China's curbs on local government powers won't be enough to stop abuse
David Zweig says recent reforms targeted at reining in local governments' power will help curb some abuse, but in the long run China needs democratic procedures that give voice to people
The strongest criticism of the Communist Party's third plenum in the West, and even from within China, has been over the lack of political reform. Yao Yang, dean of the National School of Development and director of the China Centre for Economic Research at Peking University, made the point in this newspaper last month that without political reform, how far could China's economic liberalisation go? Other liberal voices in China raise similar concerns.
But whether one sees this plenum initiating significant political reform all depends on how one defines the term, as many of the reforms raised call for an enormous amount of political change.
The most historic change is a radical transformation of urban-rural relations, which 60 years ago imposed apartheid on rural Chinese, locking them out of the urban, modernised and wealthier sector of the economy. Even within the countryside, the land over which they were given contract rights after decollectivisation in the early 1980s was controlled by local officials who, since the late 1990s, have been confiscating it or buying it from farmers at rock-bottom prices and then reselling it to developers at much higher prices.
These two separate worlds and this dual urban-rural economy will be replaced by a single market under which villagers will be paid a much more market-driven price for their land, even though they do not formally own it. Also, granting farmers stronger land rights under the "contract" system (though still not full ownership rights), will let them use land as collateral for opening private businesses in the countryside or in small and medium-sized cities.
The reforms will dismantle much of the administration system that underpins the hated household registration ( hukou) system. And while rural migration into large cities will remain limited, farmers will enjoy greater social and geographic mobility than at any time since 1953.
Breaking the local governments' control over land, and slowing the massive land confiscation that has been the fear of many farmers, will resolve the major source of social unrest in China.
The third plenum further weakens local governments by taking away their control over local courts. As long as judges were hired and paid by local party committees at the county level and above, the judges owed political allegiance to their paymasters. Under such circumstances, local governments were much more capricious in their use of force to confiscate land. The new plan requires judges to be appointed and paid from above, delinking them from the local state whose predatory behaviour was often protected by the courts.
Also, ending "administrative detention", whereby local officials and police could lock up perceived troublemakers for three years without ever going to court, will prevent them from silencing people who protest against their egregious behaviour.
Finally, changes in the anti-corruption campaign will make it much harder for officials to use their positions to grow rich at public expense and to evade prosecution or punishment even after the local discipline inspection commissions have found improper behaviour. Commission officers will now report first to their direct superiors in the discipline inspection system before sharing their findings with the local governments or local party committees they are investigating.
Also, upper-level discipline inspection commissions will help hire the lower-level ones, party secretary and vice-secretary.
No doubt, if we see it in terms of establishment of democratic institutions, such as elections, the expansion of civil society or freedom of the press, there is no "democratic reform" here.
The best President Xi Jinping offered was expanding "consultative democracy", based on Mao Zedong's concept of the "mass line", though he claims that this idea of "deepening reforms" reflects the voice of society.
Xi also called for improving the people's congress system, which has no real ability to discipline those who hold public office, and the petitioning system, which succeeds in about once in 1,000 cases. Even in his effort to limit the power of rural officials, he did not propose strengthening "village elections", which have been under way in China for 25 years and had real impact on seekers of public office.
In fact, Xi appears willing to weaken the local levers of power and separate the local courts, party and state officials without establishing new modes through which dissatisfied citizens can express grievances, seek justice and get rid of officials who misuse their power. China is a relatively unfair society, where the state and industrialists readily impose "externalities" such as pollution, poisonous food and drugs, and poor health (from promoting smoking) onto a society that has little power to protect its interests.
Without democratic procedures, Chinese people will continue to turn to civil disobedience and protests to express their frustration and demand monetary compensation, even as the local governments' power declines.
No doubt, ending land confiscations will go a long way to alleviate societal unrest, but land grabs will not be easy to stop in the very near future.
Therefore, while the reforms could enhance social stability in the long run, benefits may not appear immediately. If the Chinese Communist Party actually weakens local governments without introducing participatory institutions and protests intensify, Xi may be quite cautious about many other policies, including allowing Hong Kong to increase its level of democracy too quickly.
David Zweig is chair professor in the Division of Social Science and director of the Centre on Environment, Energy and Resource Policy at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology