Legal Expert Curtis Milhaupt Shows Surprising Variation in Adoption of Party-Building Policies Among Chinese Firms

Pedestrians walk past a Madrid branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), one of the largest state-owned enterprises in China. Pedestrians walk past a Madrid branch of the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC), one of the largest state-owned enterprises in China.

President Xi Jinping’s tenure has been marked by growing state influence over all spheres of governance in China, including a marked tightening of control over the economy.

Curtis Milhaupt, the William F. Baxter-Visa International Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, addressed the hardening of Party controls over Chinese corporate governance. His lecture to the China Program on February 6 was based on research conducted by Milhaupt in collaboration with Yu-Hsin Lin of City University of Hong Kong, and examined the expanding role of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) within both state-owned enterprises (SOEs) and privately-owned enterprises (POEs). The influence of the CCP within these enterprises, Milhaupt says, is not as straightforward as it might seem.

Milhaupt posits that the level of control exercised by the CCP on SOEs is lower than one might generally expect. At the same time, the CCP exercises a surprisingly higher level of control over POEs than we would typically assume. To draw these conclusions, Milhaupt uses a set of ten model provisions deemed to be dangjian, or “party-building,” measures that were developed and released by the Central Committee of the CCP. From data compiled between 2015 and 2018 from the charters of publicly-listed companies, Milhaupt shows that 10% of SOEs chose not to adopt any of the provisions distributed by the Central Committee. Meanwhile, 6% of POEs had at least a low level of adoption, despite the fact that the provisions were not directed at them. The reason for such variation, according to Milhaupt, can be explained by the characteristics of the provisions, the SOEs, and the POEs.

Photo of Curtis Milhaupt speaking
Milhaupt breaks the measures into three distinct groups: personnel-related, decision-making, and symbolic. Nearly every corporation that amended its charter adopted the symbolic provisions. As the name suggests, these generally did not require any substantial or meaningful change on the enterprises’ parts. There was a steep drop-off, however, in the level of adoption for the other two types. Only 58% of SOEs who amended their charters adopted the more intrusive, decision-making provisions. Similarly, only 52% of such SOEs adopted the personnel-related provisions. The numbers were even lower for POEs, with only 25% of POEs who amended their charters adopting the decision-making provisions, and only 16% adopting the personnel-related provisions.

Which enterprises adopted which provisions was highly correlated to those enterprises’ characteristics. SOEs were far more likely to amend their charters if they had direct state shareholding, but less likely to amend if they had large non-state shareholders, were further down in the state-ownership chain, or were cross-listed on international stock exchanges. POEs followed a similar structure, with enterprises being more likely to adopt provisions the more politically connected they were or the more direct state shareholding they had.

It remains unclear how the government can actually enforce the dangjian policy, and how these policies will affect the enterprises that adopt it. Despite the official rhetoric behind the dangjian policy, with claims that greater loyalty to the Party will lead to more economic success, Milhaupt expresses doubts:

“What’s [the danajian policy] going to mean for firm performance? Certainly, from a . . . straightforward economics or corporate governance perspective, one would not be optimistic that infiltrating corporations with political influence is going to do good things for firm performance.”

Milhaupt also has concerns about how the strategy will impact international investment, noting the already high levels of suspicion surrounding Chinese motivations: “This [emphasis on loyalty to the Party] would certainly seem to add fuel to the fire, and heighten concerns or suspicions with respect to Chinese outbound economic activity.” As SOEs and POEs continue to navigate both domestic and international markets with their amended charters, the future feasibility of the CCP’s reassertions over the economy is far from certain.