China Law Blog picks up a post from a new blog, The Pacific Narrows, which raises political questions about the recent revelations of slave labor in the PRC. The issue is the use of remonstrance - appealing to central authorities to step in and do the right thing when local government officials have failed. Pacific Narrows asks:
And how is it that the center perpetuates the belief amongst common people that it is listening and that appealing to Wen Jiabao is an effective use of one's time? Some of these poor supplicants travel immense distances and expend plenty of their scarce resources to appeal at the Center ... is it effective? I assume someone has done a study on the success rate of these Last-Resort/Beijing-Pleading trips, right? And I know China recently made doing this a no-go, right? The presentation of petitions in Beijing is now a no-no, no? Has it stopped the process? Has there been any popular blow-back to this tradition? Were there any popular, negative repercussions along the lines of, "oh, so now they don't want to hear us, huh?"
The central political authorities simultaneously institutionalize remonstrance - there are specific bureaucratic offices that oversee petitions - and discourage it, by permitting local-level police to come to Beijing to physically stop petitioners from getting to the central level offices. Here is a story from Time Magazine this past March on the plight of petitioners:
...the chances of success are infinitesimally small — even the one in a thousand petitioners who succeeds in getting some sort of response from the authorities in Beijing usually finds that the resulting judgment is simply ignored back home in the provinces...
As Simon Elegant shows on the Time blog, it is a sad and desperate situation.
This is a fundamental failing of the authoritarian system. Political participation is severely limited (i.e. no competitive elections) and that means that representation is distorted. Local level officials face no real pressure from below; they do not have to worry about losing their position, thus they do not have to truly represent the interests of their constituents to central authorities. Quite the contrary: the represent the interests of the center to the locals. And that is how Beijing maintains its tenuous control over such a large and diverse population.
Central authorities thus need local apparatchiks as much as the local apparatchiks need central authorities. The problem is systemic. There will always be instances where the center cracks down and deposes this or that corrupt local official. The numbers can seem impressive. But a case by case approach is bound to fail in national terms, because the problem is systemic.
It is in this context where Confucianism is useful for the authoritarian leaders. The Party assiduously cultivates the image of Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao as virtuous men of the people. Those images give a glimmer of hope - however impossible the reality might be - to the dispossessed and victimized. If only they could get to the virtuous good man on top of the political system, then maybe everything will be all right. And that is where an enormous amount of energy and effort is directed. What is not being noticed or discussed or challenged is the larger system. The ideal of remonstrance to virtuous leaders bolsters party-state authoritarianism.
But, from the point of view of the petitioners, the system does not, and cannot, work for them. Concentrated power without real competition will always serve the interests of power-holders.