For the past two months, local officials in the southwestern Chinese province of Guangxi have pursued a harsh campaign aimed at enforcing China’s population planning laws.
In order to meet targets for allowable births, they forced pregnant women to have abortions. They threatened to demolish homes to make residents cough up fines demanded for excess children.
This month citizen anger boiled over. Thousands of angry rural residents took to the streets, smashing cars and sacking government offices.
The vicious nature of the Guangxi enforcement campaign is all the more striking because it directly conflicts with the orders of China’s top leaders.
In January, Communist Party and government officials in Beijing issued a joint directive ordering stronger enforcement of China’s population planning laws — precisely the aim of the Guangxi authorities. But the national directive clearly emphasized the need to rely on positive financial incentives to reward compliance with birth control policies — not coercive measures.
Indeed, national officials touted the directive as a move away from “administrative” controls on population growth. The director of China’s national family planning council even suggested that the authorities would waive fines for poor citizens.
So how can there be such disconnect between the bright ideas coming out of Beijing and the hard reality of the Guangxi streets?
One reason is that the central authorities are not in full control of their country. This may seem difficult to believe, particularly to outsiders accustomed to images of Chinese security forces dragging away protesters in Tiananmen Square. But Beijing actually has major difficulties supervising local officials.
Sure, you can demand that the local authorities meet designated birth control, tax revenue or economic development targets. But how do you supervise this? How do you ensure that local officials don’t simply falsify data? Or that they don’t rely on their own private goon squads to brutalize local residents into meeting whatever targets have been set?
In other countries, a range of independent, bottom-up channels help monitor and check the behavior of local officials. A free press exposes government corruption. Independent judicial institutions evaluate whether the actions of the local authorities accord with national law. Open elections allow citizens to remove officials engaged in unethical behavior.
These channels don’t exist under China’s one-party system. Local Chinese party secretaries exercise sweeping control over the local media, legislatures and courts.
Naturally, this breeds corruption and abuse of power. It also means that local party officials can effectively choke off information to Beijing, blinding the central authorities as to exactly how their mandates are carried out.
Some localities have degenerated into private fiefdoms run by local party officials. This has serious consequences for people whose rights have been violated by local officials. Citizens are far from passive. They resort to any and all channels to get redress — lawsuits, petitions, foreign media. But these often don’t work.
In 2005, the blind legal activist Chen Guangcheng attempted to use these channels to protest violations of national law committed by local population-planning officials in the northern province of Shandong. The local authorities arrested him and, after detaining his entire team of defense lawyers on the eve of his trial, sentenced him to four years in prison.
Faced with a lack of alternatives, what do people do? They riot.
Rising social unrest reflects desperation. It is also one of the few ways that ordinary citizens have to alert central officials that local authorities are engaged in widespread violations of national policies. In short, official abuses and riots in Guangxi are natural outcomes of China’s authoritarian controls. If Chinese leaders are serious about addressing these problems, they need to undertake institutional reform.
Channeling social discontent out of the streets requires building independent institutions that can fairly resolve citizen grievances. Otherwise, both China’s local government abuses and its social instability will continue to worsen.
This article appears in full on CFR.org by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.