on china

this paper was written as a final for the ucl course “law and governance in contemporary china”

this is one of those cases where i sat down, jotted down an outline, then filled it in in order, building my bibliography bit by bit, a clean kill (procedurally, also i mean it in the fictional media sense such as perhaps an action movie or a videogame), i didn’t write more only because of the word limit.

enjoy

(psa: this one is very footnote-heavy. computer viewing is advised. also, it would have been more footnote heavy if it wasn’t for the word limit) (3k btw).

contents

    The politics of economic and social governance in China is distinguished by a high degree of decentralisation within a highly rigid authoritarian polity. The centripetal force that holds various aspects of decentralised governance together is the party-state organisation at the national level, where the State Council agencies and the Politburo of the Chinese Communist party work in relatively seamless agreement and with overlapping relations of authority, keeping the worst excesses of local state predatory extraction or wasteful investment behaviour under control.

    (this was the prompt)

    Introduction

    This quote from Lin, 2012 makes five overlapping arguments about contemporary China: 1) that China is a rigidly authoritarian polity; 2) that China’s governance is highly decentralised; 3) that the national government works seamlessly together and with overlapping authority; 4) that the national party-state keeps local governments in check; and finally, 5) that the national party-state is what holds all this together.

    This paper aims to address these arguments, “testing” them in the face of more recent developments and highlighting the interlinkages between them. Evidence seems to point in the direction of confirming Lin’s assertion. In the spirit of the original paper, an attempt will be made to highlight the contradictions that both undermine and underpin China’s mechanisms of governance. The resulting picture is often contradictory but interesting, much like contemporary China itself.

    1. China is a rigidly authoritarian polity

    The definition of authoritarianism in political science is a matter of long disciplinary disputes. Originally, it was defined as a regime lacking free (and fair) elections, regardless of the presence of parliamentary institutions[1]. The case of China immediately tests “limited” definitions of authoritarian systems as “lacking elections” as the presence of local elections[2] still does not translate to access to power[3]. This negative definition in contrast to democracy has been criticised as empty[4] and partially superseded by analyses of positively authoritarian practices, defined in terms of purposeful lack of accountability [5].

    While there may be no one single definition of what constitutes an authoritarian state, the undisputed consensus in the literature is that Xi Jinping’s China is one[6], with its thin rule of law[7], restrictive approach to civil society[8], censorship track-record[9], and governance structure[10] as commonly cited defining traits.

    A word could also be spared for the qualifier of “rigid”. For instance: eight political parties other than the CCP are allowed to exist in China, cooperating under its rule. While the authoritarianism itself might – perhaps unscientifically[11] – be classified as “rigid” by virtue of its human rights violations[12] and absolute nature (for example defined in terms of lack of checks and balances[13]), there are two important ways in which the Chinese system is not rigid.

    The first is its economic dynamism. While the State is still very much involved in the Chinese economy[14], the “socialist market economy”[15] is still a market economy. In fact, it is the very liberalisation of this economic landscape that puzzles the literature, as it has not led to the theorised corresponding political liberalisation[16].

    The second is the legal flexibility that characterises this unique Chinese system. The constitutional basis for the Party’s direct involvement in policy-setting and law-making mostly eschews the Western eye[17], but it allows the State to extend an otherwise unthinkable amount of flexibility in its policy application, constantly adapting and balancing the factors considered in this paper (and many others) with the aim of political stability[18]. This does not necessarily contradict the authoritarian nature of the state – and indeed it could be said that legal arbitrariness is the hallmark of dictatorship. But the end goal of the Chinese legal system is not the Western standard[19] and it is not rigidity.

    Thus, while rigidity is not well-defined in this context, the evidence overwhelmingly points to current China not only having an authoritarian regime “on paper”, but rather being an authoritarian polity in a larger sense, outside of both thin and thick Western conceptions of democracy.

    2. China’s governance is highly decentralised

    The key concept of accountability thus is useful in introducing the second issue, that of China’s decentralisation. Indeed, Li (2004) found that while rural Chinese expressed criticism of the regime, they often directed it at local, rather than central, government[20]. This may appear counterintuitive, after having established the central role of the authoritarian regime.

    However, it is in the interest of the central government that social discontent gets directed at local officials, keeping them in check and the regime safe from criticism[21]. In this way, the central state itself “turns to local accountability structures as a means of solving its own principal–agent problem vis-à-vis local officials”[22].

