Review - The Logic and Limits of Political Reform in China

The Logic and Limits of Political Reform in China
By Joseph Fewsmith
Cambridge University Press, 2013, 178 pp.


Will China democratize? A simple question that is oftentimes discussed in broad generalizations, whether in terms of technological determinism, socio-cultural norms, or the myriad other perspectives. Joseph Fewsmith brings the conversation down to a view-from-the-ground, bringing actual facts and details to the table. Although Fewsmith does not interact directly with arguments in the Chinese democratization literature, his straightforward assessment of reform initiatives in various provinces will be critical in such debates. Fewsmith demonstrates that local cadres seek political reform at local levels to distinguish themselves among their political peers (the logic), but these reforms unravel when these cadres are promoted and leave behind their innovative institutions without a champion (the limits). Reforms are also always tempered by the fear of getting out of control.

In 1993, Fewsmith cites 8,700 “mass incidents,” in contrast to the 180,000 in 2010. This calculates to about 500 incidents per day, most of which result from governmental power abuse. The Chinese Communist Party’s federalism comprises of a five-tier system: 1) central government, 2) provincial, 3) municipal/prefectural, 4) county, and 5) township. Below townships are villages, but they are not technically in the system, though party branches do reach down to the township level. Fewsmith argues that “[t]the development of conflicts between local cadres and local people is very much a principal-agent problem” (7).

Local cadres are monitored by those in the tier above them. Evaluations are based on economic development, which incentivizes these cadres to pursue policies with little concern for their effects on locals, since their goal is to please their superiors, not locals. This naturally causes social conflict. Central authorities, however, understand that the abuse of cadre power is not amenable to the legitimacy of the regime, but how can they monitor agent behavior? There are two approaches: top-down and bottom-up. The top-down approach consists of adjusting incentives or closer monitoring. The bottom-up approach can look like more freedom of the press to expose corruption, but for the most part this has taken the route of “inner-party democracy” (dangnei minzhu). The state uses both approaches, but the latter, in the form of inner-party democracy, is the most commonly paraded

Fewsmith describes China’s state-society relations as marked by “soft” boundaries, as opposed to “hard” boundaries that uphold rule of law and an independent judiciary. The line between public and private is unclear. As a state cedes space to society, the line between the two hardens and state action is increasingly limited. The Logic and Limits of Political Reform in China is in essence an exploration of this hardening, and its sustainability for true and lasting reform.

Social conflicts fall under two major categories: 1) “impoverished peasants have clashed with local cadres over taxes and land requisitions”and 2) “along the prosperous east coast a growing entrepreneurial class, particularly those who are party members, has increasingly argues that its views need to be taken into account” (12). Fewsmith uses Sichuan and Zhejiang as two representative provinces of each kind of conflict. In each province, Fewsmith traces the careers of reformers, delineating the motivation to innovate as well as the limit of these innovations. He also describes what happens after these reformers are promoted to new positions, leaving behind their innovative reforms, but also bringing this reform-mindedness to new levels of power.

Sichuan is a more rural province with sluggish economic growth (outside its capital of Chengdu). Through corrupt nepotism, government expenditures naturally rise, creating fiscal pressures, which are passed onto the locals. With the 1994 tax reform, cadre pressure on locals increased, leading to social conflict. In order to get attention from the central government, cadres chose to experiment with political reform since economic growth was negligible. The focus of Sichuan reforms is inner-party democracy and what this might look like. In various townships are hosted open party elections, later to be called “public recommendation and direction election” (gongtui zhixuan) whereby party members within a jurisdiction vote for party committees and even for the party secretary, after a vetting process; in essence voting for who would fill township government positions. These reforms were pushed even further as other townships followed the examples, eventually allowing non-party members to run for election and direct elections for party representatives to party congresses.

Fewsmith outlines many more political reforms in Sichuan townships and counties than summarized here. But despite this wave of seemingly positive developments, his evaluation of these reforms is pessimistic. First, “every election, no matter how democratic it appeared, was closely supervised by a leadership small group whose job it was to ensure that local leaders did not ‘lose control’ (shikong)” (106). If those elected become too beholden to a constiuency, this would threaten party control. Second, a large number of those elected were merely popular party cadres, which the public recommendation, public selection model “represents simply a different path by which cadres can rise within the party” (107). Finally, party cadres prefer subsidies from the central government rather than dealing with local society. The 1994 tax reform encouraged political reforms, whereas in 2006 the abolition of the agricultural tax and miscellaneous fees did not have similar effects in Sichuan because central and provincial subsidies kept the local governments afloat.

