Surprise choice for China’s new anti-graft watchdog signals Communist Party’s authority over the state

Yang’s boss had been expected to be given the job but appointment of deputy points to body’s subservience to the party, observers say

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 18 March, 2018, 8:31pm
UPDATED : Monday, 19 March, 2018, 11:47am

The Communist Party’s second-ranking graft-buster was appointed head of the country’s new sweeping anti-corruption body on Sunday – a surprise move that effectively asserts the party’s ultimate authority above the powerful state agency.

Yang Xiaodu, a deputy chief of the party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, was elected director of the National Supervisory Commission in a largely ceremonial vote by the party-controlled legislature.

The controversial new body will extend the powers of the party’s internal disciplinary watchdog to oversee a vast number of state and public-sector employees, including managers of state-run schools, hospitals, media organisations and companies – even if they are not party members.

Yang, 64, worked with President Xi Jinping in Shanghai during Xi’s brief stint as the city’s party boss over a decade ago. He had been a deputy chief of the CCDI since 2014.

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His appointment came as a surprise to many, who, based on lower-level precedents over the last year, had expected the post to go to Zhao Leji, Yang’s boss at the CCDI. All provincial and municipal supervision commissions are headed by the top party graft-buster of their regions.

Dali Yang, a political scientist with The University of Chicago, said the appointment of Yang, a Politburo member, meant he would be outranked by Zhao, who sits on the Politburo’s Standing Committee and remains head of the CCDI. 

“Zhao will thus be the more significant leader overseeing the work of the National Supervisory Commission,” he said.

The super agency is part of a push by Xi to institutionalise his signature anticorruption crusade as a permanent feature of the state. It is a state body “elected” by the legislature, but it shares offices, personnel and responsibilities with the CCDI.

Observers said the appointment sent a clear message that the party retained ultimate control and leadership over anticorruption work.

Deng Yuwen, a former editor of a party newspaper, said: “The authority of the CCDI will definitely reign over that of the supervisory commission.”

Li Ling, a fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna who has studied the anti-graft campaign, said Yang’s appointment disrupted the streamlined central-local institutional set-up of the supervisory system.

“This is quite unorthodox for the party. The rationale behind this unusual arrangement is that Xi wants efficiency at local levels but, at the central level, balancing power takes precedence over efficiency,” Li said.

“It is understandable given the magnitude of power that the CCDI-National Supervisory Commission now has.”

The supervisory commission’s extensive powers to interrogate, search, wiretap and detain suspects and freeze their assets have raised concerns among legal scholars, who say the system lacks effective checks and balances.

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Critics have labelled it a “legal cover” for the CCDI, allowing it to continue to detain suspects at secret locations without giving them access to lawyers – a practice widely condemned by legal experts and rights advocates. 

The National People’s Congress is set to pass a new supervision law on Tuesday, but none of the concerns about the system are expected to be addressed. 

The establishment of NSC is in line with other controversial political changes that have taken place under Xi’s efforts to fuse the party and the state.

“Xi is trying to find new sources of legitimacy and channels of power to carry out his reforms by leaning towards state institutions,” Li said.

“Gorbachev did that during perestroika because he faced too much resistance in the party system [but] that move catalysed the collapse of the Soviet Union. Evidently, Xi Jinping is aware of Gorbachev’s ‘mistake’ and wants to take advantage of the strength of state institutions without hollowing out the party. It is a difficult field to navigate and Xi is searching for a different path.”