Introduced in late October, the Chinese Communist Party’s new disciplinary regulations — outlining a code of integrity and requisite penalties for its transgression — included language forbidding “improper discussion” of the policies of the central leadership.

Last week, CMP researcher Wendy Zhou gave readers a historical rundown of the notion of “improper discussion” in the Party’s official People’s Daily newspaper, showing how the term had been used over the past 60 years. Zhou showed that throughout the newspaper’s entire history, just 7 articles had addressed “improper discussion” as “an internal Party ban” (党内禁令) — and 6 of these appeared in the People’s Daily this year.

Could this ideological tightening over the discussion of Party policies have a further chilling effect in China, centralising decision-making and blocking out constructive criticism? That is certainly the view of some. And since the augmented regulations emerged in October, one focus of concern has been that the restriction on “improper discussion” might hamper so-called “intra-party democracy” — the idea, essentially, that China’s single-party political system could develop its own internal mechanisms that are more deliberative and “democratic.”

xilu anticorruption
Coverage at Xilu.com of the ban on “improper discussion” in new CCP disciplinary regulations associates the move with anti-corruption. Three fists crush the Chinese characters for “corruption.”

Some have argued in the past, against skepticism in the West, that such mechanisms “might also provide for an incremental and manageable experiment of Chinese-style democracy.” The countervailing argument — an obvious one to my mind — is that you cannot realistically have institutionalised checks and balances exercised by a single political party on itself, a problem Qian Gang addressed ahead of the 18th Party Congress three years ago.

At the very least, however, the rhetoric of intra-party democracy can be seen as the lowest possible benchmark for political reform in China. Which is why some find all the talk of putting an end to “improper discussion” so concerning.

Over the past month, state media have done their utmost to counteract the argument that the prohibition on “improper discussion” undermines intraparty democracy (such as it is). And the latest piece came last Friday on page 7 of the People’s Daily. The article is written by Han Hui (韩慧), a lecturer at Jinan University’s School of Political Science and Public Administration, and it argues that since the release of the Party’s discipline regulations, the notion of “improper discussion” has been, well, improperly understood.

My translation of Han’s piece follows. Enjoy.

Improper Discussion of Party Policies Does Not Advance Intra-Party Democracy: Clearly Recognising the Error and Harmfulness of “Improper Discussion”
Han Hui (韩慧)
People’s Daily, November 27, 2015, page 7

Recently, the central Party leadership released the Chinese Communist Party Disciplinary Regulations, which explicitly mentioned “discussion of the fundamental policies of the Central Party authorities, causing damage to the centralism and unity of the Party” as a disciplinary violation. The vast majority of Party members and cadres have embraced and supported this, but there have been other voices as well. Some people have suggested this amounts to “stopping up opportunities to speak” (闭塞言路). Others say it “suppresses freedom of expression” (压制言论自由), or even that it “denies the favourable trend of criticism and self-criticism within the Party, damaging intra-party democracy (党内民主).” These viewpoints might well disorient those who do not understand the situation, but in fact they are biased and full of holes — in point of fact, they are wrong. We must get to the bottom of this and sort out the facts in order to understand clearly why these viewpoints are wrong theoretically, and how they are harmful in practice.

These viewpoints are wrong, first and foremost, because they neglect basic concepts and specific contexts. First of all, starting with the concept of wangyi (妄议), [or “improper discussion”], the word wang means “careless” (胡乱), “overstepping the bounds” (越轨), “fabricated” (虚妄) or “false” (不实), and from this we understand that wangyi refers to creating something out of nothing, distorting the facts, overstepping established rules — and it clearly indicates “malicious discussion” (恶议) or “spurious discussion” (假议), as opposed to “principled discussion” (良议) or “true discussion” (真议).

