Local CCP Bad, Central CCP Good

It’s a familiar argument and one I’ve made myself – not quite calling the CCP “good,” but looking at horror stories around China and concluding that the main fault lies with the local authorities, not with the central party, which is trying as best they can to control their local thugs counterparts. Pomfret takes a closer look at this argument and how it has become iconic.

It’s important to note that among the people remonstrating with the Communist authorities, no one criticized the central government or, more broadly, China’s system of government. Yes, they attacked all of the Communist Party organs in the county – the cops, the government and the secret police. But throughout, in their letters to the party-state, they drew a clear distinction between the local thugs and Beijing. The implication from the demonstrators was clear: the center – Beijing – is good, but it’s just been led astray by local apparatchiks.

I’ve seen this attitude expressed throughout China’s countryside, where the bulk of China’s protests occur. It is, I think, one of the perverse reasons why the Communist Party can maintain power in China. The Party has generally succeeded in creating this distinction between local and central authorities – even though none really exists.

The tendency of Chinese to buy into this distinction is known to Chinese as the “blue sky” syndrome. The term comes from Judge Bao Qingtian, or “Blue Sky” Bao, a famed incorruptible judge in the Song Dynasty. Bao is revered in Chinese history as an idealized “pure official.”

Some have suggested the “Blue Sky” syndrome is a tactic used by Chinese protesters, who figure that if they damn the whole system, they’ll be crushed by its weight. I disagree. And time has shown that the local Party bosses are as tough with “Blue Skiers” as they are with any other protesters. I think their support of the central government, while perhaps misguided, is genuine. They really believe in a “Blue Sky” Bao who will fly down from heaven (or Beijing) and sweep away the local trolls. Dream on, my nongmin friends.

If what Pomfret says is true, then I would have to give the CCP very high marks for successfully embedding this Blue Sky notion in the minds of nearly all of us. I admit, I have at times accepted it as a given, that the party in Beijing simply has no control over local party criminals. Here’s what I wrote about it back when I was in Taiwan after attending a talk with the country’s former defense minister Lin Chong Pin:

There are two Chinas and they exist in separate universes. Now, this is not any great revelation. We’ve discussed it here many times, especially in regard to local officials who are free to act at whim with no fear of reprisal or justice, existing literally in a universe apart from The central Party. Lin said the great paradox here is that despite Hu’s awesome power, he is literally helpless to make any changes in China’s domestic situation, only in its foreign policy (which, granted, can then in turn affect China’s domestic situation).

So I’ve been thinking about this paradox all week. Should we admire Hu Jintao as the Bismarck or Metternich of his time, using political skill to achieve enviable results? Or should we laugh at him for being utterly impotent to effect any meaningful change in the country over which he allegedly rules? If he is so utterly incapable of halting corruption, of freeing the innocent, of enforcing the law, of imprisoning unabashed scoundrel and murderers, why does he even live in China? Couldn’t he set up a condo in Bermuda and run China’s foreign policy from there? What difference does it make? According to Lin, he’s literally irrelevant to China’s domestic situation.

What an odd paradox, a leader with so much power, and at the same time a leader with no power at all.

But Pomfret says this is all an illusion, that the local/central party separation is a myth, and that Hu does indeed have power over his “local apparatchiks.”

Michael Anti writes to Pomfret and says he is quite right. Time to question another myth.

The Discussion: 17 Comments

This is a reasonable post. Realistically, what do you think happens, when a riot like in Guizhou breaks out and the news get to Hu Jintao. What does he say to his subordinates in closed door meetings. Do you think he says to the govenor “You guys must investigate this thoroughly and punish the local officials! This is outrageous!” and the govenor says “Yes, yes of course” but the govenor does nothing when he goes back. Or do you think Hu Jintao says “Shut down all press coverage! And make sure those rioters get punished! And make up some story for the public! Next time, be tougher on those rioters!”

Which is the case?

