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The Emperor Does Know

posted May 23, 2012, 11:29 AM by The Tibetan Political Review

How the system rewards repression, in the name of maintaining stability
The Economist
May 12th 2012 | BEIJING

A CENTRAL contradiction in the story of Chen Guangcheng, the blind activist who fled last month to the American embassy, is one that also lies at the heart of Chinese political life.  Mr Chen considers one official in his home prefecture of Linyi in Shandong province to be most responsible for the human-rights abuses committed against him and others.  Yet that official, Li Qun, has never been punished. Indeed he has been promoted several times, and is now one of Shandong’s most powerful officials.  The abuses of which Mr Chen speaks include forced abortions and sterilisations that Mr Chen was jailed for documenting; the use of thugs to beat and intimidate him and his family; and the illegal house arrest from which Mr Chen escaped last month to take refuge in the American embassy.  He is now awaiting papers to leave China for study in America.

Like many Chinese, Mr Chen portrays his own struggle as part of a wider gulf between an overwhelmed central government and maverick local authorities.  After his escape, in a videotaped message, he implored the prime minister, Wen Jiabao, to investigate abuses in Linyi.  Speaking from his hospital bed in Beijing, where he is recuperating from a broken foot suffered during his escape, Mr Chen says: “It is clear that the central government needs to turn over the Shandong soil in which the crimes of local officials have grown.”  It is a modern rendering of an ancient countryside lament: “If only the emperor knew…”

But the emperor does know, and the emperor rewards.  Although there has been an expansion of social and economic freedoms in many areas, under the Communist Party’s system of cadre evaluations, local officials are graded on the basis of a series of internal targets that have little to do with the rule of law.  The targets are meant for internal use, but local governments have sometimes published them on websites, and foreign scholars have also seen copies.  The most important measures are maintaining social stability, achieving economic growth and, in many areas, enforcing population controls.  Cadres sign contracts that spell out their responsibilities. Failure to meet targets can end a cadre’s career.  Fulfilling them, even if it means trampling laws to do so, can mean career advancement and financial bonuses.

Mayling Birney at the London School of Economics says the system assigns the cold logic of a scorecard to behaviour often dismissed as the excesses of little dictators far from Beijing.  Acting in accordance with the law is ranked as less important than other priorities.  On one local document seen by Ms Birney, cadres in one township could score only up to 10% of their points for lawfulness, but 40% for economic development.  In effect, she says, the party is instructing local officials to break laws when it will help them to meet higher priorities.

Social stability is paramount: authorities in Tibet and in Jiangxi province recently announced that officials can be promoted for “outstanding performance” in maintaining stability.  Beijing will supply localities seeking to put down unrest with additional “stability maintenance” funding, which creates a perverse financial incentive to employ repressive tactics.  Political careers have been made, not broken, by brutal repression of unrest—in 1989 an official named Hu Jintao imposed martial law after riots in Tibet.  Mr Hu is now China’s president. In 2011 a Hu protégé, Hu Chunhua (no relation), burnished his credentials by cracking down in Inner Mongolia.

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