Next, looking [at the term] within the specific context of the disciplinary regulations, the condition for [cases of] “discussion of the fundamental policies of the Central Party authorities” is that these are done “through the Internet, broadcasts . . . . or other methods.” After comes the further condition that it “causes damage to the centralism and unity of the Party.” Put these two together and its very clear that there are necessary and sufficient conditions for disciplinary action, specifically under what circumstances improper discussion occurs and what impact this has to necessitate what sort of disciplinary action. It does not amount to further restrictions on normal suggestions made through legitimate channels and methods. If we are clear about concepts and context, these views based on partial and facile readings collapse under their own weight.

These viewpoints are erroneous also in the way they fail to recognise the error inherent in “improper discussion.”

First, they substitute improper discussion for critical viewpoints. Criticism and self-criticism (批评和自我批评) are favourable approaches that the Party has consistently advocated as a basic means of resolving internal tensions . . . so long as the criticism in question is constructive. Improper discussion, on the other hand, is destructive in nature, irresponsible, done with ulterior motives (别有用心的), or motives that are impure — criticism that is improperly directed (方向不正) and improper in its method (方法不当), not criticism (and of course self-criticism) that seeks the truth (追求真理) or seeks lessons in past mistakes (惩前毖后).

Second, they secretly substitute improper discussion for freedom of expression. Our Constitution guarantees that citizens have freedom of expression, freedom of the press and freedom of association, but abiding by the law is the precondition for the exercise of any freedom. Party disciplinary regulations are stricter than national laws, and Party members and leaders cannot indulge their own “freedom of expression.” There are normal channels and methods for offering criticism and suggestions concerning the policies of the central Party, and Party organisations cannot be treated as personal clubs in which one can arbitrarily air out one’s own personal feelings.

Third, they set improper discussion up as intra-party democracy. Our Party gives great priority to intra-party democracy, but intra-party democracy is not the democracy of individualism (个人主义) and liberalism (自由主义). The building of intra-party democracy cannot depart from the Party Constitution, and of course it cannot go against the Party Constitution. Those who engage in improper discussion (妄议者) often will not speak up face-to-face, but speak nonsense behind one’s back; they will not speak up at meetings, but speak nonsense after the meeting. This thing they are calling democracy is at best an expression of their own personal interests, 0r a venting of their own personal desires — it is not true democracy, and it goes against the principle of democratic centralism (民主集中制).

In practice, the harm created by improper discussion of the policies of the central Party cannot be overlooked. First of all, it damages the cohesion and fighting strength of the Party. The Party’s cohesion and fighting strength arise from common objectives, and from strict discipline. Under the new situation, as our Party shoulders a lofty historical mission, we must be even stricter about Party discipline. Improper discussion of the polices of the central Party results in lax discipline within the Party, shaking people’s hearts and ultimately creating small cliques and factions, seriously damaging the Party’s cohesion and fighting strength.

Second, [improper discussion] weakens the Party’s authority and its leadership position. Some people, as they implement the policies of the centre, do so at a discount, fashioning their own alternatives, so that what we have are “policies above and countermeasures below” (上有政策, 下有对策), and disconnects from top to bottom that thwart [policy] decrees. This damages the authority and governing ability of the central Party. In fact, all of these [trends] have a great deal to do with the improper discussion of the policies of the central Party.

In fact, our Party has always upheld intra-party democracy as a priority, and has stressed the importance of the favourable trends of criticism and self-criticism. Take as an example the drafting process for Chinese Communist Party Opinions on the Formulation of 13th Five-Year Plan for Economic and Social Development. The document’s drafting team widely sought opinions from various quarters, and on numerous occasions held conferences to discuss changes, and a draft soliciting opinions was circulated within the Party. As for criticism and self-criticism, comrade Xi Jinping has emphasised: “As for the weapon of criticism and self-criticism, we must use it boldly, use it often, use it sufficiently and well, so that it becomes habitual, a kind of consciousness, a kind of responsibility, and the more we use this weapon the more effective we become, and the more results we get.” It is clear to see that to place discipline against the improper criticism of the policies of the central Party in opposition to intra-party democracy and the promotion of criticism and self-criticism is entirely wrong.