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China's 'Local Freedoms'

Incoming leaders are open to easing some restrictions -- but not at a level where party power can be challenged.

November 06, 2002|Andrew J. Nathan | Andrew J. Nathan is a professor of political science at Columbia University and co-author, with Bruce Gilley, of "China's New Rulers: The Secret Files," to be published Friday by New York Review Books.

China's authoritarian regime, which pervasively represses human rights and resists democratic reforms, nonetheless is in robust shape as it enters into its leadership transition at the meeting of its ruling Chinese Communist Party that opens Friday.

This is surprising to many China observers. After all, the regime's ideology is bankrupt. The transition from a socialist to a quasi-market economy has created social unrest. The regime relies heavily on coercion to repress religious and political dissent.

Yet the regime commands considerable acceptance among China's 1.3 billion people. In a 1993 nationwide random sample survey, Duke University professor Tianjian Shi found that 94% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the statement, "We should trust and obey the government, for in the last analysis it serves our interests." A 2002 survey by Shi also found high percentages of respondents expressing confidence in the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

Why would citizens in a nondemocratic regime have so much faith in their rulers? One reason is that most people's living standards have risen during two decades of economic growth. Although China still has some big pockets of poverty and more than 100 million hard-pressed migrant workers, several hundred million citizens along the southern and eastern coasts live comfortably with all the cosmopolitan benefits of fast food, cell phones and modern department stores.

The party has co-opted elites by offering membership to successful people in all walks of life and by granting informal property-rights protection to entrepreneurs. This new policy direction was given ideological grounding in President Jiang Zemin's theory of the "three represents," which says that the party should represent advanced productive forces, advanced culture and the basic interests of all the Chinese working people -- that is, that it should represent the middle classes as much as, or more than, the workers and peasants.

Chinese people traditionally favor stability. After going through the Cultural Revolution and the era of reform, most prefer the political order they know, whatever its faults, to potential breakdown.

Resentment against the ruling party did boil over in the 1989 pro-democracy demonstrations. But after putting those demonstrations down by force, the government propaganda machine was able to use the example of post-Communist chaos in Russia to persuade many Chinese that political reform could be dangerous.

Most important, the regime has created a series of limited yet effective input institutions that allow citizens to believe that they have some influence on local policy:

* The Administrative Litigation Act of 1989 allows citizens to sue government agencies. Although the number of such suits is relatively small -- according to Minxin Pei of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, there were 98,600 in 1999 -- it does constitute an alternative channel for popular dissatisfaction. The success rate (court victories plus favorable settlements) has ranged from 27% to about 40%. In at least one province, the government offers a legal aid program so the poor can take advantage of this program.

* "Letters and visits" departments throughout China serve as institutional ombudsmen.

* Both people's congresses (legislative bodies) and people's political consultative conferences (advisory groups that connect the government to non-Communist sections of the population) have grown more independent.

* As the mass media have become more independent and market-driven, they have increasingly positioned themselves as tribunes of the people, exposing complaints against wrongdoing by local officials.

As representative as they seem, these channels of demand- and complaint-making have two common features that keep China far short of real democracy. They encourage individual rather than group-based efforts, such as from unions, which the party fears for their potential to challenge its rule. And they focus complaints only against local agencies or officials.

Some of the party leaders who are about to come to office are willing to expand electoral competition and media latitude at the local level. They are not, however, going to allow anything at a regional or national level that might undermine the party's monopoly on power.

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