Centripetal and Centrifugal Forces in China

(Washington Post)  China opens meeting on poverty gap.  By Edward Cody.  October 9, 2005.

Senior leaders of the Communist Party opened a Central Committee session yesterday focusing on ways to narrow a gap between rich and poor that has broadened dangerously in China during 25 years of sweeping market reforms.

More than 350 delegates from party organizations across the country are attending the four-day meeting, which is providing a high-level forum for a growing belief within the party that China's swift economic liberalization has left too many people behind, particularly in the countryside, where more than half of China's 1.3 billion inhabitants live.

The unbalanced growth has led to widespread dissatisfaction among farmers and laid-off workers used to socialist-era benefits that have long since disappeared. In addition, the party's alliance with private business, often accompanied by bribery, has embittered many Chinese who were taught that the party stood for social equality and helping the poor.

Increasingly, the dissatisfaction has been exploding into violent protest and rioting, becoming a threat to stability and a major concern for President Hu Jintao's government.

Hu, who is also the party leader, has largely endorsed the concerns about social equity and made them his own, calling for a ''harmonious society" with increased attention to people who have not benefited from economic liberalization.

The 25-member Politburo, which he heads as general secretary, recently listed the concerns as an important topic for the Central Committee, urging that the country ''pay more attention to social fairness."

The question is whether the Communist Party is structurally capable of dealing with bringing about social fairness.  After all, social unfairness did not fall out of the sky on its own; it was engendered and enabled by elements within the Party itself.

The following is my translation of an article by Wu Yong (吴庸) in China eWeekly and carried in New Century Net.  The subject is local authorities versus the Hu-Wen government.  Maybe the Hu-Wen combination have good intentions, but they are up against the entire local government structure which have benefited immensely from historical arrangements and would not give up without a fight.

Local authorities have gained power to counteract the Hu-Wen government and this is the most significant occurrence in the current power play, along with the internal struggles within the political center itself and the political fight among the senior party-military members.  The future of the political situation will depend on the outcome of these struggles.

In looking back at the relationship between the central and local authorities, there has been an obvious downslide.  The one-party rule and dictatorship by the leaders achieved the acme in the Mao Zedong era.  At the meetings of the expanded Standing Committee, Mao could just say, "There are counter-revolutionaries amongst us" and the whole hall went quiet and paid apt attention; Mao could issue an order and the party organizations at various levels would become totally paralyzed and the local government and party officials would go willingly to be criticized; Mao's sayings were always unpredictable and changeable, so that one can only grasp, implement and say "Hurrah!"; if Mao wanted someone dead, the person wouldn't remain alive.  That was totalitarianism.

In the Deng Xiaopeng era, the power of the leader weakened, although Deng could still send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to war in Vietnam as well as order soldiers into Beijing to suppress disturbances.  Although Deng wanted separation of party and government as well as separation of government and business, the local party authorities were unwilling to give up the interests that they had accumulated.  Deng backed off and the reforms for the national and enterprise systems were put off.

In the Jiang Zemin era, the power of the leader clearly declined.  The Beijing-based powers challenged him and in turn the local powerbrokers madly pursued alliances between government and enterprises, and they became strong enough to be able to negotiate with Jiang.  In turn, Jiang accepted that fact that the local authorities were gathering money for themselves.  This was a situation in which the local authorities grew strong enough to make the central government obeyed their wills.  In this atmosphere, Jiang was never able to maintain his authority and had to rely on the local authorities to keep his rule.  From the Yuanhua case, it can be seen that Jiang was able only to deal with low-level and middle-level corrupt officials, but the punishments did not touch the senior local authorities.  Based upon this type of compromise, the conflict between local and central governments did not result in a total rupture.

When Hu Jintao took over fully, the local authorities got even stronger.  They boycotted the orders from the central government, even publicly opposing them.  Their countervailing forces are even bigger now and they speak louder.  Some local authorities even want nothing to do with the central government.  During the Jiang era, it was still possible to bribe them with money and promotions.  But this is no longer persuasive because they have the money and the power already and nothing would appeal to them except for Hu's own power.  Since Hu tolerates such behavior, it only allows the local authorities to gain even more power.  The Mao era has faded like yesterday's flowers.

Here are the reasons why the local authorities oppose the Hu-Wen government.

(1) Jiang loved power.  He might not have control over everything, but he liked to direct everything.  So his designated successor Hu had to deal with that.  After Hu was designated as Jiang's successor, he followed the rules and accomplished nothing during ten years in the Politburo.  In this way, Jiang and Hu set up the foundation for non-cooperation.  When Jiang retired from the power stage, he placed his own people in key positions beforehand.  Under this type of arrangement in the political center, internal struggles were inevitable.  These internal struggles were not open to the public eye, and they exhibit themselves as local opposition and disobedience to Hu-Wen policies.  The most obvious manifestations are that the Hu-Wen policies do not get implemented in Shanghai and Guangzhou, which are the power roots of the Jiang faction.

Here are two examples.  Example 1: when the SARS epidemic hit mainland China in 2003, the Department of Health Minister Zhang Wenkong was previously appointed by Jiang Zemin and he tried to conceal the truth, leading to worldwide condemnation.  Hu dismissed Zhang to exert his authority and this offended the Jiang faction.  Among the nationwide SARS statistics, the number of infected and deceased in Beijing was 2,523 and 183 respectively; the numbers in Heibei, Shanxi and Inner Mongolia were all in the triple and double digits; but the numbers in Shanghai were held at 8 and 2 falsely in order to resist Hu's power.  Example 2: In the case of real estate mogul Zhou Zhengyi, Hu ordered the Shanghai City Party Committee not to interfere with the central government investigators but they were thwarted.  In the end, Zhou only received a nominal three year sentence and a fine.  As long as Hu cannot gain the upper hand in the central government politics and he backs off from confrontations, the local resistance will continue.