    And scapegoats abound: the structure of the Chinese government is byzantine[23], inherently decentralizing power within different parts of the government even before touching the two parallel tracks of State and Party. Following Glasius, this might be the most innately authoritarian side of the Chinese regime, in the sense that it purposefully sabotages accountability[24].

    Thus, China’s governance can be said to be highly decentralised, both in response to the challenge of administrating a large landmass with limited transport links and a larger population, and by virtue of the mechanisms employed by the central state to use local governance as a tool to further the central governments’ control of both people and its own cadres.

    3. The national government works seamlessly together and with overlapping authority

    This assertion is in and of itself contradictory in a Western legal logic, as overlapping authority leads to a lack of legal certainty, which should be contradictory to a State’s proper functioning.

    It is indeed true that the national State and Party structures have overlapping authority. China’s constitutional system itself does not provide a real (Western) separation of powers[25] and indeed, as mentioned above, the Party holds a constitutionally codified yet practically nebulous role.

    It is hard to understand the precise workings of such a peculiar system, mostly because the outside world has little to no visibility into it[26]. Still, there are few publicly known fallouts[27]. It is know that policy change does take place through elite advocacy to people close to the CCP[28], although the effectiveness of their participation in political power (especially for members of the National People’s Congress[29]).

    All in all, the informal workings of this system are mostly a black box to external observers. In formal terms, there are structural overlaps between government authorities, which nevertheless give an appearance of seamless integration.

    4. The national party state keeps local governments in check

    The already complex central government employs several tactics to keep the even more complex local structures in check. China’s ancestral fear of local political units rebelling against the centre[30] sees both formal and informal[31] control mechanisms employed in controlling the periphery.

    In addition to the already mentioned use of the media, less gentle disciplining also has its place in Xi’s China. Rallying against corruption, hundreds of thousands of officials were disciplined after Xi’s ascension to the presidency (State) and secretariat (Party)[32]. Even beyond Xi, this ties directly to the issue of central government control over local government[33]. Corruption was the rallying cry of the 1989 pro-democracy protests[34].

    Turning to the two issues allegedly combated by the central government – predatory extraction and wasteful investment – it is easy to verify they are strongly interconnected. The currently ongoing collapse of the property sector, which in a different country might just be a sign of economic downturn, is a recent and poignant example of the involvement of Chinese local government in business affairs[35]. While is not hard to frame this issue in terms of corruption, more could be at play, as this collusion between government and businesses is at the foundation of China’s wider economic development. Thus, extraction might be partly predatory and partly physiologic, as wasteful investment may be local officials’ way to comply with the imperative of growth at all costs[36]. The mounting issue of hidden debt[37] thus may be linked to “traditional” corruption – but also to bigger systemic factors.

    Thus, it can be said that the national government’s centralisation of policy- and law-making has both positive and negative effects on the central governance, undoubtedly greatly influencing it.

    5. The national party-state is what holds all this together

    With the 2018 amendments, the “defining” role of the CCP was enshrined in the first article of China’s (written) Constitution[38]. Indeed, then, it is institutionally true that the Party and the State are deeply entwined. This also holds true in practice, where the CCP exerts a determinant role in policymaking[39]. In addition, the CCP plays a capillary role in government relations through party cadre management[40]. The Party-State also plays a fundamental role in the cohesion of the country through the management of hard power[41].

    Where there are formal bottom-up processes, Chinese citizens are sometimes reluctant to use them[42]. Indeed, local accountability processes are often mired in corruption and bribery, prompting calls for further centralisation[43]. Frustrated by the absence of accountability in an authoritarian regime such as China, citizens turn to “alternative forms of accountability”[44], such as local informal institutions, civil society, and media[45]. Bottom-up involvement then happens through the focusing event approach, whereas the disfavoured manage to capture the attention of the public through social[46] media dissemination, leading to policy change[47]. By contrast, official media is used the government also uses the media for informal top-down control of its officials[48].

    Conclusions.
    Is China authoritarian, highly decentralised, and brought together by the seamless overlapping of State and Party, which keeps local excesses in check?

    Regardless of political science’s “disciplinary blinkers”[49], contemporary China is by any definition an authoritarian state. Its structure is almost fractally complex, and its capillarity extends deep into the smallest dimensions of public life, reaching deep into the psyche of many[50]. Indeed, the Party and State overlap with each other in complex and sometimes undefined ways, allowing for a flexible process in making and applying law and policy. And indeed, it is this centralised Party-State unity that contrasts the pull of local government in an incomprehensibly vast and populous country. China uses local unrest as the foundation for its central stability, through protest bargaining, legal-bureaucratic absorption, and patron-clientelism[51].

