A Little Less Decoration, A Little More Action, Please

China’s new Party leadership has vowed to reject “extravagance, formalism and bureaucracy” in government—or, as The Financial Times put it, to let a hundred flowers wilt. Xinhua recounted the long list of resolutions:

In a meeting of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee on Tuesday, senior officials agreed that there should be “no welcome banner, no red carpet, no floral arrangement or grand receptions for officials’ visits.”

“The spending on officials’ trips and inspections should be kept at the minimum necessary level,” according to a statement issued after the meeting.

[…] “There should be fewer traffic controls arranged for the leaders’ security of their trips to avoid unnecessary inconvenience to the public, and inspection tours as a mere formality should be strictly prohibited,” the statement said.

Political Bureau members are not allowed to attend all sorts of ribbon-cutting or cornerstone laying ceremonies, as well as celebrations and seminars, unless they get approval from the CPC Central Committee, according to the statement.

Officials’ visits abroad should only be arranged when needed in terms of foreign affairs with fewer accompanying members, and on most of the occasions, there is no need for a reception by overseas Chinese people, institutions and students at the airport.

[…] Official meetings should get shortened and be specific and to the point, with no empty and rigmarole talks.

[…] It also asked the senior officials to keep a frugal lifestyle and strictly comply to regulations on housing and vehicles.

NPR’s Louisa Lim noted an additional instruction: “State media has been told to restrain themselves from writing pointless stories about official events unless there is real news value — an order which, if actually followed, would produce some of the shortest newspapers ever seen.”

In an apparent attempt to restore a shaken image of virtue at the pinnacle of government, the new instructions urged top officials to lead by example. The official statement noted that “Political Bureau members should implement the dos before asking others to do so”. This theme was hammered home in commentaries from Xinhua and Global Times:

Since the new CPC helmsmen were elected about 20 days ago, they have conducted themselves in an exemplary way in improving the Party’s work style.

[…] During a recent visit to an exhibition on the ups and downs of China on the road of national revival, Xi highlighted the notion that “Empty talk can lead a country astray, while hard work sees nations prosper.”

Moreover, two members of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, Li Keqiang and Wang Qishan, recently asked officials not to read their prepared reports at meetings to save time in order to speak about more concrete content.

These conducts showed the top CPC leaders’ resolve to root out the chronic and lingering problems of formalism and bureaucracy, which have been hampering flesh-and-blood bonds between the Party and the people.

Formalism and bureaucracy cannot be gotten rid of within a short time. The new requirements are good as they will help leaders turn rhetoric of into practice. But they will only have their full intended effect if fully implemented.

Peter Ford reported Wang and Li’s interruptions at Christian Science Monitor, along with a Beijing professor’s appreciative response to the refreshing change of pace.

Global Times’ editorial dwelt more on the challenges of implementation, but ended on an optimistic note:

The Central Committee used to issue regulations aimed at cutting reports on top leaders and reducing ostentatious behavior, the effects of which did not last long.

But today, public opinion has been transformed in China. If top leaders cannot deliver what they have promised, the public will not remain silent. The Political Bureau must have thought about this. We believe its determination to do something concrete is sincere.

[…] But the adoption of these policies may meet trouble as they are implemented nationwide.

It is hoped that the supervision over the process can also guide public opinion. It is a new test for the self-discipline of the ruling party, as well as an opportunity to improve internal supervisory mechanisms within the Party.

If it succeeds, it will significantly transform the political atmosphere of the country. It is a fresh new start.

Reactions abroad were also mixed. The Brookings Institution’s Cheng Li told The Financial Times that “the no-nonsense attitude, and some of the noes, will really resonate with the Chinese public. This is really a major step to change government behaviour.” But others have expressed greater reservations about the new instructions’ likely effectiveness. From Brian Fung at The Atlantic:

Polishing the party’s image might give Beijing a marginal increase in control. But it’s too early to say whether making officials behave more simply will actually lead to true public accountability, the Council on Foreign Relations’ Adam Segal told me in a phone interview.

“In some ways, you could say it dampens any impetus for reform, because the party can say, ‘We can reform ourselves. We can rein ourselves in — we don’t need any change,'” said Segal. “There is a long tradition of Chinese leaders trying to show how ascetic and connected to the people they are.”

At China Real Time Report, Russell Leigh Moses argued that Xi’s “fresh start” may struggle to break from the status quo:

[…] Tuesday’s announcement [represents] a departure from the usual style in China, whereby new leaders take it slow at first, easing into the existing political template and emphasizing continuity. Xi and his colleagues have not been shy about looking at the landscape and deciding that a few shocks wouldn’t be such a bad start.

That’s the good news for those trying to make change in China. Anyone who thought the new leadership under Xi Jinping was in place simply to mark time until the next Party Congress is already in error.

The bad news is Xi and his like-minded colleagues in the Party are going to run into some major obstacles. That’s because the sort of reforms they’re talking about are a direct challenge to the way political business has been conducted for the past 10 years under the leadership of former Party chief Hu Jintao.

[…] It’s good that Xi sees the cracks that separate many in the Party from the great masses, and that he doesn’t want those fissures to suddenly become a fault line. But preventing the existing tremors from becoming something larger isn’t going to be easy—if only because Xi and his new colleagues have to start to shake up not only a system, but also a legacy.