July 8, 2008 @ 12:32 pm | Comment

I don’t really think Pomfret has a point. China is a huge country with interminable and distinct roots of power that in many instances work counter to Beijing instructions. The problem in China is that there are too many towns, villages, and even small cities that are so isolated from Beijing’s power apparatus that they become power onto themselves. One must understand just how isolated some places are in China to understand why there are so many discrepancies between developed China and developing China. From a first world perspective, it is at first not obvious how third world chaos works, but once one begins to understand how loose and disconnected the system really is, one also begins to understand that the central power is really not at blame for many of the problems in a nation. This is not only the case of China, but the case of hundreds of other third world nations. Information just doesn’t get into most rural parts of China and other developing countries. So while you might have Hu Jintao or Hugo Chavez giving sermons to the people on how they should comport themselves, and while you have central powers exerting norms that sound very reasonable, the influence of their power is limited only to the areas that are more developed and more tightly knit to the central authorities of a nation. This might not necessarily mean that local government leaders do not know what the correct course of action is, but they are so isolated from any central authority or social criticism that they take it on to themselves to decide what they desire to do. It is only when the situation gets out of the hands of local government leaders that it spills onto mainstream media, as it did in this case. But to blame the central government for what happens in rural China is like blaming your brain because your nail got infected. Both might be connected, but they both work independent of each other.

July 8, 2008 @ 12:54 pm | Comment

no different than the US

local news for local consumption, national/international news for that audience

July 8, 2008 @ 2:05 pm | Comment

“Which is the case?”

Maybe a little of both. In which percentages? Hard to say.

I do not think CH political system is structured as a pyramid. With a clear top down power structure, where everything is controlled by the upper levels and lower levels have no other options than follow strictly the orders from above.

It looks more like a fragmented, stratified system, with multiple layers and fault lines, Beijing may be on top, but the ground is unstable and shifting, and some areas hidden from view.

Still I put blame on Beijing for situation. Crackdown on critics of people seeking for justice of the abuses that the system produces, gagging the media, censorship of internet, using nationalism as a tool when internal conflicts arises, stifling open discussion, chasing down those with boldness enough to raise their voices, etc. plays in the hands of those local officials. Make it easier to cover up their wrong doings.

Why does Beijing do it? Do they benefit in some way of this situation?
Are they portraying themselves like the good noble and distant governor that cannot avoid all the misconduct of their ministers? If that is so, they are also accomplices in the wrong doings.

Are they afraid of instability, which could damage the future country, and that is the reason they proceed that way? Would like to think that, but it could be wishful thinking from my part.

I am an Engineer. I work with very complex systems. There many similarities in a complex system with what Sib described in his post: huge, too many towns, to many people, etc.
For that reasons in a complex system you have sensors, reporting systems, tracking systems, performance profiling, independent assessment, maintenance procedures, repair procedures, backup systems, four eyes checks, and…. damage control.
You need to see what is going wrong? Where it is going wrong? Why it is going wrong? Who is responsible? How long did it happened? Why it was not detected before? How much damage has been done? Best way to solve it? How to prevent it in the future? How best repair damage done? etc, etc, etc. And when everything breaks down… how to rebuild it.

The equivalent in social system. Open media, freedom of speech, no censorhsip: this are your sensors, reporting and tracking systems.
Independent (no party) judiciary, separation of powers, four eyes checks: this are your independent assessment.
Rule of law, rights protections, social protections: repair, backup and damage control.

If your procedures consists in waiting until the system is literally smoking so hard you are choking, you will go from one flare up to another, until one flare up will be one to many or you have to face a GAU “Größter Anzunehmender Unfall” (literally: Worst imaginable accident)

I see CH like an engineering problem, professional deformation may be….

July 8, 2008 @ 2:15 pm | Comment

Being fully aware of the limitations of my own personal experience, and strongly disliking the word 素质/quality, I would say, judging from that experience, that there is a huge qualitative difference between local and central government. So yes, I think there is a certain amount of truth to the Blue Sky theory.

July 8, 2008 @ 6:42 pm | Comment

what’s bad is the system.

bad system may have good people rise to the top, but the bottom will remain bad. the top is good or bad is entirely random, irrelavant with democracy or autocracy, see dubya.

July 9, 2008 @ 12:25 am | Comment

Think this Blue Sky thing is correct. You have so many people who carry petitions for justice, who go to Zhongnanhai vicinity where they set up and LIVE in order to wait for the government to hear their appeal, it is sooooo pathetic, they actually think the CCP has just not gotten around to it yet?