    Evaluating whether the central government keeps the “worst excesses” of local authorities in check however is impossible – indeed, there could always be worse. The effects of central government controls on local authorities seem to be positive, insofar as there seems to be a causal link between government crackdown of corruption and local authorities’ strict enforcement of party policy directives[52]. However, if that was true and government effectively kept local government in check through discipline, it is not certain that it would be a net good, because of the limitations it poses to innovative policymaking[53]. Additionally, strict enforcement from above leads (even hypothetically honest) local administrators to try and chase standardised goals without adapting them to local circumstances. This ultimately leads local authorities in less prosperous areas to unduly extract resources and credit to attempt to provide as many goods as possible to the community, at the same time harming the larger polity by contributing to a larger issue of hidden debt[54].

    This all makes very little sense by western standards. It does, however, make sense by Chinese standards. Most importantly, it seems clear that the Party somehow holds all this together.

    山高皇帝远

    It once again seems that in the Chinese model, where contradiction is not a negative, both are true: that the various entities and layers of local and central government and party’s competencies overlap; and that the system seems to be running relatively smoothly. In Chinese terms, the mountains are high, and the emperor is far away – or, in Brookings terms, think national, blame local[55].

    China’s regime has survived the theorised democratising pull of new technologies[56] and it seems to be surviving marketisation, as the authoritarian nature of the regime prevents redistributive policies in the face of rising inequalities[57]. All in all, it is very hard to know what Chinese people are actually thinking, because of access barriers, formal censorship[58], and widespread self-censorship[59]. Its inscrutable system perhaps contributes to international worries[60], yet, incomprehensibly, it does appear to work.

    How much of this is the result of the extraordinary historical trajectory of the CCP and how much is of Xi’s own making[61]? Is China’s drive to grow and innovate[62] enabled or limited by this governance structure[63]? Probably, both. There is no real way to know – we have no counterfactuals: contemporary China is an experiment on its own.

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    [1] Malesky and Schuler, 2010.

    [2] Local elections began with the Organic Law of Village Committees (1987, amended 1998), which promised self-governance (自治) on a local basis. Even still, Martinez-Bravo et al. (2022) note their decline, as the Chinese central government over time privileged control over citizens’ ability to hold local officials accountable.

    [3] O’brien and Han, 2014.

    [4] “The core [of the concept of authoritarianism] is still a vacuum”, Brownlee, 2010.

    [5] Glasius, 2018.

    [6] Lin (2012) himself opens his abstract examining “the sustainability of China’s authoritarian regime”. Gleiss and Sæther (2017) speak of “authoritarian states such as China” with no citation. China is directly included in the sample of authoritarian countries under analysis in Malesky and Schuler (2010), with no further elaboration. Glasius (2018) compares “new […] authoritarian populists” to “autocrats such as China’s Xi Jinping” (no citation) in the first page. Zeng (2016) discusses “authoritarian regimes such as China’s” (no citation). Robinson and Tannenberg (2019) use China as a case study for “authoritarian regimes”, with no further justification. Han (2015) refers to China as “the authoritarian regime”. Shi, writing in 2008, sticks to “mature posttotalitarian regime”, but does so five years before Xi’s ascension to the presidency. By contrast, Witt and Redding in 2014 title their chapter on China “Authoritarian Capitalism”. Similar examples abound.

    [7] “China clearly has made great strides in recent years toward implementing a legal system that meets the requirements of a thin rule of law, and it may continue to do so for years to come before reaching its potential within the current political structure.” Peerenboom, 2017.

    [8] Gleiss and Sæther, 2017; Piccone, 2018.

    [9] King, Pan and Roberts, 2013.

    [10] Witt and Redding, 2014.

    [11] If the definition of authoritarianism is a matter of debate, its rigidity cannot be convincingly measured on an univocal scale. This does not make the original assertion false.

    [12] Amon, 2013; Pils, 2014; Piccone, 2018.

    [13] The constitutional structure as briefly described below is sufficient evidence of the lack of correspondence between the Chinese system and this (Western) concept. See Jiang, 2010.

    [14] The prominent role of State-owned and State-affiliated enterprises is in itself a demonstration of the lasting involvement of China in its economic development.

