China and its Discontents

Archive for the ‘PSC’ tag

“Black Jails” a Stain on China’s Legitimacy

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Earlier last week, major news outlets in China reported that a Beijing court had, for the first time, sentenced 10 Henan provincial authorities to jail for illegally detaining petitioners who had come to Beijing to air their grievances. Many China watchers, including myself, were surprised and happy to see China move in the right direction of strengthening the rule of law and depoliticizing the judicial system. The next day, however, the news was retracted; apparently no court in Beijing had made any such ruling.

The end result was quite a disappointment, especially because this brief moment of false hope is but one in a long string of depressing incidents. The illegal detention of petitioners in ‘black jails’ has long been an acute problem in the nation’s capital. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, millions of people utilize the petition system in China, often because of land disputes in which local officials illegally confiscate land and then sell it to developers for a kickback. Petitioners also seek redress of grievances against a number of other issues, including environmental damage, police abuse, and even rape. Petitioners begin with the local petition office, and if that is unsuccessful, they gradually make their way up to the provincial and national level offices. It is unknown how many people make the journey to the State Bureau for Letters and Visits every year, but it is probably in the realm of 100,000 people. Once there, many of the petitioners are ‘grabbed’ by provincial authorities and imprisoned in ‘black jails,’ before being sent back to their hometowns. The Chinese government officially denies the existence of black jails.

The problem for the CCP leadership is that much of their legitimacy in the future will rest on the government’s responsiveness to the concerns of the average citizen. But provincial authorities and the judicial system have time and again failed to live up to any minimal standard of justice. It is widely understood in China that the government and the courts serve to uphold the interests of the rich and powerful. In the past few months (and as I suspect into the next few years), “rule of law” and reforming the judiciary have been buzzwords not just among Western China experts but among the Chinese elite themselves. But this case only serves to illustrate the vacuity of official promises to reform.

I hope that I am wrong. I hope Xi Jinping and the Politburo Standing Committee make concerted efforts to crack down on the egregious abuses of power among provincial and local officials, and to provide real justice for those (mainly indigent) citizens who spend a small fortune to come to Beijing to plead their cases, only to be imprisoned and turned back. But in a system in which every instrument of power, from the military, to the state, the media, and the courts, are designed to serve the political interests of the party, how could it be otherwise?

Written by Will

December 10th, 2012 at 5:48 pm

SOEs Must be Reformed, But Whither the Political System?

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The new leadership has just as many ties to state-owned enterprises as the old. The brother of Li Keqiang, who is expected to become the prime minister, is one of four deputy directors of the State Tobacco Monopoly Administration. With 98 percent of the Chinese market for cigarettes, the state-owned tobacco administration generates taxes and profits that total 7 to 10 percent of the entire revenue of the central government, according to a report in October from the Brookings Institution in Washington.

This from an article on China’s SOEs by Keith Bradsher in the New York Times. This is an insane method of revenue collection. In contrast, the U.S. federal government relies on tobacco taxes for about 0.2% of its total revenue (of course individual states make much more revenue from tobacco taxes, but it’s generally not more than 4-5%). I think it is inevitable that the new PSC will undertake some form of economic reform, particularly of SOEs, if only because such economic reform has precedent and many influential backers. I don’t see a great chance of real political reform, however. The fact that people like Jiang Zemin and Li Peng still have major influence and are sitting on the dais while Hu Jintao delivers his work report signals to me that no individual, however well intentioned, can have much of a liberalizing influence on the Chinese political system in the near future.

Written by Will

November 10th, 2012 at 7:40 pm

Official Reaction to Wen Jiabao Scandal and Ningbo PX Protests Illuminating


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has hit some serious speed bumps in the run-up to the 18th National Congress and the highly anticipated transfer of power to Xi Jinping and a new Politburo Standing Committee. The New York Times published an investigative article exposing Premier Wen Jiabao’s estimated family fortune of  $2.7 billion, and over the past few days, protests and riots have erupted in the coastal city of Ningbo over a toxic PX (paraxylene) chemical plant.

While both are serious sources of instability, the CCP’s public responses to each have differed in important ways. As for the Wen Jiabao scandal, both the English and Chinese versions of the New York Times website were quickly blocked in Mainland China. All search terms relating to the story, including Wen’s name, have been blocked on popular twitter-like service Sina Weibo and negative references to Wen have remained sanitized from the search engine Baidu. Lawyers supposedly representing the Wen family issued a strong statement condemning the New York Times article and rebutting particular facts, and Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the article “blackens China’s name and has ulterior motives.”

