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Holly Snape on the 20th Party Congress and Intra-Party Regulation

China scholar Holly Snape talks to CACR about authoritative Party documents, the 20th Party Congress, and institutionalization of the Party-state. This interview is edited for clarity and length. (December 1, 2022)

Holly Snape is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Glasgow and Editor-in-Chief of Chinese Law and Government. She previously worked at Peking University’s School of Government, researching Chinese politics and political discourse, and at the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau. She received her PhD from the University of Bristol, for which she researched grassroots NGOs based at Tsinghua University’s NGO Research Centre. Her current research focuses on the intra-party regulatory system and the Party-state relationship. 


For people who don’t study documents like the 20th Party Congress Report or the Party Charter, why are they more than just words? What has the government done in the past to operationalize them?

The Congress report sits at the pinnacle of the whole of the policy process. It sets out the broad-brush policy strokes for the next five years, and it also communicates to Party members, who will spend a year or so studying this report following the Congress, what the current Party line is on things, the way to understand what the current Party Center’s standpoint on things is, what their worldview should be, and so on. So it has to communicate that really accurately to Party members who will study this report through a long process after the Congress concludes.

That’s been the case for a long time in the Party, but at the 19th Party Congress, the report was used to set out the Xi Jinping leadership’s thinking on how to govern the country and how to do things going forward. The 20th Party Congress is really a clear continuation and entrenchment and deepening of that.

In the 19th National Party Congress report, Xi Jinping used this idea of “the Party leading everything,” and that was then incorporated into the Party Charter. That jettisoned a principle about what the Party’s leadership was, decided on during a long process of consensus-building within the Party after the Cultural Revolution. The old principle was replaced with this idea that “the Party leads everything.’”And then the next spring, in the PRC Constitution, we saw the idea of the Party’s leadership being incorporated directly into the text of the PRC Constitution. In the previous 35 years, ‘Party leadership’ had only appeared in the preamble of the PRC Constitution.

At the 20th Party Congress, Xi Jinping reasserted that step taken in 2017. There’s a whole chapter on law in this report, which is new, and Xi says at the opening of that chapter that “there shall be no wavering on the Party's leadership as established in the PRC Constitution,” so he’s referring back to this step they took back then. There are concrete ways that what comes out of the Party Congress can affect practice. And of course, there are also the broad-brush policy principles and things that come out of it and guide practice going forward.

What were your expectations for the 20th Party Congress Report and Charter? Where do you think those expectations were met, and what surprised you?

The Report and the Charter this time were not surprising. They are a clear continuation of what was begun at the 19th National Party Congress and before, but predominantly at the 19th Party Congress.

What breaks with precedent is that Xi Jinping headed the drafting of this report. For the past two decades, when the incumbent leader was to step down, it was the incoming general secretary that headed the drafting of the Congress Report, and the incumbent secretary would give directions on it. So on a certain level, there needed to be some kind of consensus-building at the top level of leadership about what would go in the report. None of that had to happen this time. Xi Jinping headed the drafting, which would mean he would have headed everything to do with the creation of this report. That’s what I think makes it not surprising, because what’s in the report is what he started to set out clearly 5 years ago.

A lot of people like us have been looking at the specific language of the 20th Party Congress report and thinking about its implications for China’s domestic politics and foreign policy. What are your general takeaways? You mentioned there has been strong continuity, but do you see this last Party Congress as in any way an inflection point? Do you expect China’s domestic or foreign policy approach to change?

I wouldn’t use the word inflection point. I think sometimes it’s really important when you see consistency to call it consistency.

One thing that I think is a really clear example of that is the Taiwan issue, though I’m not a Taiwan expert. I know that some people have cited the report as evidence that there is some change, and to me that’s incorrect. Others have already correctly pointed out that the language hasn’t changed on Taiwan. I think that it’s also worth mentioning that the very idea that there is something in this report that’s different, or that signals something new, overlooks the fact that the report itself seems to be stating that the Party has managed to avoid being put in a position where it has to make any meaningful statement on intention and that it sees that as an achievement. In other words, the Party chose not to box itself in by making substantive indications on intention in the report.

