellow at the Yale Law School Paul Tsai China Center; and Susan Finder, Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the Peking University School of Transnational Law for their invaluable help.


Michael Laha is a program officer at the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations in New York, which he joined as a U.S.-China Dialogue Fellow. He manages the Center’s public programming and helped manage a project with ChinaFile tracking Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign. He holds a M.A. in East Asian Cultures and Languages from Columbia University and B.S. in Chemistry from Tufts University. Before completing his Master’s degree, he spent a year at Nanchang University in Jiangxi Province teaching English. He is proficient in Chinese.

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