From Corruption Control to Everything Control: The Widening Use of Inspections in Xi’s China

Christopher Carothers is a 2020-2021 Postdoctoral Fellow at CSCC, who received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University in May 2019. Dr. Carothers’ writing has been published or is forthcoming in Perspectives on Politics, The Journal of Democracy, and major media publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, and The National Interest. His first book project, Curbing Corruption in Dictatorships, explains why some autocrats are motivated to curb corruption, why their efforts succeed or fail, and what the political consequences of such efforts are. In his March 26 talk, Carothers argues that while the Xi administration initially focused inspection work on rooting out corrupt cadres, in recent years it has broadened its use of inspections to support a wide range of governance tasks.

Since Xi rose to power in 2012, the frequency of inspections in China has increased, central inspection teams (CITs) have begun to inspect parts of the CCP that used to be off limits (e.g. the propaganda department), and inspections have become much more demanding, resulting in institutions adopting more comprehensive reforms.

Though Xi’s inspection regime was initially focused on rooting out corruption, it has expanded into reforming organizational management, enforcing policies, strengthening party-building, and promoting loyalty to Xi and the party ideology. In inspection reports since 2012, there has been a decline in the use of corruption keywords and an increase in mentions of Xi Jinping, reflecting that Xi has used inspections to pursue an agenda of tightening the party’s top-down control over governance.

Inspections advance this centralizing agenda both in what they do and how they do it. Inspections directly support stricter party discipline, stronger oversight, and more direct control over SOE management. They also inherently create a vertical channel through which the party leadership can monitor government, passing over traditional bureaucratic mechanisms and involving strictly party-party exchanges to limit the input of non-party officials.

Dr. Carothers outlines three broader theoretical implications of his research: (1) the authoritarian information problem, (2) taming bureaucracy, and (3) institutional evolution. The authoritarian information problem describes the challenge to autocrats of obtaining accurate information about government performance as a result of weak public feedback mechanisms and the incentive for subordinates to lie to superiors. This can pose an existential threat to the regime, as it did in the Mao era during the Great Leap Forward. Some scholars charge that partial liberalization can alleviate this problem, but Xi’s inspection system represents an attempt to mitigate the authoritarian information problem without political liberalization. Inspections can also be useful in taming the principal-agent problem inherent to Chinese bureaucracy. Xi draws on Mao-era techniques for taming bureaucracy via inspections, but his inspections are markedly different, deploying professional and routinized roving teams as opposed to executing a mass supervision regime. Finally, Xi has shown that inspections can be used to develop and improve institutions, beyond merely rooting out corruption.

Dr. Carothers points to several possible future research projects on the subject. One could explore the evolving role of inspections throughout CCP and dynastic Chinese history to evaluate if inspections are more Soviet or more Confucian. Researchers could also look at how other communist party-led regimes, such as North Korea and Vietnam, use inspections, in addition to how other types of inspections are used, including subnational, military, and in-house governmental inspections.

Blog Author