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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. 

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More local control means less federal control

But Beijing's difficulties have grown more complex as the central government has devolved more authority to local governments.

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Provincial parliaments, all dominated by the ruling Communist Party, "are allowed to make their own regulations to serve their regions' development needs," says Xiong Wenzhao, head of the Rule of Law and Local Government Research Center at Beijing's Minorities University. "In practice, there is no effective mechanism to balance central government and local government interests" when they conflict.

"Because there are big differences between different parts of China, it is hard to impose nationwide policies," adds Zhang Zhihong, who teaches at Nankai University's School of Government in Tianjin, a port city on the east coast. "Local governments make decisions according to their local situations."

When it comes to the all-important task of "stability maintenance," Beijing "is giving local governments more tools," such as control of the police, says Peter Mattis, a China expert at the Jamestown Foundation, a Washington think tank. "Central government just wants things kept quiet" and leaves it up to local leaders to decide how much force to use against troublemakers, as appears to have been the case with Chen.

When problems arise and attract public attention, local leaders often try to cover them up, for fear their promotion prospects will be adversely affected. Sometimes the Chinese media, or petitioners who travel to Beijing to seek redress from the central authorities, draw official attention to local officials' misbehavior.

But media can be censored, and petitioners are regularly snatched from the streets of Beijing by police officers sent from the petitioners' home regions to stop them from publicizing their grievances. "Petitioners and the media are fragile channels" of communication, says Professor Xiong. "This is not an institutionalized solution."

The government's own reporting channels are not always clear. And as messages pass up and down parallel government and Communist Party systems through many layers (central to provincial to municipal to county or district, to township or neighborhood) and then to the village, "messages get distorted," as in a game of telephone, says Lampton.

How Beijing might reassert itself

The picture is further complicated by the fact that local ministry bureaucrats are not named by ministerial headquarters but by the local authorities, to whom they owe some allegiance and to whom they must report, as well as to the Communist Party branch at their level.

"The most effective way for central government to control local governments is by promotions and other personnel decisions," says Professor Zhang.

But the Communist Party's Central Organization Department, which handles personnel issues, has handed over decisions on most of the 13,000 jobs it used to fill to lower-level cadres, weakening its control.

Beijing can also exert pressure on local policymakers by granting or withholding tax revenues, but this works well only in poor regions. "Wealthier areas, which do not rely so heavily on the central government" because they can raise more local taxes themselves, "are not so dependent, so it is harder for the central government to affect them," says Xiong.

"The question is whether China can control itself," says Lampton. "Sometimes it can. Sometimes it can't. But the question is becoming more important by the day."

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