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The Chen affair: How it highlighted blind spots in Beijing

Chen Guangcheng arrived in the US Saturday, after fleeing mistreatment by local Chinese officials. The case highlights the central government's imperfect oversight of the provinces. 

By Staff writer / May 21, 2012

Chen Guangcheng meets his wife Yuan Weijing, daughter Chen Kesi, and son Chen Kerui at a hospital in Beijing May 2. U.S. ambassador to China, Gary Locke stands at Chen's right.

U.S. Embassy Beijing Press Office/AP

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Beijing

Soon after blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng escaped from illegal house arrest late last month, after suffering 19 months of detention and beatings, he issued a dramatic video appeal to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.

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"Is it just local officials flagrantly violating the law, or do they have the support of the central government?" he asked.

The question highlighted one of the key challenges facing the rulers of the world's most populous nation: how to control what goes on within their enormous country.

"You might think that this is a highly autocratic system where control is effective," says David Lampton, director of China studies at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies, who is writing a book about governance in China. "But that would be a wrong assumption. President Hu Jintao is at the helm, spinning the wheel, but it is not always connected to the rudder."

There seems no doubt that at least some of China's top leaders knew of the treatment to which Mr. Chen was subjected. Even if their own internal channels had failed to inform them, senior US officials raised Chen's case repeatedly with their Chinese counterparts, and foreign media reported his plight widely.

But as officials in Beijing try to sort truth from fiction in the reporting they get from the provinces, follow the media, and send out secret inspection teams to investigate suspected wrongdoing, "you'd be surprised by what they don't know," says Professor Lampton.

It is surprising, for example, that local governments can build massive power stations without the knowledge or approval of the central government. Yet in 2009 the China Electricity Council, the power sector's industrial grouping, estimated that 30 million kilowatts of installed capacity – half the electricity generated by the Three Gorges Dam – had been illegally constructed, without the necessary permission from the central government.

Local governments mislead Beijing

Central government officials are aware that their regional subordinates sometimes seek to mislead them. Three years ago the government began to suspect that provincial officials were exaggerating reports of their grain stocks so as to attract more of the money that Beijing pays granaries to hold reserves.

Beijing had to organize 100,000 inspectors for a three-month nationwide audit "to find out the true volume of our grain stocks," Vice Premier Li Keqiang said at the time. They found a number of irregularities.

Sometimes Beijing finds out too late that it has been tricked. Local officials in the eastern city of Changzhou, for example, evaded rules requiring them to seek government approval for any industrial project using more than 40 hectares (about 100 acres) of land by breaking up a planned steel mill into a dozen or so projects, each requiring only the sort of land-use permit that local officials could issue themselves.

The steel mill functioned for years before Beijing officials found out and closed it down.

This is not a new problem.

A well-known Chinese saying, that "the mountains are high and the emperor is far away," dates back to the 14th century, when China's imperial rulers already had trouble keeping an eye on their far-flung domains.

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