THERE IS A vacuum in the state’s control of the economy. The combination of powerful private companies arising in new areas of economic activity from which state was absent, such as within the tech industry, and the breaking up of the patronage networks within state-owned enterprises (SOEs) as a consequence of President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption campaign has created it.
The Party abhors a vacuum and has stepped in to assert its control as the state’s wanes. Under Xi, the People’s Daily opined in June, the Party has sought to address the “weakening, watering down, hollowing out and marginalisation” of party leadership at state enterprises.
Two months ago a government statement made it clear that private-sector business should follow Party guidance, including ‘patriotism’, ‘observing discipline’ and ‘serving society’ within its definition of entrepreneurship.
The mechanism for exercising Party control is the Party branch within companies. These have long existed within SOE’s (they are present in 93% of the 147,000 SOEs big and small) and have become prevalent in the private sector. Qi Yu, deputy head of the Central Organisation Department, said in October that 68% of 2.73 million private businesses had Party branches as of the end of last year.
Party cells are also becoming more common in joint ventures with foreign firms, and are being pushed on foreign firms with wholly owned local operations as part of the ‘new era’. Qi said 70% of foreign-funded firms in China – or 750,000 – have set up Party branches and 106,000 foreign-invested companies, against 47,000 in 2011.
Samsung and Nokia are two foreign companies who have acknowledged publicly that they have set up Party branches in their local operations; The medical systems division of Japan’s Toshiba has had a branch since 2007. The US chemicals multinational DuPont had one when it set up in Shanghai in the 1990.
The influence of Party cells varies greatly between companies and industries. At their best, or at least as portrayed by authorities, they promote goodwill and communication between the company and the Party. They run companies’ internal labour unions and be a source of labour through the agencies that coordinate them.
Some are little more than a cost irritant (the company foots the bill for Party branches’ activities). In joint ventures, especially with SOEs, they can make operational decision making more opaque and cumbersome. At the other end of the spectrum, they can seek to determine strategic and operational investment and business decisions.
Some SOEs listed in Hong Kong have gone as far as changing their articles of association so as to give the party a leading role in management decisions. And there are reports circulating of joint ventures being pressed to rewrite their terms of agreement to give the Party a more formal say in operations and management, including a final say over investment decisions.
It is that direction of travel — expanding the party’s presence in areas where it has previously had a limited role, such as in private and foreign joint-venture companies and the boards of listed firms, that is exercising foreign multinationals operating in China.
In late July, executives from more than a dozen top European companies in China met quietly in Beijing under the aegis of the EU Chamber of Commerce in China to discuss their concerns about the Party’s growing role in the local operations firms like theirs. Last month, the Delegations of German Industry and Commerce in China, representing German chambers of commerce, also raised their concerns and said some German companies might consider withdrawing from the market if the Party’s influence on their local operations grew.
Part of their argument was that companies from multi-party democracies should not be bound to promote a particular party, especially one that claims a monopoly on political power. However, the concern is that once Party presence is written into governance, commercial management autonomy is lost for good. In addition, Party members are subject to the Party’s disciplinary procedures, which, of course, is beyond any internal policies a company may have.
A statement from the State Council Information Office earlier this year, saying that “company party organisations generally carry out activities that revolve around operations management, can help companies promptly understand relevant national guiding principles and policies, coordinate all parties’ interests, resolve internal disputes, introduce and develop talent, guide the corporate culture, and build harmonious labour relations” is less reassuring to foreign investors than the Office probably intended.
The other end of the telescope is that the Party should intervene to assert the collective interest of the whole over the that of the part, the whole, in this case, being the state capitalist class.
An old-school Marxist ideologue might describe the presence of Party units in companies, and the guidance and discipline they would provide, as a precursor to the collectivisation of capital, in which individual companies become units of a state corporate whole.
In these more pragmatic days, this Bystander sees it just as the Party extending an strengthening its presence and control over all sectors of society, even in areas where it has previously had a limited role, which might be much the same thing.