context: Arguments about Party reform are starting to seep into realms that are usually considered off-limits. Here, an authoritative essay in the Party’s flagship newspaper (likely authored by hardliners) takes aim at a core concept of cadre management as it is applied currently. Attacking practices may well be a step in the direction of questioning the principle itself.

A People’s Daily commentary said that relying on accountability as a way of restraining power and conferring responsibility on officials is not working well everywhere.

Some departments and officials, the commentary opines, regard accountability as a quantitative measure of the effectiveness of Party governance, and try to demonstrate that they are taking measures to ensure cadres are held responsible for their work. But simply holding officials accountable is actually a type of formalism, and undermines cadres’ enthusiasm to contribute. If the number of accountability cases is low, it would be reasonable to conclude, the commentary argues, that Party work is proceeding generally well—not that discipline is lacking. Indeed, if there is too much focus on finding officials who are then publicly shamed for alleged irresponsibility, the authority of Party discipline will be seriously damaged.

Accountability is therefore a means to improving work, not an end. What matters, the commentary concludes, are not cases in which cadres can be cited as being irresponsible just to show that they are being held accountable, but the willingness of local officials in particular to conduct visits, make inquiries, and listen to the voices and evaluations of the masses so that unresolved problems can be addressed.