I think there are issues that the CCP cares strongly about such as using Tibet, Taiwan, Hong Kong, international affairs, economy etc. as leverage to manipulate common peoples thinking, the party line through all media channels, patriotism and propaganda in education, stifling religion, maintaining the peoples correct way of thinking and acting to align with assurance of the party’s hold on the country. Out side of this basic anti human rights agenda, the local people have their freedoms. In exchange for doing the partys dirty work ei, assuring the above mandates are closely followed, the local cadres are gien the reward of raping the local areas. Also the haed party does benefit from the rape of the land through show off economic growth, but it would benefit more from a more even, balanced growth that was not based on the local cadres raping and pissing off all the local people. But the head party has to let the local cadres rape the area in order to bribe them to follow the mandate to supress the human rights. The head party feels that it will die off if the people have rights and freedoms, so they must use the lower cadres to enforce the restrictions, how to corrupt those lower officials? Bribe them with unjust benefits, its a really really terrible system and it is a mafia, even less integrity than the mafia. At least the mafia just took peoples stuff and didnt try to always wear down everyones life to the last drop (as far as I know, not in the movies anyway)

July 9, 2008 @ 12:41 am | Comment

As noted by others, this view is hardly unique to China. In the U.S. there is a common notion that all the members of Congress are corrupt and evil and hostile to our best interests except for the member from our own district who is as honest as the day is long and committed to us as though we were his own family.

Historically, from Ancient Rome through the Middle Ages in Europe to the Enlightenment and on there has long been perception that local and ‘national’ government are completely distinct and frequently operate with diametrically opposed goals and policies. To use the U.S. as another example there is a perception on the part of many that the federal government is mostly benevolent but local government is full of power hungry evil people looking to get rich and take advantage of the common people. And there are many who believe exactly the opposite.

How much these perceptions have to do with reality is up for debate, I myself tend to think the truth lies somewhere between the two.

July 9, 2008 @ 1:42 am | Comment

The bad local and the good central government is a myth that has persisted for millenia in China. In reality, the central government can essentially control anything that it wants: it just has its “priorities,” which are completely skewed and counterintuitive. That is why you will often see corrupt local officials, but never see local officials practicing Falun Gong. The latter is perceived as a threat to the system and the former is, well, just business as usual. Toss out a few words about how the central government “really cares,” and most people will just gobble it up.

July 9, 2008 @ 3:52 am | Comment

kevinnolongerinpudong, I don’t think anyone here thinks that the central government’s policies are all correctly thought up and brought into reality. But blaming the central government for everything is hardly logical. The central government has a share of responsibility, but most of the occurrences in a nation come not from within the instructions of a central government but from the billions of different roots of power that surround the central government. There is a really big disconnect between both. That does not mean that the central government is completely guiltless. They set the norms that the rest of the country should follow, after all…but the central authority so confusing in and of itself, and it is often plagued by so many power struggles that it is almost powerless to exert much influence in how the country’s outer expanses function. It is a problem of distance, inefficiency, power trips, and lack of extensive control. Nothing is ever good/bad, just a mix of the too included in a soup of misunderstanding.

July 9, 2008 @ 1:12 pm | Comment

Local officials? Central officials? What’s the difference? It’s all bad. No freedom of speech, no freedom of assembly, no freedom of the press, no independenct judiciary, and no meaninful access to the mechanisms of political power for 99.999 percent of China’s citizens. The entire system is an abomination.

July 9, 2008 @ 11:30 pm | Comment

RevMatt said –
“As noted by others, this view is hardly unique to China. In the U.S. there is a common notion that all the members of Congress are corrupt and evil and hostile to our best interests except for the member from our own district who is as honest as the day is long and committed to us as though we were his own family.”

Talk about some nonsensical reasoning. You say that the “Blue Sky Syndrome” is “hardly unique to China” and then go on to say that “all the members of Congress are corrupt and evil.” Congress is a part of the federal government so wouldn’t that be the exact opposite of the “Blue Sky Syndrome.” Think before you post next time.

Anyway, I think you wrote the prevalent view in the U.S. without even realizing it. I would have to say that most American’s think that Washington is full government fat cats who waste money and are controlled by special interests, whereas state governments are generally more responsive to the people. This can be seen by the fact that governors and not senators are almost always elected to the presidency (not this year of course).

