A localist approach to Chinese politics

How do the domestic politics of China work, from 1949 to the present?

This question covers many issues: Why does the Chinese state act as it does? Why does it choose the policies it has pursued over time? How does the Chinese Communist Party work? What are the mechanisms of policy formulation and adoption in China? How do ordinary people and groups express their needs and wishes? What kinds of issues lead to mobilization and protest? How does the state respond?

One thing apparent in these questions is the polarity they presuppose: state and civil society, central government and the people. But in fact, of course, this polarity obscures a crucial stratification of levels of political power and authority. There is an extensive central government, of course, with substantial power. But there are also units of government at lower levels — province, county, city, town, and village. Officials at each of these levels have powers, authority, and responsibility; and there are powerful stakeholders at each level who have the ability to pressure and influence their actions. Moreover, central government often wants to control and lead the actions of lower-level units of government. But this is a loosely connected system, and actors at various levels have significant freedom of action with respect to the mandates of higher levels. So there are deep principal-agent problems that are manifest throughout the Chinese political system.

This limited ability of the central state to enforce its will throughout the system of political action is what Vivienne Shue refers to as the “limited reach of the state” in The Reach of the State: Sketches of the Chinese Body Politic. Philip Kuhn documented similar weakness during the late Imperial period in Rebellion and its Enemies in Late Imperial China: Militarization and Social Structure, 1796-1864. He demonstrates the importance of local militias led by local elites in the response to the Taiping rebellion. And Elizabeth Perry describes the local politics of mobilization, unrest, and repression in the late Imperial period in Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945. So it is apparent that political power exercised at lower levels of Chinese society has been important for several centuries. (I discuss most of these authors in Understanding Peasant China: Case Studies in the Philosophy of Social Science.)

Given this segmentation of political power in China, both historically and in the current time, it is important to understand the dynamics of government at lower levels as well if we are to understand the overall behavior of the system.

This is the task that Juan Wang sets for herself in her excellent recent book, The Sinews of State Power: The Rise and Demise of the Cohesive Local State in Rural China. She has chosen the title deliberately; she wants to demonstrate that China’s overall political behavior is the result of a complex interplay among multiple levels of political organization. In particular, she finds that the particulars of the relationships that exist between three levels of local government have important consequences for the actions of the central government.

There are numerous strengths of Wang’s treatment. One is her emphasis on disaggregation: don’t consider political power as an undifferentiated whole, but instead as an interlocking system including both central authority and local political institutions and actors. Second, Wang’s approach is admirably actor-centered. She attempts to understand the political situation of local officials and cadres from their own points of view, identifying the risks they are eager to avoid, the motivations they are pursuing, and sometimes the individual rewards that lie behind their decisions and actions. As she points out, their behaviors often look quite different from the idealized expectations of officials and cadres in specific roles.

This book focuses on intergovernmental relations among the county, township, and village levels of administration for the following reasons. First, in terms of central-local relations, these three levels, which constitute the CCP’s local and grassroots reach, are the most remote from the national power center. Their actions reflect the capacity of the regime for agency control. Second, in terms of state-society relations, governments at the county level and below have the most immediate interaction with rural residents. Everyday interactions between farmers and government officials can reach the county level but rarely farther up. Third, historically the CCP’s unprecedented success in bringing the party-state to the countryside was realized by building the county-township-village state apparatus and a cadre corps to staff them. This study is an account of how that came to be and, more recently, how it then unraveled. (5)

Wang believes that one of the greatest concerns of the central state is the frequency of occurrences of popular unrest — demonstrations, appeals against corrupt officials, protests against land seizures and environmental problems. Local officials have an interest in containing these kinds of protests. But significantly, Wang finds that sometimes local cadres align themselves with protesters rather than officials, and even serve as instigators and leaders of local protests.

One of her central theoretical tools is the idea of “elite coherence”; her core thesis is that the coherence of interests and identity among officials and cadres at the local level is showing signs of breaking down. And this, she believes, has important consequences for social stability.

The formation and maintenance of intrastate alliances therefore require certain conditions to be present. Inspired by the literature on collective action and contentious politics …, I focus on the following causes that facilitate the formation of collective action: common interests, selective interests (such as distributive benefits), networks (i.e., interpersonal interactions), and emotions among state agents across the three types of actors. (9)

The switching of allegiance of the village cadres is a factor that Wang believes to be of great importance for China’s future stability.

Based on my fieldwork, an increasing percentage of collective action in the countryside after 2000 was mobilized, supported, or joined by village cadres…. The decline in administrative functions for brigade and commune cadres led to an excess of government personnel. Later, administrative reforms aimed at streamlining the communes and village brigades took place. Losing their power, grassroots cadres increased their loyalty toward the local community. Together with the revival of kinship groups, grassroots cadres spearheaded numerous illegal actions and riots. (31)

Key to changes in the alignment of the governmental system from central state to township or village is the issue of revenue extraction. If a given level of government lacks the ability to extract revenues from its area of jurisdiction, it will be unable to carry out policies and projects whether locally conceived or centrally mandated. Wang finds that there were crucial changes in revenue policies that fundamentally altered the political relations among levels of local government.

Important structural changes in the tripartite relationship occurred after 2000, which ultimately disrupted local state alliances. On the one hand, the central policy changes in the early 2000s recentralized fiscal and political autonomy and authority to the county level. The creation of a county leviathan reduced previous mutual reliance between counties and townships. On the other hand, sources of government revenue and personal benefits at township and village levels began to subside. The competitiveness of collectively owned TVEs against state-owned enterprises (SOEs) helped facilitate central policy toward further liberalization. The privatization of small and medium SOEs and TVEs finally bypassed collectively owned TVEs in market competition. (91)

One important topic that Wang does not consider in depth is the means through which the central state attempts to solve its problems of limited control over local officials. Contrary to Tip O’Neill, it is not the case that “all politics is local.” What Wang describes in the book is a series of principal-agent problems that impede the effective control of the central government over local officials; but the central state has exercised itself to gain more complete compliance by its local agents through a variety of means (accommodation, threat and intimidation, anti-corruption campaigns, …). The central state is by no means powerless in the face of contrarian local officials and cadres. The example of the village of Wukan is instructive (link). At the time of its organized resistance to corruption and bad officials, it appeared that villagers had won important victories. Now, six years later, it is apparent that the central state was able to prevail, and the protest movement was crushed. More generally, the central state has prevailed in the implementation of numerous large policies over the opposition of local people, including the dislocations created by the Three Gorges Dam project.

Wang’s study is a good example of the dynamics of social power arrangements theorized by Fligstein and McAdam in their theory of strategic action fields (link). The interplay among different levels of officials and cadres that Wang describes appears to be precisely the kind of fluid, network- and relationship-based set of alliances through which power and influence are wielded within organizations, according to Fligstein and McAdam.

The Sinews of State Power is an excellent contribution to our understanding of how political decisions and compromises are reached in China in the current period. It will be very interesting to see whether the current efforts by Xi Jinping will succeed in resetting the balance of power between the center and provincial and local authorities, as appears to be his goal.

(Readers may also be interested in Guobin Yang’s analysis of Internet activism in China in The Power of the Internet in China: Citizen Activism Online. Yang’s book is an excellent exploration of several important causes of popular dissent in contemporary China — exactly the kinds of issues that lead to protest and petition in Wang’s account as well; link. Also of interest is a recent collection edited by Kevin O’Brien and Rachel Stern, Popular Protest in China; link.)

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