Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Taming Police Influence in Politico-Legal Committees

The overlap of administrative and Communist Party bureaucracies and party control over bureaucratic appointments mean that Chinese officials often wear many hats. Giving a single official simultaneous leadership posts cements party interest in the administration of government and allows various bureaucratic interests to be represented in policymaking. One way to judge an official’s political clout is to look at how many leadership posts he or she occupies at once.

Since 2002, concurrent appointments in powerful party and government leadership groups (领导班子) have indicated an increase in the amount of power granted to China’s police chiefs. One common arrangement at the provincial, prefectural, and especially county levels has been to name the same person as head of the public security organ and the “politico-legal committee” (政法委) within the local party organization. Due to a 2010 party directive discussed in a recent article by Guangzhou’s Southern Weekly, this arrangement may be coming to an end, but the change won’t necessarily mean any diminution of police power.

Entering the Inner Circle

The politico-legal committee is one of the least-understood components of the Chinese criminal justice system. This is largely because the Communist Party has not provided many details on its structure, internal rules, and day-to-day operations. Established at each level of the party’s leadership bureaucracy, from the central government down through China’s counties and urban districts, these committees are responsible for overseeing, coordinating, and managing the work of police, procuratorates, courts, and judicial administration organs.

Particularly at and below the provincial level, politico-legal committees frequently play an active role in the process of administering justice. Represented by high-ranking officials from public security, procuratorates, courts, and judicial administration institutions, the committee serves as a channel through which the interests of these institutions can be coordinated in pursuit of broader policy goals, such as fighting crime or preserving social and political stability.

In 2002, when Zhou Yongkang (then Minister of Public Security) was named to the Politburo and the State Council, it marked a clear elevation in the status of the public security system within the party-state organization. Throughout the country, heads of local public security bureaus joined their respective party and government “leadership groups,” often as members of the standing committee of the local party committee and as secretary of that committee’s politico-legal committee.

Politburo member and Politico-Legal Committee Chairman Zhou Yangkang presides over a plenary
meeting of the Central Politico-Legal Committee in Beijing, October 19, 2011.
Photo credit: Zhang Duo, Xinhua

In practice, this has tended to give police the greatest say in decision-making among China’s various legal institutions. Welcoming public security chiefs into the leadership group has generally increased the political clout of the police, giving them better access to personnel and budget allocations and facilitating the mobilization of political support for security interests.

Honorary Chief of Police

The arrangement, however, carries a significant downside. Instead of giving a sitting police chief a spot within the local leadership group, the more common practice has been to appoint an official who is already part of the leadership group as head of the public security bureau. As a result, many police chiefs have little to no experience in law enforcement and spend much of their time in administrative and party meetings with no direct relation to police work.

Having the same person head both the public security organ and the politico-legal committee also tends to create imbalance between the various institutions charged with enforcing and administering the law. With the head of police managing a committee responsible for “coordinating” the interests of public security, procuratorates, and courts, conflicts are bound to be resolved in favor of police interests—as, for example, when the committee intervenes in a criminal case in which the procuratorate refused to grant police approval for arrest.

Yang Haiyun, who until earlier this year headed the public security bureau and politico-legal committee in Huangzhong County, Qinghai Province, acknowledged that this arrangement tends to have a detrimental effect on the ability of procuratorates and courts to exert proper oversight. In 2010, National People’s Congress Deputy Wu Xiaoling urged an end to the practice of “putting the monitored in charge of the monitors.” Soon thereafter, according to Southern Weekly, the Central Organization Department of the Communist Party issued a directive that would prevent the heads of provincial-level public security departments from simultaneously heading provincial politico-legal committees. As of late October 2011, 22 of China’s 31 provincial-level politico-legal committees had complied.

This is not likely, however, to mean that the overall authority of China’s public security apparatus will diminish. The same 2010 directive still calls for public security chiefs to be members of the leadership group or party organization within the same level of government. So while the directive seeks to address the imbalance of power between public security, procuratorates, and courts that became institutionalized in the politico-legal committee, it also preserves a policymaking role for public security so as to maintain its preeminence in preserving public order and socio-political stability.