(2) With the opening of the land acquisition policies, the local authorities raced to seize these resources by selling off land.  On one hand, they can fend off the increasing local financial pressures and achieve some sort of political accomplishments.  On the other hand, they can satisfy their private needs.  That is why the local authorities have been trying to seek investments for huge projects.  Taking over the land of the peasants, evicting people from their  homes, holding back the migrant workers' pay, delaying payment on engineering projects and other sorts of illegal activities that violate people's rights became commonplace.  This was a great robbery that showed the greed of the authorities.

Such activities must be corrected for the sake of the survival of the political authorities, and this led to conflicts.  Here are two examples.  Example 1: In 1996, there were 2.1 billion arable mu of land, and this was reduced to 1.837 billion arable mu, less than the target amount of 1.885 mu set for the year 2010.  40 million peasants have lost their farm lands.  There are more and more mass protests by peasants.  Wen Jiabao issued an order to all local authorities to implement the policies to protect farm lands, to investigate illegal land requisitions and to oppose corruption.  His first order led to nothing.  He issued the order again.  Nothing.  He issued the order four more times and there was no local response.  So Wen called a telephone-/video-conference and the local leaders all promised to "support the directives of the central government."  And then nothing happened.

So the five departments of the central government sent out 10 investigative groups.  The first group reported: there were 104,000 cases of illegal land acquisition in their region and only one county land bureau director was removed from his position and that was only because he was promoted to work elsewhere.  This showed how the special interests worked.  This is the Tai-chi style.  Superficially, they "supported" the central government policies and they "investigated" the situations, but in practice the land acquisition incidents continued apace or in different forms.  This type of activity will continue.

Example 2: In Jixi county, Heilongjiang province, the average government revenue per capita is only 283 RMB, but the City Party Secretary Ting Naijin used the usual methods of withholding worker pay and delaying project payments to construct the largest plaza in the province.  Citizens said: "You can't even cover the plaza in one hour on foot."  This project entailed 58 million RMB in unpaid construction costs and 11.60 million RMB in unpaid migrant laborer wages over more than 10 years.  When the sub-contractors approached the mayor, the response was: "We have already given you 4 million out of the 6 million project.  The 70% payment rate of the Jixi project is the highest around.  Why are you not satisfied?"  When they spoke to the project administrator, the response was: "Didn't you complain to the central government?  Since you complained, I won't pay you.  What are you going to do about me?"  When Wen Jiabao wrote a directive to settle this matter, the province sent out an investigation team and sent back false information.  When that was exposed, Wen issued another directive and ordered the Departments of Construction and Audit to investigate.  Again, the monitors just let it slip.  Since there was no other way to get this going, Wen ordered Ting Naijin to be placed under "double regulations" because he was involved in an even bigger corruption case.  Under the watch of the central government, the migrant workers got 90 million RMB in back wages but the project costs are still not paid.  In fact, the local authorities have threatened to "arrest" all the sub-contractors.  A county-level party secretary can defy the provincial investigation team, the central government monitors and ignore the Premier's directives.  People like Ting Naijin are all over China and pushing the country to the abyss.  As long as there are no effective strategies and tactics to stop the robbery, the Premier's directives are worthless.

(3)  Mainland China is divided into 32 provinces and municipalities.  These 32 regions have their own economic and social interests, which may be in conflict with those of the central government.  The central government emphasizes unity and ignores local interests.  For example, they requisition resources from minority areas and they move Han people into those areas, causing local discontent.  There are also some local areas which look after their own interests and ignore the needs for national unity.  For example, the Jiangsu province insisted on constructing a 8.4 million ton iron-steel enterprise which led to criticism from the central government.  These conflicts of interests are not even the subject of this article.  Instead, we want to talk about the specific political background behind these types of local-central government conflicts.

For example, in 2004, Shanghai City Party Secretary Chen Liangyu pointed out at a politburo meeting that Wen Jiabao's macroscopic procedures severely damaged the interests of the Changjiang Delta and therefore Wen should bear responsibility for impeding the economic progress of China.  Chen's opinion was not entirely unreasonable as Wen's macroscopic procedures were not flawless.  Yet, it was clear that the insertion of the Hu-Wen policies into Shanghai was opposed by the local authorities and Chen's remarks reflected that position.  There are many other similar types of incidents.  Conversely, it can also be said that the Hu-Wen government was too soft and weak without any firm macroscopic strategic plan.

Hu-Wen want to promote a "harmonious society."  What is "harmony"?  Sometimes, we see "anti-westernization" and "anti-liberalization"; other times, we see guarantees for "democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic management and democratic monitoring".  How can they please both sides?  There are so many mining disasters, why can't they investigate how government-business collusion caused those miners to die?  Why do they advocate that "the Chinese people should begin by managing a village well" and then pretend that they know nothing about the violence that is happening at Taishi village?  Such weak and impotent leadership will not win the trust of the people and it will be attacked by its political partners.  The Hu-Wen government will be more isolated while their political partners attack them as the people will stand aside.

How to get out of this impassť?  ...

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