Imagine that you are the leader of the largest country in the world. What is your biggest day-to-day problem? Your own underlings.
How can you be sure that they do what you want? How can you guarantee that they don’t flagrantly disobey your directives, or worse, rob you blind?
In China’s authoritarian system, this is trickier than it looks. Political power at each level of the bureaucratic hierarchy is centralized in the hands of a small group of Communist Party officials. If they want to choke off information to Beijing and cover up their own corruption or incompetence they have the tools to do so.
Spectacular cover-ups result. Local authorities conceal mine disasters that kill dozens. They suppress scandals involving adulterated food products that sicken hundreds of thousands. In 2005, provincial authorities in China’s northeast simply blacked out all information regarding a massive benzene spill on the Songhua River for over a week, creating an international incident with Russia, limiting the ability of national environmental authorities to respond and generating panic among hundreds of thousands of local residents denied accurate information as to why their water supply had been shut off.
Over the last three decades, China’s central leaders have experimented with tentative, bottom-up reforms to address these problems. Their aim was to create channels to allow a limited degree of citizen supervision over local officials and harness popular input to help Beijing better monitor local government agencies. For this reason, the central authorities supported the spread of village elections in the 1990s, allowing rural residents some ability to hold their local leaders accountable. Over the last two decades, Beijing has promoted legal reforms giving citizens limited rights to challenge local authorities in court.
But these efforts can progress only so far before they run into trouble. Beijing may want to keep a closer eye on local authorities, but it does not want to see these channels emerge as truly independent checks on its own power.
As a result, China’s leaders end up undermining their own reforms. In the late 1990s, for example, the central leadership clamped down on electoral reforms following activists’ efforts to bring more open elections to higher levels of the bureaucracy.
This dynamic — one step forward, one step back — now appears to be playing itself out in the legal arena. Over the past 10 years, lawyers and citizens have actively used the space opened by legal reforms to challenge a range of local government actions. They have filed suit in court to block illegal seizures of farmers’ land by municipal governments. They have employed freedom of information laws to force local authorities to cough up information on shady financial dealings.
Periodically, these actions go beyond the local level. In 2003, a group of law professors formally challenged the legality and constitutionality of an ill-defined national administrative detention regime — the custody and repatriation system — in the midst of a media uproar over its abuses. Remarkably, the central authorities responded by abolishing the system.
But in the last several years, central officials have grown increasingly uncomfortable with this legal activism. The appointment last year of a public security chief to head the Supreme People’s Court was one clear signal of official intent to rein in the courts and legal reformers. More have come this spring, including the tightening of controls on public interest lawyers and the reassignment of He Weifang, a law professor in Beijing who is a vocal advocate for judicial independence, to a remote teaching post in China’s far west.
These shifts aren’t meant to be temporary. The new supreme court leadership has sponsored a campaign that emphasizes Communist Party supremacy over the judiciary. But undermining the institutional role of law, lawyers and the courts will not help Beijing to better monitor local officials — it will do the reverse. It will erode those limited checks on the power of local authorities that do exist. It will allow them greater leeway to engage in corruption and cover-ups. And it will ultimately weaken — not strengthen — the ability of Chinese leaders to govern their country.
Effectively addressing China’s governance problems requires the creation of truly independent and bottom-up institutions — precisely the things that central Chinese officials have experimented with but won’t allow to mature.