The End of the Road for Xi’s Mass Line Campaign: An Assessment

Publication: China Brief Volume: 14 Issue: 20

Chinese President Xi Jinping oversees a "democratic meeting" in Hebei province. (Credit: Xinhua)

The end of the mass line campaign’s second phase this month provides an opportunity to understand more clearly what has been happening politically at the grassroots level in China over the last year. The Chinese press has reported at length on the crackdown against Chinese Communist Party (CCP) cadres’ extravagances in recent months, including the ban on banquets and cadres’ cars. [1] The mass line campaign indeed goes hand-in-hand with Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption drive and his efforts to strengthen the CCP. The former provides the ideological background and information to fuel the latter. This article will examine how this campaign has affected the careers of average Party officials and to what extent it will develop into new tools of control for the Party (see China Brief, August 9, 2013).

The Campaign by the Numbers

Following the adoption of the “Opinion Regarding the In-Depth Party-Wide Implementation of the Party’s Mass Line Education and Practice Campaign” in May 2013, the mass line campaign officially started on June 18, 2013 (Mass Line Office, May 9, 2013). In his statement marking the beginning of the campaign, Xi Jinping explained that its major goals were to make the government more accessible to the public and to eradicate the “four [bad] work styles”—formalism, bureaucracy, hedonism and extravagance (Xinhua, June 19, 2013). After the first phase focused on provincial-level government and Party units, a second phase began this January targeting lower-level units (Xinhua, January 23). The second phase officially ended in September and Xi Jinping gave a cloture speech on October 8 calling for the spirit of the campaign to endure after its end (Xinhua, October 9). The CCP is now in the process of assessing the one-year campaign and considering how best to ensure its legacy and to institutionalize control mechanisms over its cadres.

The official results of the campaign are astonishing both in terms of administrative simplification and the comprehensive crackdown on cadres’ extravagance (Xinhua, October 7). According to the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), the Party organization for investigations: The number of official meetings has been reduced by 586,000, or nearly 25 percent; 162,629 phantom contracts (kongxiang dajun) have been removed from the government’s payroll; the construction of 2,580 unnecessary official buildings was stopped; and 200,000 officials were punished after uncovering 386,000 cases of unjust implementation of public policies regarding the forced demolition of homes and medical care, among others. Overall, public expenditures on official receptions as well as cadres’ vehicles and overseas trips were cut by 25.5 percent, or RMB 53 billion ($8.7 billion).

Concerning the officials themselves, nearly 8,200 were punished for using public funds to pay for gifts or entertainment. More than 74,000 Party cadres have been punished for their bad “work style.”  Also, 63,000 officials have been found to serve in parallel positions within a company and have been ordered to quit. If these numbers are accurate, the campaign must be impacting officials’ daily lives and career prospects.

Putting Pressure on Cadres

One of the key enforcement tools of the campaign was the establishment of self-criticism sessions, called “democratic meetings,” in the different units of the Party-State. What the officials reported on themselves, their superiors and colleagues was duly recorded by supervisory bodies. Supervisory teams, controlled by the newly formed “democratic meetings leading small groups” and constituted of leading party cadres from the respective administrative levels, were charged with overseeing the implementation of the campaign. During the first phase, 45 teams, made up of provincial-level cadres, were sent by the central government to follow how the meetings were carried out at the provincial level (Southern Weekend, July 5, 2013). At the beginning of the second phase, teams were sent to every city and county (People’s Daily, January 24). One provincial team leader told the author that the supervisory teams now have until February 2015 to draft their final reports. The “democratic meetings” are not supposed to stop with the end of the campaign and they will be under the control of the local Party organs and the democratic meetings leading small groups (Author’s interview, Beijing, October 10).

While some cadres presented the meetings of the first phase of the campaign as highly superficial, Chinese media reports have suggested the meetings became more consequential during the second phase, sometimes leaving cadres highly emotional (New York Times, December 20, 2013; Henan Business Daily, June 18). It remains extremely difficult to assess the level of honesty of the officials during the meetings and the actual results. Still, in the short term these meetings and the campaign more broadly seem to have effectively put pressure on cadres. There were even reports of suicides and early retirement among officials due to the severity of the campaign (South China Morning Post, July 9).

The Young and the Ambitious

The austerity drive is particularly affecting younger and lower-level cadres. Almost 71,000 of the 74,000 Party cadres, or 96 percent, who have been punished during the campaign serve at the township level (CDIC, May 28). Low-level cadres also have lower wages and are therefore more affected by the decrease in “grey” income. Under the title “I get paid about 3,000 yuan a month; I don’t have any other income,” the official newspaper of the Communist Youth League published the story of a young cadre that touches upon this issue. The article argues that the advantages of being a cadre in terms of facilitating access to a local residence permit or to subsidized housing are also diminishing, sometimes making young people reconsider their career choices (China Youth Daily, August 21). Indeed, the number of applicants for China’s civil service has dropped since the beginning of the campaign, and last year 400,000 applicants did not follow through after signing up for the test (Xinhua, October 16).

