In a recent essay, Lu Dewen (吕德文, Lǚ Déwén)—a sometimes controversial Wuhan University sociologist whose research focuses on rural governance—argues that bureaucratic formalism, meaningless busywork, and technological hegemony have made it virtually impossible for grassroots cadres to perform any meaningful work.
Despite Chinese Communist Party pronouncements over the years about keeping bureaucracy in check and reducing unnecessary burdens on local cadres, “bureaucratic formalism” continues to be an intractable problem. During Xi Jinping’s rule, the CCP has periodically cracked down on bureaucratic inefficiency and meted out punishments for bureaucratic infractions. In 2014, while serving as secretary of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, Wang Qishan lost his temper and accused the provincial Party secretary of Jilin of “formalism,” an incident that was later hushed up via censorship directive. The present irony is that demands from higher-ups in the Party chain of command are driving increased bureaucratism, despite the Party’s long-running fear that excessive bureaucratism creates a divide between the state and the people, thus further undermining the Party-state’s claims of legitimacy.
The problem was exacerbated during the three pandemic years, during which grassroots implementation of China’s “zero-COVID” policy fell to local cadres, neighborhood committee members, the once-ubiquitous dabai (white-suited pandemic volunteers), chengguan urban enforcers, and even teachers. Grassroots cadres have complained about being overwhelmed by round-the-clock text-message demands from their bosses, and being forced to participate in as many as a hundred WeChat messaging groups at a time.
In Lu Dewen’s essay, initially published by the WeChat public account 思想者书店 (Sīxiǎngzhě Shūdiàn, “The Thinker” Bookstore), he enumerates the many menial and pointless tasks delegated to local cadres, such as preparing for official visits, filling in endless forms, “nannying” their local constituents, and keeping an eye out for emergent incidents that might reflect negatively on higher-level authorities. He decries the “one-size-fits-all” policies, “technological hegemony” of third-party tools and apps, and various “red lines” and “bottom lines” that inspire fear and timidity among grassroots cadres, transforming them into little more than automatons:
Most of the time, lower-level cadres are caught up in a vicious cycle of busywork. Their superiors fear that cadres at the grassroots don’t have enough to do, so they constantly assign them all manner of “bullshit work.” Their time is marked by task lists to be completed, work guidelines to adhere to, and punctuated by ad-hoc emergency memos and directives. When there are thunderstorms, they are instructed to conduct safety checks on local dwellings; during the cold winter months when people begin using radiators and space heaters, they must carry out door-to-door inspections to check for fire hazards.
The only significance of these tasks is to prove that the local officialdom is still performing work. Whether that work is necessary or not is completely irrelevant.
The root cause of this bullshit work is the mindset that “there are no small tasks in service of the People.” Thus the masses are treated in an infantile way, with local cadres playing the role of “nannies.” If something bad happens to the people, the higher authorities will find fault with the local cadres.
Local officials spend a great deal of time dealing with various to-do lists and reports. In some places, any ad-hoc problem that arises becomes a task to be dealt with: official visits and inspections, audits, environmental problems, online public opinion crises, production accidents, citizen grievances and petitions, and threats to public order or social stability must be added to the to-do list and handled. Even when there are no particular problems, there are still all sorts of routine reports to be filed, forms to be filled out with statistics on Party-building, the economy, public safety, reform efforts, innovation, ecological work, and myriad other tasks.
Local cadres are so overworked that they scarcely know if they are coming or going, but their work occurs “backstage,” where it is invisible to the public. Because the people do not see it, they have no sense of benefitting from this work, and oftentimes view it as harassing the people, rather than assisting them.
[…] In recent years, local officials have become imprisoned in a technological cage. No matter what the task, it is the higher-level authorities who dictate the systems and procedures, and lower-level cadres must work within this technical framework, relegated to filling out forms and entering data. As mere cogs in the machine, they find it impossible to take initiative in their work.
Government departments and bureaus are increasingly relying on modern technology to exert greater supervision and control of the grassroots. The departments of land management, forestry, ecological and environmental protection, and others have all begun to make use of satellite-based monitoring technology. When these departments use satellite images to identify patterns and decide what reforms and modifications must be made on the ground, the images tell the true story: there is no room for sophistry or quibbling by local officials, who can only do as they are commanded.
But the higher authorities fail to recognize that the so-called “truth” revealed by these satellite images requires interpretation and analysis. Explanations [of the same phenomena] may vary widely between different geographical locations and levels of government. This refusal to brook interpretation and analysis has become the most prominent feature of technological governance. Once communication between superiors and subordinates is lost, democracy is lost.
The over-reliance on technology by many government departments is lazy governance. As technology displaces concrete administrative work, the functioning of these departments becomes completely reliant on third parties [who provide the technology], making local officials into puppets. In some cases, in order to avoid being overwhelmed and overruled by technology, local cadres cultivate backchannel relationships with these third parties.
When third parties control the technology, they usurp the practical authority of higher authorities, thus giving third parties increased leverage over the local officials. [Chinese]