China Power

The Amazing (and Worrying) Achievements of China’s Mass Line Campaign

The accolades given to the mass line campaign suggest just how far corruption had spread.

As China headed into October 2014, the “mass line” campaign recommended by the National Party Congress in November 2012drew to a close. Accordingly, state media are taking the opportunity to reflect on the campaign and to catalog its successes.

The mass line campaign is separate from but closely related to the larger anti-corruption crackdown. The mass line initiative, which officially ran from June 2013 to September 2014, aimed at “strengthening the Party’s ties with the people,” as Xinhua noted. The idea was to improve the Party’s responsiveness to the will of the people, and one of the largest components of this was indeed rooting out corruption. As part of the campaign, officials were required to make self-criticism of actions that could be categorized as one of the “four undesirable work styles”: formalism, bureaucratism, hedonism, and extravagance.

To mark the campaign’s end, Xinhua published a list of achievements. The list of statistics can be roughly grouped into two main categories: reducing government wastefulness and weeding out corruption (obviously, there are areas of overlap as well).

In the former category, Xinhua reported that the number of official meetings had dropped by 586,000, or around 25 percent. Meanwhile, 137,000 administrative approval items were either delegated to local authorities or scrapped altogether. In addition to being a focal point of the mass line campaign, getting rid of bureaucratic red tape is part of China’s overall economic reform agenda. Premier Li Keqiang argues that eliminating unnecessary government approval processes will help boost China’s economic development.

It’s in the area of weeding out corruption that the mass line campaign boasts some eye-catching figures, however. First, Xinhua reports that over 162,000 “phantom staff” were removed from the government’s payroll. 200,000 officials were punished for infringing on the people’s rights in unspecified ways (Xinhua specifically listed “house removal, work safety and medical care” as areas of concern) – in other words, for abusing their power. And in the most jaw-dropping statistic, Xinhua says that China was able to cut public spending by $8.6 billion by cutting down on the purchase of official vehicles, oversea trips for officials, and official receptions.

As with any catalog of government reform achievements, Xinhua’s list is a double-edged sword. On one hand, it represents progress. On the other hand, it serves to highlight just how bad the problems were before the mass line campaign was started – and Party officials insist there is still a lot of work to do.

I’ve written before that corruption among low-ranking local officials, the “flies” in Xi Jinping’s famous metaphor, will be both the most important and the most challenging aspect of the anti-corruption drive. The mass line campaign was a major tool for dealing with corruption among “flies.”  These officials account for the vast majority of interactions between government and the people; if the Party truly wants to get closer to the people it is the local officials who will bear the burden of this task. And it precisely at this junction between local power and central authority that edicts from on high lose their potency. The mass line campaign’s achievements indicate just far out of hand things can get, and hint at the continuing challenges for Xi’s anti-corruption efforts.