Appeal of Strategic Ambiguity on Party Centre – Reading the Party Directive on the Operation of the Central Committee (Part I)


It is easy to dismiss the value of any written rules laid down by the Party because the latter seems to suffer little from cognitive dissonance when ignoring or violating them just for the sake of expediency. So, if the Party itself does not take its own rules seriously, why should we waste time studying them?

We should take these rules seriously because any rules, if clear and operative, would set constraints on behaviours. It means that the Party has to defend its conduct when the rules are violated. To have a political actor on the defensive means that the latter has to doctor facts, twist meanings, commit logic fallacies, invent lies or all the above in order to make an offense and violation of the rules look lawful and legitimate. Erecting such a defence entails costs, which increases deterrence on violation, compared with having no rules at all. In other words, once rules are laid down, the Party will be incentivized to observe them the best they can. Other than constraining powers, rules of course also confer powers. The Party has expanded its rule-making activities since the 2000s and this process has only been accelerated since 2012. The publication of the Directive of the Operation of the Central Committee (the Directive) last week represents the apex of the Party’s norm-making efforts. Despite its overlap with parts of the Party Charter, the latter of which is regularly amended and published, the Directive nevertheless reveals new and valuable information of the operation of the Party, especially its executive decision-making bodies at the top.

This review of the Directive has two parts. Part I addresses the issues concerning the identity of the Party Centre, an entity that has the most prominent appearance in the Directive but is also the most elusive. Part II addresses the distribution of decision-making power at the Party Centre.

Question about the Party Centre

As far as the Party rules are concerned, the single most important political actor of the Party is not the General-Secretary or the Politburo or its Standing Committee, but the Party Centre (dangzhongyang 党中央). In the Directive, the Party Centre was mentioned as many as 36 times whereas the General Party-Secretary (GPS) only 11 times, the Politburo 24 times and the Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) 18 times. However, the mode of constitution of the Party Centre is never addressed and nor its scope of membership specified. What can be ascertained, however, is what the Party Centre is definitely not.

First, the Party Centre is not an abbreviation of the (Party) Central Committee. Because references to the Party Centre are often used in the same sentence or paragraph where references are made to the Central Committee. For instance, Article 5 stipulates that “the Central Committee, Politburo and Politburo Standing Committee (PSC) are the brain and central hub of the Party organization. Only the ‘Party Centre’ has the mandate to make decisions and interpret Party-wide and state-wide important principles and policies”.

If the Party Centre is the abbreviation of the Party Committee, it should be indicated as such (jiancheng 简称) and applied consistently throughout the text. For a regulation as important as the Directive, we can simply rule out the possibility that the failure to mention this abbreviation, if it is one, is an editorial blunder.

For the same reason, the Party Centre should not be an abbreviated reference applied to the Politburo or the PSC alone either.

第五条 中央委员会、中央政治局、中央政治局常务委员会是党的组织体系的大脑和中枢,在推进中国特色社会主义事业中把方向、谋大局、定政策、促改革。涉及全党全国性的重大方针政策问题,只有党中央有权作出决定和解释。

Second, the Party Centre is not the General Party-Secretary (GPS). This is because according to the numerous Party policy documents promulgated since the 6th Central Committee Plenum in 2016, Xi Jinping is the core of both the Party Centre and the Party. This suggests a three-layer structure, which we can easily analogize with the structure of, say, an apple, the fruit (see below).

The entire apple shall be the Party, the core/kernel the Party Centre, and the GPS the seeds (the core of the core). The seeds cannot possibly be the same as the entire apple.

What the Party Centre seems most likely referring to is the combination (in the strict sense) or any (in practical sense) of the following:

  • Central Committee
  • Politburo
  • Politburo Standing Committee (PSC)
  • GPS?

If this is the case, then there is a huge problem because the scope of membership of the Central Committee, the Politburo and the PSC is very different. The Central Committee has currently 205 full members and 107 alternate members. Politburo has 25 and the PSC 7. When, for instance, a Politburo member is required to “seek for approval from the Party Centre” before making decisions on important matters according to Article 32 of the Directive, it matters a lot whether the approving body is the Central Committee, the Politburo, the PSC or all of them.

第三十二条 中央政治局委员应当及时将工作中的重大决策、重大事项、重要情况向党中央请示报告。在执行过程中需要对党中央决策、决定和重大工作部署作出调整的,必须报党中央批准。

Another issue related to Article 32 is this: does the GPS need to seek for approval from the Party Centre? We should think that every matter that the GPS gets his hands on is important, and the GPS is necessarily also a member of the Politburo, thus shall be subject to Article 32. At the same time, however, the GPS has a special status: it is the core of the Party Centre. To whom should the GPS report to and seek for approval from?

Appeal of strategic ambiguity

Generally speaking, as a principle of representative politics, the larger the membership of a decision-making body, the greater the representativeness and legitimacy of the decisions is. Therefore, among the various layers between the Central Committee, the Politburo, the PSC and the GPS, the first has the largest membership and hence the greatest legitimacy, which decreases when the decision-making body gets smaller and closer to the core.

At the operational level, the scope of power of the decision-making body, however, expands as one moves from the outer to the inner layers. For instance, according to the Directive, the Politburo and the PSC are conferred with nearly every consequential power that the Central Committee is endowed with (see Part II), except the electoral power and barring the critical power to name the candidates for elections. In addition, although the Central Committee is the source from which the power of the Politburo and the PSC is derived from, the former has no commanding power over the latter two, but quite the reverse. For instance, it is very telling that this very Directive was deliberated at and approved by the Politburo and issued under the name of “Party Centre”. Keeping “Party Centre” undefined certainly makes it easy to shift identities under its broad cover. That is perhaps the appeal of the deployment of strategic ambiguity.