Zhejiang is a different story and is representative of social conflicts of the second category described above--entrepreneurial agitation for more of a voice in public policy. Fewsmith describes the emergence of the “Wenzhou model,” where non-state economic activities flourish as the state privatizes public companies and gives more room to private enterprise in the local economy. Complementing this, business associations, known as chambers of commerce began to proliferate among different trades.

The potential to carve out political-economic space through these chambers is, unfortunately, not met. Businesses that have the most influence do not need associations to collectively bargain with the state since they have their own personal ties with the government. These chambers also have low participation rates; Fewsmith found that “only about 20 percent of a given trade is represented in a business association” (123). Party branches extend into these associations, but most of these branches play little to no role in the association. This does not mean that the associations have great independence, but rather that the government trusts these NGOs to run their own affairs without overstepping their invisible bounds. In reality, these trade associations hold little sway over government policy unless their goals overlap. Summarizing the work of Jiang Hua and Zhang Jianmin, “the vast majority of Wenzhou’s business associations were created in a top-down manner and they suffer from administrative dominance, low rates of participation, and inadequate services” (140).

In Zhejiang, another model emerged known as the “Wenling model.” Locals participated in fiscal supervision of public works and other government expenditures through town hall meetings. People could openly question budget lines and future projects. A fiscal affairs committee was established in the township people’s congress, increasing fiscal transparency.

Fewsmith describes the implementation of these budget reforms in Xinhe township. After the town’s party secretary, who initiated these reforms, left for a new position, the new party secretary was not as interested in consultation when finalizing the budget. Due to pressure from locals and the Wenling “brand,” the party secretary eventually reinstated consultative meetings. The interesting thing about Xinhe is that there is a degree of sustained reform despite the departure of its original, charismatic champion. Is this cause for hope? Fewsmith argues no. The push to sustain these reforms did not come from Xinhe’s residents, but from party leaders who favored the Wenling model. In essence, the Wenling model co-opts social and political elites at the local level, while strengthening the state’s power.

In summary, the party has elevated economic growth to a priority for all cadres in order to uphold party legitimacy. This has been done to the detriment of the locals, who face harsh pressures from local cadres who implement policies to boost local economic output without care for its effects on the masses. This creates social conflicts that spur political reforms to ease such tensions and also curb the abuse of power. Yet Fewsmith is not optimistic about the future. These reforms are oftentimes short-lived. They are initiated by ambitious cadres who take risks to distinguish themselves and obtain promotions. As soon as they are recognized for their accomplishments, they move on and because these reforms are not institutionalized, they fall apart.

The main concern in all these myriad models of political reform is that things do not get out of control. This leads to a paradox. Fewsmith writes, “[a]s tensions rise in Chinese society, it will become increasingly difficult to pursue political reform precisely because the odds of experiments spinning out of control will increase” (176). Yet without these reforms tensions will rise.

Finally, looking to the future, Fewsmith argues that the party has begun to emphasize social management as the best short-term solution to social instability. This shift toward social management, particularly better services and a stronger police, bodes ill for political reform. Fewsmith ominously ends his book with the haunting sentence, “looking back over the decade from the mid-1990s through the first few years of the current century, Chinese leaders may well wish that they had pursued political reform more vigorously when they had had the chance” (178).

What has been described above is merely scratching the surface of a book crunched full with insights into the Chinese political machine and numerous examples to support Fewsmith’s observations. For a short book running only 178 pages, Fewsmith has included a head-spinning amount of detail. His analysis drills down to the level of individual careers, while also trying to provide a broader theoretical framework to understand political reform movements. This unfortunately means that, at times, the sheer number of names, cities, and different administrative tiers can be confusing. As an academic book, it can be argued that Fewsmith is justified in assuming an appropriate level of background knowledge, yet a short introduction to various political organs would be useful for all readers.

Future editions, which one can only hope for, will benefit from a clearer focus. Fewsmith’s introductory remarks provide a survey of the literature on institutions, but he later fails to concretely tie this to China, leaving readers confused as to why this survey was provided in the first place. The connection between sections in each chapter is sometimes unclear. As Fewsmith takes readers into the weeds, the big picture is easily obscured without more careful guidance.

The strengths of the book nonetheless trump its weaknesses. The surprising political innovations at the local level under an authoritarian regime make sense after reading Fewsmith’s study. Party leaders, both current and future, would benefit from reading this book.

 The author of this review received a complementary copy of the book from Cambridge University Press. He was not required to write a favorable review.