    [15] The (once again, in Western terms, apparently contradictory) concept originates in 1992, when Jiang Zemin introduced it in the XIV Committee of the CCP. For more, see Elsevier.

    [16] Lin (2012) analyses this point with respect to Landry (2008), Dickson (2008) and Tsai (2007). It is interesting to note that all of them write before Xi’s presidency (2013) or ascension to secretary of the CCP (2012). The assertion still undoubtedly holds true – if anything, the gap between economic growth and authoritarian tightening has only widened since then.

    [17] Jiang, 2010 criticizes “the formalism in China’s constitutional studies over the past 30 years” and “calls for taking into account China’s unique political tradition and reality to enrich current constitutional scholarship”, as “China’s constitutional order can only be understood if China’s unwritten constitution is taken into account”.

    [18] Banwo, 2015.

    [19] Clarke, 1999.

    [20] Li, 2004.

    [21] Lin, 2012.

    [22] Food safety scandals (e.g. 2008 baby formula) are a particularly good example of this. Tsai, 2007.

    [23] As seen from China (NPC) and from the US (CECC).

    [24] Glasius, 2018,

    [25] NPC. See also Jiang, 2010, Chen and Stepan, 2017.

    [26] Liu, 2023.

    [27] The most prominent recent one being Hu Jintao’s unceremonious removal from the 20th National Congress in 2022. The precise motivations for this very public (Bogusz, 2022) move are not known.

    [28] Wu, 2020.

    [29] Liu, 2023.

    [30] Chung, 2016.

    [31] Tsai, 2007.

    [32] Donaldson, 2016.

    [33] In 2008, Shi finds that “more than twice as many people did not know how to characterize corruption in Beijing as the percentage who did not know how to characterize it at the local level”, and that respondents “who said corruption was a serious problem, but had no direct or indirect evidence” pointed to State media and specifically the cases of two officials recently executed for corruption.

    [34] Sun, 1991.

    [35] Wright, 2022 points out that “Viral social media posts in mid-August showed local officials urging their subordinates to buy properties, even if they already owned multiple houses.”. see also Fan, Wong and Zhang 2013.

    [36] Oi and Zhao in Perry and Goldman, 2007.

    [37] Feng and Cao, 2023

    [38] “The socialist system is the fundamental system of the People’s Republic of China. Leadership by the Communist Party of China is the defining feature of socialism with Chinese characteristics. It is prohibited for any organization or individual to damage the socialist system”. State Council, 2018.

    [39] “The NPC cannot be seen as a free-wheeling law-making body. The NPC and its Standing Committee are supposed to act strictly on behalf of the CCP and its priority agenda”. Chen and Stepan, 2017.

    [40] Perry and Goldman, 2009.

    [41] Both aspirationally (Jash, 2020) and ideologically: “枪杆子里面出政权”, political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.

    [42] “Chinese citizens infrequently invoke administrative litigation in part because they are still adjusting to the idea of suing state officials.” Peerenboom, 2017.

    [43] Chung, 2005, p.55 presents the sum of a number of Chinese pieces to that sense.

    [44] Glasius, 2018.

    [45] Tsai, 2007.

    [46] Lei and Zhou, 2015.

    [47] Wu, 2020.

    [48] Chen, 2017; Zhao and Sun, 2007.

    [49] Glasius, 2018

    [50] See Robinson and Tannenberg, 2019 below for self-censorship. It is also important to note that the latest (official) statistics at the time of writing (CCP, 2023) pin party membership at 98 million. Be it for convenience or ideological reasons, an unfathomable number of Chinese citizens are incorporated in local party dynamics.

    [51] As shown by Lee and Zhang, 2013.

    [52] Chen, 2017.

    [53] Donaldson, 2016.

    [54] Oi and Zhao in Perry and Goldman, 2007.

    [55] Li, 2006.

    [56] Han, 2015; Zeng, 2016.

    [57] Duckett, 2020.

    [58] Once again showing distinct patterns for local and central, personal and collective grievances: see King, Pan and Roberts, 2013.

    [59] “The level of self-censorship, which ranges from 24.5 to 26.5 percentage points, is considerably higher than previously thought. Self-censorship is further most prevalent among the wealthy, urban, female and younger respondents.” Robinson and Tannenberg, 2019.

    [60] Beckley, 2023.

    [61] Economy, 2018.

    [62] Wei, Xie and Zhang, 2017.

    [63] See See the surprisingly direct graduation speech given by economic professor Zhang Weiying at the Peking University National School of Development in 2017.


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