Righting wrongs in China depends on rights

Dissident Chen Guangcheng is speaking out about the need for rule of law in China. But the party is slowly accepting individual rights. And studies show those few rights are yielding positive results.

Bobby Yip/Reuters
Election workers burn remaining unused ballots before vote counting at a polling station in Wukan village in Guangdong province February 1. The vote selected an independent election committee to oversee ballot counting for an election of a village committee.

Famed dissident Chen Guangcheng has been in the United States less than two weeks, and he’s already firing off complaints in the US media about his country’s leadership. His main criticism: China doesn’t lack for good laws but only needs to enforce them.

The Communist Party does indeed govern more by fiat and whim than by rule of law. The reason is simple. The party has a low regard for individuals to self-govern. As a result, laws come from the party, not elected representatives of all the people, and thus can be ignored.

Yet there is a glimmer of hope. The party has been forced over the years to grudgingly recognize some rights for the individual, either in governance or in owning property. In fact, new evidence from scholars about the effects of such rights may convince the incoming crop of new leaders this fall that an expansion of individual liberty is China’s best path for continuing prosperity.

One study by four researchers published this month by the National Bureau of Economic Research shows that the steady introduction of elections in rural Chinese villages has reduced income inequality, created an acceptance of higher taxes, and increased spending on public goods at the local level by 27 percent.

Elections of village “chairmen” have been steadily allowed since the early 1980s, when reformers in Beijing realized that China was too big for the party to keep check on corrupt party leaders in every hamlet. Only the local people could do that.

At first, however, the party chose the candidates. But in the past 15 years, many candidates were nominated by villagers.

The result is better accountability of local leaders to the people.

The average age of a village chief has become younger while the education level has gone up. Party members are often not the preferred choice. Greater trust of local government has allowed taxes to be raised, the study found. Farmland is more equitably distributed, reducing the income gap between rich and poor.

“Elections can help voters address moral hazard problems by rewarding good performance with re-election ... and provide the correct incentives to office holders,” states the report, which also speculates whether such results might help spur “wider regime change.”

Indeed, since 2009 the party in a few cities such as Nanjing and Shanghai has conducted experiments in letting party members elect local party leaders. 

Another recent study looks at the effects of granting property rights in housing. Since the mid-1990s, millions of state employees working in state-run enterprises have been given the right to buy the homes provided them and, more important, to sell them.

The shift was the largest change in private-property rights in history, affecting some 90 million people. One result is that China now has one of the highest rates of homeownership in the world.

With communism no longer an organizing principle for China, the party has been forced to look for ways to justify its rule. Merely letting people get rich hasn’t been enough. Now the rising middle class is demanding more political rights.

Some top leaders, such as outgoing Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, have spoken out for reform. But reform will likely be gradual, with recognition of the small steps already made.

As China’s great market reformer Deng Xiaoping advised, China must cross the river by feeling for stones. Well, the stones are now easily known. It’s time to cross the river quickly.

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