The myth of bad local officials, good central government

One of the most fashionable arguments employed by apologists for the Chinese government is that yes, corruption thrives at the local level, but a concerned and squeaky-clean central government has little control over it, though it does all it can to contain it. This was a central argument made by some who argued the detention of Chen Guangcheng was the result of “a single local official” and the central government couldn’t be blamed for it. I wrote about one such pundit who made the “one local official” argument: “Think about that. The CCP can be off the hook for anything that doesn’t happen within walking distance of the Great Hall of the People.”

In the wake of the Bo Xilai catastrophe, the Financial Times today directly questions this argument about good central government, bad local officials, and concludes that it’s nonsense. Which, of course, it is.

From revelations of massive corruption to the murder of British businessman Neil Heywood by Mr Bo’s wife Gu Kailai, the sordid affair has shown the Chinese people and the world that the rot goes right to the top.

For the last three decades, the party has carefully cultivated the perception that, while there may be corruption and wrongdoing at lower levels, the system is governed by clean and selfless elites who live only to serve the masses.

China’s spectacular rise and its success in lifting hundreds of millions out of abject poverty combined with the intense secrecy surrounding senior officials have convinced many to accept this vision of a just and benevolent emperor calling the shots from Beijing….

When historians look back on the Bo Xilai scandal they will almost certainly identify this as the moment when China’s vicious backroom political battles spilled into the open and the myth of the good emperor was shattered.

Far from revealing authoritarian China’s meritocracy and ability to self-correct, the Bo Xilai saga underscores how its leaders believe they are above the law and how little accountability there actually is.

This is an argument I’ve been making for years. No, the central government isn’t only corrupt. They have done some great things, initiated some wonderful programs, demonstrated solid and meaningful successes, and 80 percent of those polled in a 2008 Pew Research poll believe they are on the right track. However…. (more…)


Guest Post: How America, Europe, China, and Russia enable “Democracy in International Relations”

By JR of the excellent Just Recently blog

According to American or European conventional wisdom, China and Singapore have a lot in common. They are both “authoritarian”. Malaysia’s then prime minister Mahatir Mohamad and Singapore’s then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew advocated the concept of “Asian values” in the 1990s. Lee Kuan Yew still believes in authoritarianism. But he also believes in an American role in Asia, “to balance China”. So does the Vietnamese party leadership.

When I stayed in Aleppo, Syria, a few years ago, you would find Chinese light trucks in every street. You’d also find typically China-made consumer goods in every street. The light trucks were quite popular. Most other Chinese products were obviously bought, too, but they weren’t liked. Displayed on markets and in shops, along with pieces of traditional Syrian handcraft, the reason for the contempt was palpable. Comparing the prices, the demand was palpable, too.

Some Syrians who I heard condemning China’s growing economic influence in Syria will now condemn its political clout – at the UN Security Council. But other Syrians – “ordinary” people, too – will like it. It’s hard to assess how much popular support the Syrian regime has, how much popular support the Free Syrian Army has, and how many people of different ethnicities and religions are caught between two warring parties, neither of whom seems to show much respect for individuals who just want to survive.

Let’s suppose that the conditions were exactly as described by most mainstream Western media and al-Jazeera, in March 2011. Let’s suppose that peaceful demonstrations turned violent, because the regime hadn’t learned to handle them peacefully. And let’s suppose that Syria’s well-being was foremost on the minds of American, European, Turkish, and Arab-League leaders when they began to arm Syria’s opposition.

Obviously, everyone is free to comment and explain how this, in his or her view, is not so – but I want to keep my point within this post rather simple. (more…)


Hu Jintao’s legacy

Will he be remembered as one of China’s worst leaders ever? Some think so.

After nearly a year in which planning for the succession has been upset by an extraordinary string of scandals, the leaders and elders have finally agreed on Nov. 8 as the date to begin the 18th Party Congress, the climax of just the second peaceful transfer of power in China’s Communist era. Much of the back-and-forth over the succession, which officials have kept behind a curtain of secrecy, has involved horse-trading over leadership positions between a faction led by President Hu Jintao and one loyal to his predecessor, Jiang Zemin.

In recent negotiations, Mr. Jiang and his allies, who include Xi Jinping, the designated heir to Mr. Hu, appear to have had the upper hand, several political insiders said. Mr. Jiang’s attendance at a concert on Sept. 22 was interpreted by some as a signal that he was still a force in the game of imperial politics.

One blow to Mr. Hu this summer was the quiet unfolding of a scandal involving a powerful politician, Ling Jihua, who is Mr. Hu’s fixer. Now another stress point is becoming evident: Mr. Hu appears on the defensive over his legacy because of growing criticism that policies enacted during his decade-long tenure were responsible for the excessive growth of the security forces and also stalled an overhaul of the Chinese economy that is needed to maintain its dynamism.

“Right now, I think Hu feels very worried because a lot of people both inside and outside the party have been criticizing him,” said a party intellectual with ties to the leadership. “Some say he’s the worst leader China has had since 1949. Conflicts in society have intensified; monopolistic and antimarket tendencies in the economy seem to have intensified; and there’s been no real progress on reform.”

He has my vote. I’ll never forget the optimism I felt when he took power, right at the time when the government, probably against its will, came totally clean on SARS and seemed to be ushering in a new spirit of openness. How disappointed we all were just a few months later when Internet censorship became more aggressive than ever and the promises of reform melted away. He had the bad luck to suffer a series of catastrophes over the past few months that drowned out all other news about China, and the name Bo Xilai will always be pinned to his own. A sad end to what began as a hopeful new period of reform, but I can’t say he doesn’t deserve it.