This article argues that the governance project of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) oscillates between rule-based formalism and anti-formalist scepticism about rule-based governance. In this dichotomy, anti-formalist arguments support CCP leaders’ efforts to maintain and increase the Party’s influence over the judiciary and other state organs, which is a key justification for the Party’s power. Formalist language, in contrast, supports Party leaders’ attempts to constrain lower-level cadres’ uses of power within the Party. Formalist language is particularly prominent in the writings of Party ideologues on the interpretation of the Party’s internal regulations, including the CCP Constitution. At the same time, Party ideology also provides for various anti-formalist arguments about rule-based governance within and outside the Party. Paradoxical as it may be, the Party leadership seeks to exert rule-transcending political leadership through formal rules. While the focus of this article is on China, it argues that other illiberal regimes may also be studied in terms of similar, potentially incoherent approaches to rule-based governance.