All Chinese Politics Is Local
Harry Harding’s view that there will be no second Tiananmen crisis in China is a sensible one ("Think Again: China," March/April 2007). Over the years, I have learned to be optimistic about China’s prospects, as the country has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to defuse seemingly insurmountable crises triggered by large-scale social problems or policy failures. ...
Harry Harding’s view that there will be no second Tiananmen crisis in China is a sensible one ("Think Again: China," March/April 2007). Over the years, I have learned to be optimistic about China’s prospects, as the country has demonstrated a remarkable capacity to defuse seemingly insurmountable crises triggered by large-scale social problems or policy failures.
But it is less the role of Chinese leaders or effective state policies, as Harding suggests, than those social mechanisms outside the central government’s control that help alleviate social discontent. Grievances generated by the massive layoffs in the state sector in the mid-1990s were gradually defused largely because traditional extended-family networks helped to redistribute resources to assist the unemployed, not because of effective government policies. Official safety nets for the unemployed were virtually nonexistent in most cities then. Similarly, economic shocks have been largely absorbed through the ebb and flow of migrant peasant workers. And many crises at local levels are put to rest by local authorities adopting improvised strategies — diverting resources, making false compromises, or simply bullying — that are often at odds with Beijing. Indeed, the very structure of the central authority has a tendency to magnify local problems into large-scale national ones. The Chinese government’s effort to recentralize resources and authority in recent years is likely to politicize social and economic issues and induce widespread social discontent. Without careful attention to these fundamental mechanisms, predicting China’s future is a risky business, indeed.
Professor of Sociology
Palo Alto, Calif.
Harry Harding replies:
Xueguang Zhou makes an important point: Successful management of such issues as corruption, pollution, abuse of power, and disease in China cannot depend on the central government alone. It also requires the efforts of local government, the media, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs). The question is what the central government’s attitude toward these institutions will be.
In principle, Beijing acknowledges the potential role of civil society when it talks of the creation of a "small state, big society." In practice, however, it treats civil society with great skepticism. Although the media are permitted to investigate grassroots problems and criticize local officials for malfeasance or incompetence, they operate under significant constraints, especially when high-level officials are involved. And though the Communist Party recognizes the utility of NGOs in providing services, it gets very nervous when those same organizations cross the line into advocacy. They are mindful of the role that NGOs played in the "color revolutions" in the former Soviet Union, and they do not want to repeat that experience in China.
Zhou considers local government part of the solution to China’s woes; I see it as part of the problem. Many local officials continue to place the highest priority on sheer economic growth, even if that means exacerbating socioeconomic issues of concern to both the central government and the Chinese people. In some cases, that is because those local officials personally benefit from growth through graft and corruption.
Beijing is trying to bring local officials to heel by dismissing some of them for corruption and by changing the standards for promotion to include criteria other than economic growth. But because local leaders have their own independent bases of power, Beijing finds it hard to control them from the top down. Even more important, it is also reluctant to develop effective democratic mechanisms to impose accountability on them from the bottom up.
Unleashing the creative capacities of Chinese society will be crucial in addressing China’s problems. But that will require a more positive attitude toward the media and NGOs, and a stricter attitude toward malfeasance by local officials, than Beijing has shown thus far.