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.
"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.
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.
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."