In a recent meeting of China’s top discipline inspection leaders, the Party officials charged with monitoring corruption within the Party, Xi Jinping pledged to “strike the tigers as well as the flies” (high officials as well as low) and “shut power in the cage of regulation” (or “cage of the system”). This was some of Xi’s most evocative anti-corruption language yet. On his blog, CMP fellow Yang Hengjun shared his thoughts on Xi’s remarks, anti-corruption and political reform in a dialogue with web users.
Web User: In his speech to the Central Discipline Inspection Commission on the 22nd, Xi Jinping emphasized that [the Party] needs to strengthen controls and monitoring of public power, that power must be shut into the cage of regulation (制度的笼子里) – so a system is created that deters corruption . . . What are your views on this?
Yang Hengjun: It’s all very well said. My impression is that the last time we heard something like this was from U.S. President George W. Bush [in his farewell speech] (“putting leaders into cages” “把统治者关进笼子里”). At the time this phrase really took off online [in China], and I used the phrase a number of times too on my blog. I remember some internet users at the time added comments to my post saying, Aye, when can our leaders talk that way? So, our Party Secretary Xi has now said it.
Web User: Yes, Xi Jinping said it, but how big do you think the gap is between words and deeds here? Things are easier said than done. I’d like to know – what needs to be done in order to shut power into the cage of the system?
Yang Hengjun: It’s very simple. You must use the system to shut power into a cage. Given China’s circumstances, perhaps this means progressing step by step like other authoritarian regimes that have undergone transition (Taiwan, for example). The first step would be the immediate institution of rule of law, using the legal system to control power, to limit power. The second step would be to implement a system of constitutional democracy, giving power back to the people, which would mean allowing the people to use this “democratic system” to put power into the cage of the system.
Web User: I’m sorry, you’ve taken me for a loop. Can you explain what you mean by what you just said? I didn’t understand the difference between the two.
Yang Hengjun: Hah hah. I’m not taking you for a loop. What I’m doing is trying to use just a few sentence to explain clearly a very complicated political question.
Let’s put it this way. When General Secretary Xi talks about stuffing power into the cage of the system, this raises an important question — and that is, who is going to stuff power into this cage? Is there someone higher than the system itself, such that they have the power to stuff the power in the hands of others into this cage? If you note that Xi Jinping made these remarks before a full session of officials from the Discipline Inspection Commission, you might feel a bit disappointed by that, because according to the standards of those civilized nations that have already successfully stuffed power into the cage, an organization like the Discipline Inspection Commission isn’t a particularly good example of rule of law in action. The Commission itself is obligated to first be stuffed inside the cage of the system.
However, in an authoritarian era, this is something that probably cannot be done instantly. So I can only hope that all of you discipline inspection officials present understand General Secretary Xi’s words, that you first put the power in your own hands inside the cage. Anti-corruption has to happen according to the law. It must not go around the law, using the courts and prosecutors as tools. That kind of anti-corruption is in fact the most dreadful form of corruption — corruption of power. Of course, really answering this question requires me talking about step two, and that is the step from rule of law to constitutional democracy. Once that step is made, we can remove the quotation marks from “rule of law.” Once that step is made, it’s no longer about the nation’s ruler shutting power into the cage, it’s about giving power back to the people, about a democratic system that puts rulers in the cage.
Web User: I think I sort of understand. What you mean is that there’s a long way to go before absolute power can be truly shut in the cage. It’s no wonder that while many web users were supportive after reading the news and commentary about Xi’s words, quite a number were also taking a wait-and-see attitude, and some even refused to believe it. How do you see this situation?
Yang Hengjun: I think the vast majority of web users rejoiced after hearing about Xi’s speech, though you can understand why some would remain skeptical. Some Chinese leaders are all talk and no action, and this causes disappointment. But even through disappointment after disappointment, I don’t stand with those persistent deniers. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day, and tyranny was not made by one single individual or political party. If it wasn’t for minions and numbly callous bystanders, we wouldn’t have so many evil systems on earth. What I mean to say is that your parents, brothers, sisters and friends, even you yourself, everyone must take responsibility for a bad system and the situation we face today. If you want to change it, you have to act. Even if acting means doing something seemingly insignificant . . . this has far more benefit than all of those who just stand by. Fighting for our rights and freedom is our own business.