June 3, 2006

THERE IS NO CHINA (via Kevin Whited):

Atomised: Beijing no longer commands instant obedience from China's local authorities (The Economist, 6/01/06)

THE Chinese Communist Party is a highly centralised beast, with a power structure little changed from the days of Mao Zedong. Over the next year or so it will be engaged in what official reports describe as one of the biggest shuffles of leaders at every level, with hundreds of thousands due to change their jobs. Nominally, appointments are made by local party committees. In practice top appointments in the provinces have always been made by leaders in Beijing. But that does not mean that Beijing is in complete control.

A good career in the party still depends on following, or at least appearing to follow, the centre's orders. But local leaders calculate that as long as their areas achieve rapid economic growth with minimal unrest, then they have considerable leeway to do as they will. The party no longer really frets about the ideological purity of its leaders. And since the days of Mao each new generation of leaders in Beijing has been increasingly less able to command instant obedience across the country.

To be sure, China is not heading towards a break-up, anarchy or the warlordism of the pre-communist era. The armed forces and the police remain under the party centre's grip. At the provincial leadership level, too, the authority of the centre is secure. Many residents of regions with large numbers of ethnic minorities, especially Tibet and Xinjiang, resent being controlled by Beijing, but their leaders are party loyalists. Provincial leaders, in fact, display far more ideological harmony than was the case in the 1980s or early 1990s. At that time, some were conspicuously conservative or reformist. Ye Xuanping, a popular native leader of Guangdong Province next to Hong Kong, was often reported to be building the region into a personal power base. Worried central leaders moved him to a sinecure in Beijing in 1991.

The problem today is more a profusion of township, county and prefectural leaderships whose efforts to propel growth in their regions produce impressive statistics, but often at a heavy social, environmental or macroeconomic cost. In the last two years the government has been worrying that the economy might overheat and has been trying to curb investment in industries whose capacity has been growing too quickly. But local officials have often simply ignored these measures. As Zhang Baoqing, a former deputy minister of education, put it to an official newspaper last year, China's biggest problem is that orders issued in Zhongnanhai, the party headquarters in Beijing, sometimes never leave the compound.

A unity held together only by totalitarianism isn't unity.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 3, 2006 10:41 AM
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