COMMUNIST PARTY OF CHINA (CPC) congresses are rubber-stamp affairs. The 2,300 delegates of the 20th Congress that recently concluded in Beijing, had no chance of scuppering the decisions — already made in secret — that were unveiled at the event. Most of them had undergone training in a vast system of schools that the party uses to transmit skills and ideology to bureaucrats.
In the run-up to the 20th Congress that concluded on October 22, several provinces reported that lessons were dispensed in these schools to congress delegates who have no official titles (model workers, farmers and the like). The classes focus on the need for loyalty to the party’s leader, Xi Jinping, and on instilling the principle that “whatever the party asks me to do, I will do”, as one account put it. Typically, the training lasts two days.
Normally, however, the students are officials. In a recent paper, David Shambaugh of George Washington University wrote that nearly all of China’s roughly 50 million official functionaries, from Central government ministers down to township chiefs, have passed through the training system, usually for mid-career stints ranging from one week to two years. Shambaugh describes the system, comprising about 7,000 institutions, as a “critical cog in the machinery” of party control. Subjects taught range from Marxist theory to the nitty-gritty of public administration. Some even grant degrees, including MBAs.
The most prominent are known as party schools. Before Xi Ping came to power, these schools sometimes encouraged innovative thinking. Students talked about how to make the party more democratic with freer elections for its leaders. Schools often invited foreign scholars to lecture, even on liberal democracy. At the Central Party School in Beijing, officials “might be discreet in talking to strangers or in public, but their internal discussion in class is unbounded”, China Daily, a state newspaper, enthused in 2011.
But Charlotte Lee of Berkeley City College, who has written a book on the training system, says the schools are now under greater centralised control, enforced by inspection teams. What freedom party schools might have enjoyed “has faded”, she says. President Xi made this clear in a speech in 2015 at the Central Party School. “On the important principle of upholding the party’s leadership, we must be very clear-headed, bright-eyed and firm in our stance, and we must not have any ambiguity or wavering,” he said. Cai Xia, an exiled former teacher of the school, says that Xi showed “dictatorial” tendencies in 2009 when, as the school’s president but not yet the party’s boss, he warned the faculty against criticising party policies.
The same trend is evident at schools that specialise in teaching management skills to bureaucrats. These were set up in the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping, who wanted to establish a professional civil service and (for a while) even encouraged efforts to create a wider gap between party committees and the government apparatus. Under Xi, cadres have been incessantly reminded that party committees hold absolute sway. For delegates prior to commencement of the congress, the clear message was that Xi Ping’s will counts more than anything.