China’s Communist Party wants to be everything everywhere all at once: but will centralised social control work?


Beijing announced a fresh round of institutional reforms last Thursday, setting up several high-level commissions and offices that will report directly to the ruling Communist Party’s core Central Committee.

Among these is a new central commission for social work, whose duties include coordinating and guiding the handling of public complaints and soliciting public opinion.

A closer look at its responsibilities suggests that it is an overarching body of social control.

According to the central government statement, the commission will oversee the petitioning system, as well as grass-roots party and government organs, industrial associations and volunteer organisations.


Many of these institutions thrived about two or three decades ago, as Beijing sought to cultivate a civil society – or “third sector” – to complement the functions of the government and the market.


However, under a major policy shift since Xi Jinping became party general secretary in 2012, it has moved to centralise power – taking charge of every sector and every aspect of society.

As the central government continues to tighten its grip over all types of semi-official or non-official organisations, civil society in China may be said to have ceased to exist.


However, now the party faces a dilemma. Under a highly centralised system, there is no mechanism left to ensure checks and balances, or mitigate the impact of wrong decisions or lack of prompt action from the rank and file.

Given the sheer size and socio-economic complexity of China, it is difficult for the central party leadership to stay informed on every detail from every region.

Asking party organs or government departments to carry out the functions that are usually left to the market and civil society in other nations might not always be feasible.

The later stage of China’s strict zero-Covid policy offered a good example of the pitfalls of such an approach. Local governments were tasked with implementing quarantine, providing food and necessities to locked down communities, and sending the sick to hospital.

When huge Covid-19 waves left local officials overloaded, chaos and even starvation ensued – with some deaths caused by delayed treatments. All because there were no other agencies in society authorised to freely fill in the gaps.

That was also when protests across many cities broke out, followed by the eventual withdrawal of all pandemic curbs.


But the system later gave rise to a vicious cycle as local officials – afraid that performance appraisals would be tainted by their inability to resolve local discontent – intercepted and persecuted petitioners, who became angrier and more determined.

But the role of the petitioning system has faded in recent years, as extremely harsh security measures render such activism almost impossible

Some people still resort to internet exposes to pressure officials into addressing local problems. While this works sometimes, many behind such internet posts have also been punished for “provoking trouble”, with the posts and even search words scrubbed from the web.

However, while it censors the internet, the party also tries to gauge public sentiment from it, hiring companies and deploying officials at the local level to monitor online posts and comments.

Another way for the party to stay informed on ground-level reality is by sending investigative teams to local areas, government offices and companies. But again, the party becomes the sole agent to both discover problems and solve them all.

That is a big challenge, because stability lies not only in control, but in public satisfaction as well.

In President Xi’s own words: “The people are the country … guarding the country is to guard the hearts of the people.”

But now that the party has placed everything on its own shoulders, it must be everything everywhere all at once – to meet all the needs of the country and to resolve all its problems.