Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

More Than Mere Words, Less Than Hard Law: A Rhetorical Analysis of China's Anti-Corruption Policy

Academic journal article Public Administration Quarterly

More Than Mere Words, Less Than Hard Law: A Rhetorical Analysis of China's Anti-Corruption Policy

Article excerpt


China has made fighting corruption central to its reform and modernization effort since 1978. While much has been written on the causes, forms, and characteristics of China's corruption (e.g., Oi, 1989; Meaney, 1991; Ostergaard and Peterson, 1991; Rocca, 1992; Johnston and Hao, 1995; Cong, 1997; Wedeman, 1997; Lu, 2000), relatively little attention has been given to China's anti-corruption policy. When cleanup efforts are addressed, discussion usually pertains to their goals and effects (e.g., He, 2000).

This article explores the makeup of China's anti-corruption policy from a rhetorical perspective. It proceeds along with what Fischer and Forest (1993) call "an argumentative turn" in policy analysis which explores the communicative and rhetorical strategies that policy-makers use to direct attention to the problems and options they are assessing. Rhetoric, defined as "the use of words by human agents to form attributes or to induce actions in other human beings" (Burke, 1969:14), is more than mere words or gloss and seduction. It consists of symbols that themselves stand for and convey ideas, beliefs, and actions. Rhetoric serves to entice the audience into accepting the policy-maker's preferred values and programs. As a result, policies are often amplified through political rhetoric.

This explains why policy-making tends to be "a highly stylized and ritualized process" replete with symbolism that conveys reassurance and rationalizes policy products (Elder, 1993). The success of a particular policy depends not only on its implementation but also on its power of linguistic presentations and persuasion. What rhetoric to use, to communicate what to whom, how, and what effects are all important components of policy-making?

Rhetoric is fundamental to understanding China's anti-corruption policy. The rhetoric action that China's policy-makers have taken in the battle against corruption is not empty talk without substance and contains important policy messages. A close examination of China's anti-corruption rhetoric shows how corruption is conceptualized, how the importance of fighting corruption is conveyed, how public visions are inspired, and how desired actions are recommended. A rhetorical perspective, thus, enables us to better understand the making of China's anti-corruption policy and its contents.

This article begins with an overview of China's campaign-oriented anti-corruption policy then proceeds with a discussion of the major rhetorical strategies used in the anti-corruption campaign and the context in which they are employed. The concluding remarks contain some observations on the policy and, particularly, on the rhetorical efforts associated with it.


Corruption has haunted the People's Republic since it was born (Gong, 1994; Wong, 1997). The making of current anti-corruption policy, however, takes place mainly in the reform context. As has been well-noted, the market driven reform since 1978 is accompanied by a surge of corruption which appears in new and complex forms and reaches unprecedented and moral fronts while encouraging people to make more money to enrich themselves by such slogans as "getting rich is glorious." The party has to restrain its members from engaging in excessive profit-making activities so as not to tarnish its public image. This is certainly not an easy endeavor.

The making of anti-corruption policy has gone through three phases, each of them characterized by different conceptualization of corruption and new policy measures although the fundamental goal remains the same. During the process, anti-corruption rhetorical strategies have evolved as well.

The formation of the Discipline Commission of the CCP Central Committee in 1979 marked the initial move in China's battle against corruption.1 The creation of this agency and many of its provincial branches in the following years revealed an urgent task facing the leadership then. …

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