An Organizational Weapon for Whom? the Establishment of Party Branches within a Private Chinese Firm

Thursday, 2 July 2015: 4:00 PM-5:30 PM
CLM.3.04 (Clement House)
Tina Lee, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ
In The Organizational Weapon, Peter Selznick (1952) traces the ingenuity of the Bolsheviks.  He argues that the revolutionary group did not gain power by proselytizing to the masses, but by gaining a toehold in strategic institutions, groups, and organizations to expand its operations.  Although the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is far from a guerilla group today, it is not uncommon for it to take a page from the Leninist playbook. 

In the 1990s, China experienced an unprecedented overhaul and shuttering of state-owned enterprises that significantly diminished its enormous grass roots base of party branches.  The entry of private, export-oriented foreign firms during this period absorbed a large contingent of the rural labor force as well as former SOE employees.  Since 1997, the CCP’s Organization Department has made the creation of party branches in private businesses a priority (Siqigao 1999).  By 2002, Jiang Zemin, the then General Secretary of China, overturned a decade-long regulation enacted in 1989 that barred private firm owners from attaining party membership. 

The passing of this amendment at the 16thNational Congress marked the official beginnings of the CCP’s efforts to embed party cells in privately owned firms and non-governmental organizations.  This new bureaucratic design serves as a critical backdrop to my dissertation project, which seeks to understand the relationship between the local government and firm through the conduit of the party branch.  I investigate the consequences of adopting and administering this form of social control as they affect the local state, firm, and community. 

If the establishment of a party branch within the firm is costly yet voluntary, why would privately owned businesses opt in?  What is the administrative hierarchy and what is its system of sanctions and rewards?  Moreover, the party-state is a mammoth and decentralized apparatus.  The state’s impetus for creating party branches within firms stemmed from central-level concerns for maintaining social order and amassing legitimacy and support for the CCP.  Chinese idioms are brilliant at characterizing the relationship between petty bureaucrats and those in power.  As the natives put it, “the sky is as high as the emperor is far” (tiangao huangdi yuan).  Given reliable principal-agency problems between central-level and local-level state officials, what are the stated and unstated purposes of party and precinct-level branches?  And most importantly, what are the intended and unintended consequences of this bureaucratic arrangement?

From July to December 2013, I began a preliminary inquiry into these questions through ethnographic observation in a privately owned industrial firm in central China.  I collected my data through participant observation and interviews with managers, employees, and party branch members of a private firm specializing in logistics, real-estate development, auto-parts manufacturing, and mining in central China.  I interviewed local party officials at the precinct level that oversee the firm-level party branch.

The purpose of my project is not to establish a general theory for social control but to generate substantive theory, documenting and explaining inter- and intra- firm phenomenon through ethnographic observation of economic and political actors.