The austerity campaign had a negative short-term economic impact at the local level (Phoenix Weekly, August 28). As low-level cadres can no longer accept invitations from businessmen, and also can no longer host lavish dinner and parties using public funds, they have a harder time connecting with the local business elite. This has, in turn, affected grassroots economic growth, as the economy is highly based on personal relationships, and it has affected officials’ performance evaluations, which are important in promotions.

From another angle, the wide net cast for punishing older and more senior cadres, sometimes leading to their demotion, does create more opportunities for the young and ambitious. Young officials are often not high enough in the ranks to be investigated for major corruption, allowing them to be promoted into higher-level positions when their superiors are removed from office (Author’s interview, Beijing, October). In fact, a large number of local leadership positions have reportedly been left vacant due to the anti-corruption campaign and in several cases it led to sudden promotions of lower-level cadres (Beijing Times, August 18). The positions can be filled within a week and the newly promoted cadre does not necessarily have to come from the unit or the locale, but can be “parachuted” there.

Promoting “Virtuous” Cadres

Beyond the short-term economic effects of the mass line campaign, Beijing is developing new provisions to better control the training and promotion of officials. On January 15, the Party issued a revised version of the “Work Regulation for the Promotion and Appointment of Leading Party and Government Cadres,” dating from 2002 (Xinhua, January 15). The official goal is to push leading cadres to “put virtue first” in order to rise in the ranks and to fight against corruption in the promotion system (Beijing Times, January 16). While the impact that this new text will have on the ground is hard to assess, Beijing is clearly trying to reshape the promotion system down to the grassroots. The new regulation brings changes in three main areas: It strengthens the implementation of term limits and step-by-step promotions; clarifies the range of malpractices and the way to deal with them; and finally transforms the cadre evaluation system.

The new regulation strengthens already existing requirements for promotion. It stresses that an official cannot hold the same position for a third term of office, meaning after ten years in a position he or she should be transferred. The rules became stricter for “rocket promotions,”—referring to the rise in the ranks of a young cadre who does not follow a step-by-step promotion. In fact, the necessity of work experience at the grassroots in order to be promoted was re-emphasized and the scope for “open selection”—a known fast track to get ahead in the hierarchy—is now better defined. “Open selection” refers to a promotion earned through examinations or interviews, which can permit an official to skip a rank and can be easily manipulated. In order to limit the abuses this specific appointment method, it can now only be used when the local Party unit cannot find suitable candidates internally, and it can no longer be used to transfer candidates across provinces.

Furthermore, the new regulation updates the conditions that can prevent an official from being promoted and also those that can lead to demotion. Among others, the main reasons why a cadre would not be eligible for promotion are: that “they are not recognized by the masses”; that their evaluations are not good enough; that they have been the subject of a disciplinary punishment; or that they have a spouse or children migrating abroad, known in Chinese as “naked officials” (luoguan). According to this last clause, “naked officials” can no longer rise in the ranks, which is in line with the recent efforts to stop the practice (New York Times, May 30). More broadly, before a promotion, the Party organization department in charge must verify the candidates’ disciplinary situation with the discipline supervisory bodies.

The new regulations also eliminated conditions for removing an official that were easily manipulated in the past. These include not passing the annual evaluation or being designated as unqualified by the Party’s organization department. However, cadres can now additionally be removed for being under investigation. In order to strengthen implementation, the leading members of the relevant Party Committee are now held responsible in case of malpractices in the appointment process and could be punished for it.

Lastly, the new regulation also announces changes to the cadre evaluation system. The goal is to move beyond an evaluation of cadres based on solely GDP growth. In addition to the existing indicators regarding social stability, economic development and environmental impact, new ones will be developed, including level of employment, public income, technological innovation, education, healthcare and social security. The actual shape that these changes will take remains unclear.


Overall, the new regulation on official appointments appears to be an attempt to give an institutional foundation to the Party’s efforts to control the cadres after the end of the mass line campaign. From the Party’s perspective, the short term destabilizing effects of the mass line campaign may then be transformed into a better grip on local officials in the future. The end of the mass line campaign also does not mean the end of the anti-corruption drive of the CCP, as these efforts to better control the Party apparatus will likely mark Xi Jinping’s first term.


  1. Xinhua has even developed a specific webpage on the topic (Xinhua, 2014).