Honestly, I have never heard a group of Americans who espose the virtues and efficiencies of the Federal Government.

July 10, 2008 @ 12:38 am | Comment

I don’t think Michael Anti was agreeing with Pomfret that no distinction exists. I think he was simply agreeing that many Chinese believe a distinction exists, and sometimes they’re wrong.

In this case, Pomfret with his “dream on” comment was clearly in the wrong, because the central government (or at least its appointee) came in and did exactly what he thought they wouldn’t do.

The bottom line is, local government will always be made up of local people. And this is why central government powers are limited; you have thousands of poorly educated/poorly motivated officials in Weng’an county, who are you going to replace them with? Will they really be much better? If the local community has a history of being poor and violent, then their officials aren’t going to be much better.

Think about urban ghetto in the United States, and why Chicago, Detroit, Washington DC are still shit-holes. Think about why Mexico and India, despite decades of comprehensive democracy, only manages to replace one group of incompetent (and often corrupt) officials with a different group of incompetent (and often corrupt) officials.

If half of the officials in Weng’an were given Ma Yingjiu’s opportunity to study at Harvard, that might help a little. If half of every resident in Weng’an were given the opportunity to study at Harvard, then I can absolutely guarantee you that governance in Weng’an would dramatically improve.

July 10, 2008 @ 4:36 am | Comment

Ooh, a chance to say, “I told you so.” I had this one out with Dan of chinalawblog a while ago. He believes that the centre is basically OK, I think it’s as rotten as any of the local branches.

The major problem is that we don’t even know who the centre is. We’re not talking Hu and Wen here. I’m quite willing to believe they aren’t personally corrupt in the sense of taking money for illegal acts. The problem is, all the people around them are. Remember the head of Chinese FDA who got canned last year? Innumerable bankers who’ve been eased out (check Victor Shih’s blog)? And don’t even start on the military – they may be less powerful than they were 10 years ago, but they’re still holding a good quarter to half of the power in Beijing, and every man jack of them is on the take in one way or another.

There’s probably as much corruption in the central administration in Beijing as anywhere, and even if it doesn’t include Hu, Wen or other big names, it is still their fault. They set the tone – or rather, they don’t. As that Tiananmen/SARS letter writer story notes: the SARS cover up was approved from the top. The ongoing AIDS cover up is approved from the top. The refusal to let Japanese earthquake rescue crews in for days after the Sichuan quake – that decision came from Beijing. Local Party branches see this, and they know what to do.

July 10, 2008 @ 2:06 pm | Comment

It’s important to remember that not all local governments in China are doing a bad job – many are experimenting with various forms of democracy, making themselves increasingly accountable to their local constituents, and are meeting local needs to the general satisfaction of locals. Many are not doing a good job, I know, but at least just as many are.

As for the central government – its members are hardly homogenous either. Among them are leftist reformers, rightists, some that are pushing for greater democracy, others that are pulling against it. They’re a very mixed bag.

This bad local government verses good central government dichotomy is just plain silly! So too is the claim that both are “bad” or that both are solely “good”.

July 10, 2008 @ 8:44 pm | Comment

I just posted a review I wrote of Minxin Pei’s latest book, published a few years ago no though, titled “China’s Trapped Transition”, and in it he too, like Pomfret, agrues that the central government in Beijing is just “more” corrupt than local governments, many of which Pei descirbes as “mafia states”. Pei provides a list of China’s “mafia states” in his Appendix, as evidence to support his thesis that China is trapped in transition, with its government (at all levels) fast losing is legitimacy to rule. It’s the kind of book that I think most of the readers of this site will relate to and enjoy! 🙂

July 14, 2008 @ 10:09 am | Comment

There are at least two different questions:

First, why people believe local CCP bad but central CCP good?

Second, why the situation cannot be improved IF the central CCP IS GOOD?

For the first, the tale of Bao blue sky interprets partly, but only a minor part. The major reason is probably the asymmetry of information. The local people know the local government well through gossips, but they have little more than the CCTV to learn about Beijing.

For the second, I’d rather call it a corruption trap. The only way to dismiss the trap is to overthrow the whole system. Could you suppose such a guy to burn down his own chair?

July 14, 2008 @ 8:27 pm | Comment

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