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Images of Xi Jinping and other senior officials are beamed to the audience at a gala show ahead of the Communist Party’s centenary celebrations. Photo: AP

Xi Jinping asks: why do Chinese officials lack initiative and wait for orders from the top?

  • The country’s most powerful leader in decades told an internal party meeting that too many cadres only act on written orders, according to a new book
  • Xi has moved to consolidate his control over the party – a process some believe has made his underlings risk-averse
President Xi Jinping might be China’s most powerful man in decades, but he has railed in internal meetings against the country’s vast bureaucracy, according to a recently published book.

In January, Xi expressed frustration at a lack of initiative among officials at an internal meeting and complained that too many waited for instructions from the top before acting, according to a book published by Central Party Literature Press last month.

It was the first time his remarks had been made public. “Some only get moving when they receive written edicts issued by the leadership and they would do nothing without such instructions,” Xi told a plenary meeting of the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, the Communist Party’s top anti-corruption body, to discuss the latest five-year plan.

“My written instructions are the last line of defence,” Xi said. “If I didn’t hand out instructions, would these officials do any work?”

But some analysts noted that written orders had become an increasingly important part of the leadership’s top-down monitoring in recent years and suggested this had made officials more risk-averse.


Xi Jinping leads celebrations marking centenary of China’s ruling Communist Party

Xi Jinping leads celebrations marking centenary of China’s ruling Communist Party

Ling Li, a professor specialising in Chinese politics and law at the University of Vienna, said: “Instructions from individual party leaders are more compelling than party policies or rules because they address specific problems to designated offices or the people in charge.”


The practice was strengthened by a party directive passed in 2019, which specified under what circumstances cadres should seek instructions from their seniors when making decisions, she added.

“It also stipulates that those who have received personal instructions from Xi Jinping are required to report on the progress of their work in implementing these instructions,” she said.

Xi’s reliance on written instructions to govern and his tight grip on the bureaucracy had led Chinese officials to become less inclined to take risks, said Dali Yang, a political scientist with the University of Chicago.

“Xi and his colleagues give lots of written instructions and it’s natural for people to wait for them,” Yang said. “With the anti-corruption fight and political indoctrination, Xi has successfully placed the entire party under [his] control but that has also made everyone very cautious, too.”

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State media and officials are often keen to emphasise Xi’s personal involvement in key policies, such as the decision to build artificial islands in the disputed South China Sea and China’s response to the Covid-19 pandemic.
In the last three years, almost every important policy readout – including the introduction of a sweeping national security law in Hong Kong, or meetings on Xinjianghas referred to Xi.

But Xi complained in the January meeting that some officials were good at paying lip service but “don’t walk the talk”.


The centralisation of power under Xi has led local officials to go through the motions without doing anything risky, said Kyle Jaros, an expert on China’s subnational development at the University of Notre Dame in the United States

“For local officials, the best way to remain politically in bounds … [is] to gain express higher-level approval – and hence political cover – for major new policy programmes or decisions,” he said.


‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ explained

‘Socialism with Chinese characteristics’ explained

Jaros said things may change if Xi felt more comfortable allowing greater policymaking discretion and tolerance of occasional missteps among lower-level officials.


“The activism or ‘innovativeness’ of local officials in previous decades was inseparable from the high degree of local discretion and imperfect oversight they enjoyed,” he said.

“Clearly this activism was consistent with rapid economic growth but also involved many negative externalities, like endemic corruption and environmental degradation.”

The new book, titled Xi Jinping’s Selected Remarks On Comprehensively Governing The Party Strictly (2021 version), also showed that Xi has pushed back against criticism of his tight grip over the party.


It revealed that three years ago he had told another CCDI meeting: “Some have said that the centralisation [of power] by the party in the past five years has gone very well, and the next focus should be about promoting democracy within the party.

“These weird comments are made by people who are either confused, have ill intentions or are dirty themselves.”

China shows world an alternative path to modern future, Xi Jinping says

In the January 2018 comments, made two months before the National People’s Congress lifted the two-term limit of the Chinese presidency, Xi stressed that strict governance of the party’s rank and file must continue.
This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Xi ‘railed’ about officials who failed to take initiative and waited for orders