Meanwhile, the official reaction to the Ningbo PX protests has been quite different. Although Public Security Bureau (PSB) riot control squads were out in force using tear gas and batons against the crowd and making arrests, the city quickly folded Sunday evening, declaring that it would stop the PX plant from being built. Online, first person accounts of police brutality and rumors of a Ningbo University student death were suppressed; Sina Weibo even blocked photo-uploads from local Ningbo IP addresses. But the story was not censored to the same degree as the Wen Jiabao scandal. The Ningbo protests are being talked about and photos do circulate on Sina Weibo and elsewhere. The central and local governments want everyone to know that the issue had been resolved: the official announcement was trumpeted nationwide through the People’s Daily and to foreign audiences through the English-language Global Times.

What accounts for this considerable difference? In one case, the news has been thoroughly cleansed from the Internet as to make it impossible to even hear of the news. In the other case, the most egregious examples of state malfeasance have been removed, but the story itself remains. In the case of the Wen Jiabao scandal, the New York Times reporting strikes directly at the legitimacy and authority of the CCP; it goes to the very top. But cases like the Ningbo PX plant can serve as outlets for popular discontent without directly challenging the authority of the CCP.

As Rebecca MacKinnon argues in her recent book “Consent of the Networked,” netizens in China can bring attention to social injustice and can even have an impact on government policies; but ultimately these cases can serve to bolster state legitimacy when the CCP is seen as resolving the problem. There has been a raft of environmental protests recently that have been resolved in similar ways: the Shifang copper plant protests in July, Dalian PX plant protests in August 2011, and the Xiamen PX plant protests in 2007, among many others. The environment is not the only issue handled with relative kid gloves: the Party also emphasizes efforts to fight corruption in cases where the target of an anti-corruption sting is an expendable cadre; food safety is handled much the same (see the death sentences handed out as a result of the melamine tainted-milk scandal). And of course, nationalist protests are skillfully manipulated to further particular narratives and claims to legitimacy.

Hardly any of the actions of the PSB or the Propaganda Department are completely predictable during times of protest and damaging news, but there is a recognizable pattern. The Wen Jiabao and Ningbo cases are indicative of a larger truth: Chinese real-life activists and ordinary netizens are occasionally able to affect real social change in China, but they do so within the confines of acceptable political dialogue that the CCP has already laid out for them.

The CCP Leadership in Three Sentences

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The Financial Times recently published a brief profile of Liu Yandong, the Politburo’s only female member and unlikely contender for the Politburo Standing Committee. I applaud Leslie Hook at FT for writing an article that not only sheds light on Ms. Liu but also the CCP promotion system. Although her appointment is unlikely (especially given that the PSC will probably shrink to seven members), the following observations apply to the entire CCP:

In the same way that premier Wen Jiabao – known as “Grandpa Wen” – is the comforting public face of the Communist party when natural disasters strike, her carefully managed public appearances reveal a knack for appealing to the masses.

And then further down the page:

The Communist party rewards officials who keep a low profile and take few risks, an art that Ms Liu has mastered. So, it is almost impossible to deduce what policies she – or any of the other potential new standing committee members – advocate.

CCP leaders and the entire CCP promotion system value empathy as artifice, an opaque decision-making process, and a complete lack of imagination, creativity, or risk-taking. I can’t imagine attributes less suitable to tackle China’s problems. The economy isn’t just slowing down–it is also in need of a complete overhaul if it is to successfully transition to the innovative, developed economy that the CCP wants to achieve. But leaders with personal qualities such as these don’t reshape an entire system–they tinker along the edges while everything crashes down upon them. That’s a danger to China, and the world.

EDIT: Lesson learned, I should have waited a bit before publishing, because otherwise I would have included this incredible article by Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times making a very similar argument. I particularly loved (or was despondent over) this quote:

And Liao Jinzhong, an economist at Hunan University, worries that much of the spending is misplaced. “What we really could use is a functioning sewage system,” he said, speaking from his sixth-floor apartment in a crumbling faculty building that has no elevator.

Written by Will

September 26th, 2012 at 11:06 pm