Are you familiar with the work of Joseph Fewsmith? He’s been arguing for a long time that real institutionalization is incompatible with the Chinese governing system. Since we’ve seen further consolidation of Xi Jinping’s status, do you think that there are any norms left in Chinese politics that can act as a check on Xi Jinping, or is it simply a personalized dictatorship at this point?

Yeah, of course, I love Joseph Fewsmith’s work. In terms of anything that could be an institutional check on the current leadership, I don’t see that. One thing that really stresses the idea that Xi is ultimately the center of power is that the 19th Party Congress Report’s description of the 19th Party Congress’s theme broke precedent by leaving out mention of the “thought” or banner terms of past leaders, like the Three Represents or the Scientific Outlook on Development. This year, the 20th Party Congress Report stated that the theme of the 20th Party Congress is to comprehensively implement Xi Jinping Thought. While the term “comprehensively implement” one of the banner terms was used for Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents—that was in 2002—immediately afterwards, Jiang Zemin stepped down. Now, Xi Jinping is here, and it’s his ‘thought’ that is the theme of this congress.

Regarding institutions, my research follows how the Party has changed the way it operates over the past decade. It’s built up this whole system of intra-party regulations. The Party has basically created a coherent system, a hierarchy of inter-party regulations, to try to alter Party member behavior and Party organization behavior. So it depends what you mean by institutions– these are systems and mechanisms and institutions within the Party to change how it operates from within. These don’t check Xi Jinping, they try to make the whole of the Party more responsive to what Xi Jinping is saying and what the Party Center says in its documents. The Party has taken a whole load of practical steps over the past 5 years, and longer, to focus everyone’s attention on what the Party Center is saying in order to try and figure out how to implement policies in practice. Certainly that’s true in the non-profit sphere that my research looks at, where Party documents are increasingly used to influence the institutional environment that non-profits operate in, and civil servants need to look to more at Party documents to understand how to interpret and implement government policies.

You talked about the establishment of intra-party regulations, particularly after the 19th Party Congress, that are designed to bring the Party apparatus more firmly under centralized control. Can you talk about how that has been implemented in the last 5 years, how it has been impacted by the 20th Party Congress, and how you think it might develop in the future?

This is not something that has just been happening for the past 5 years. It began just before Xi Jinping came into office. I guess there was some kind of consensus at some level in the top leadership that steps towards this were needed. I think what it has done is created this relatively coherent set of documents that reinforce each other, whereas in the past, intra-party regulations may have contradicted each other. The Party has also taken really serious steps to make its documents implementable, creating socially embedded infrastructure like setting up research centers and training law students to be literate in Party documents. These research centers also take on tasks like advising on how to formulate and evaluate intra-party regulations. This was supposed to be accomplished by the time the Party reached its hundredth anniversary, and that was one of the things that Xi Jinping talked about in his centenary speech, that they had basically accomplished this building of the system.

The thing I think it’s really important to watch going forward is how this growing intra-party regulatory system and Party documents more generally are integrated with law. I think it’s such a fundamental issue in terms of the way China’s governed. Steps have been taken over reform and opening to try to build up this sophisticated legal system and rule of law, and now the very idea of this set of intra-party documents is that it’s a component part of Socialist rule of law. So on a finer-grained level, in the mechanisms and the rules on how these things work, the connection between Party documents and law is really being stressed. Rules have been amended to make sure that in the formulation of Party documents, people are paying real attention to how they interact with laws. As I mentioned, we’ve seen on the most basic level that the Party has incorporated its leadership into Article 1 of the PRC Constitution, breaking with a 35-year precedent of not doing that. That fundamentally changed the relationship between what the Party says and law. What I think is really important going forward is to see how those two sets of documents—state law and party documents—interact with each other in practice.

In the non-profit section, for example, on the eve of the Charity Law going into force, you had a Party Central Committee and State Council document that weighed in on how to understand and interpret the new Law and the concrete policies that it relates to. There’s an increasing trend for the Party to get directly involved in making joint Party-and-government documents or making its own policy-like documents. You have the Party propounding ideas like the ‘whole-of-country-mobilization system’ (举国体制) for pursuing certain aims, and trends like the Party getting involved much more directly in governance. I think there’s a real push for creating systems and mechanisms to embolden what some scholars call campaign-style governance, which we have long seen present in the past but which haven’t been quite so prominent or so broadly used as they are today, covering all kinds of different policy areas.


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