Written by Oscar Almén.

Many local government leaders around China have closely followed the third plenum looking for signs of what reforms the central leaders are likely to support. That the statements from the Central Party meetings are typically vague and packed with repetitive propaganda is not only related to CCP reluctance to offer transparency of the political process. Another reason for the vague statements is to give room for interpretation and discretion for local leaders to try out new reform innovations. The success of the Chinese reform policy, at least in terms of economic reform, has been based on this model of local governance experiments. The reform process has been a continuous process involving local innovation and central guidelines. The results of the innovations are reported back to the central leaders that in turn send new signals regarding which local innovations they support and which ones they do not support.

Local government leaders cannot be entirely sure how far their innovations can go and this uncertainty is part of the system. The bolder the reforms the higher the stakes and a local leader that go too far risk drawing criticism from conservative leaders at the center.  This is particularly true for innovations of political participation. In the late 1990’s and early 2000, local governments in many parts of China experimented with different forms of town and county elections. In 2006 these political experiments came to an end by order from the center and since then focus has instead been on non-electoral forms of political participation such as participatory budgeting. The most successful example of participatory budgeting developed in Wenling city, situated in the wealthy coastal area of Zhejiang province. What started as deliberative forums in the late 1990’s has now developed into an institutionalized process where citizens and people’s deputies are organized to discuss and supervise the local budget process[1]. The strongest political confirmation of this model came when the 18th Party congress report in 2012 gave its support to the model. That also opened up for the model to spread to other parts of China.

In order to understand how local innovations can affect political reform in China two questions should be explored: How are local innovations made into lasting change? And how can one local innovation spread to the rest of China? Political power at the local level, especially below the province, is concentrated around the local leadership, particularly the local Party secretary and the mayor. Concentration of power is stronger at the local level than at the central level where other stakeholders balance the power of Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang. This also means that the local leader is firmly in control of what governance innovations are to be initiated. At the least, any innovation initiative requires the approval of the local Party secretary in order to be launched. The incentives for a local leader to pursue innovations are not always obvious. Promotion for local officials is mainly based on the strict rules in the cadre evaluation system. In this system local leaders are evaluated based on their performance in different sectors, such as economic growth, maintaining social stability and increasingly also environmental protection.[2] Innovations are not strictly a part of the cadre evaluation system and as such do not automatically lead to promotion, but in the fierce competition between different localities, a successful local governance innovation will improve the general image of the cadre and help to attract the attention of higher level leaders.

The close connection between a particular local innovation and the local leader is a problem for its capacity to continue for more than a few years. In order to ensure that local leaders are loyal to the Party and the central levels and don not become too closely connected to the locality, local leaders are continuously moved between regions as well as regularly promoted. This ensures that they will only remain a few years in a locality. The problem, from an innovation perspective is that once the leader is removed from the locality, the innovation often fades away.

So, one key to create a sustainable change is to remove the local innovation’s dependence on the local leader and instead develop rules, structures and incentives that ensure that the innovation continues. This is what happened in Wenling city where not only one, but several local leaders and many other important actors, including scholars, have been involved in the process. To what extent the model will be able to spread to other parts of China remains to be seen.

In order to learn from each other and spread reform from one locality to another, local government leaders frequently visit each other in order to get inspired. Cities, counties and even small towns all over China compete in presenting different governance innovations and in developing their own models. Preferably the model should be unique enough to be the first of its kind, if not nationally, at least within the province. I recently participated in a conference in Hangzhou where politicians as well as researchers from all over China had come to study the local governance experiences from Hangzhou. What has been termed the Hangzhou model by some include a package of reforms, many of which involve a greater degree of political participation by citizens.  However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the same governance system might not be applicable to all areas of China. The fact that the central leaders embrace one local innovation does not mean that it will be successfully implemented all over China. The Wenling model of deliberative meetings developed because of the relative wealth of the city. In poorer areas the same dynamics do not exist. So, in some cases local innovation becomes institutionalized in one place might just stay local. This also opens up for the diversity of Chinese society with different political solutions to problems in different areas.

Oscar Almén is a researcher in the Department of Government at Uppsala University. His research focus is on local governance and political participation in China.

[1] Baogang He and Stig Thogersen, ‘Giving the People a Voice? Experiments with consultative authoritarian institutions in China’, Journal of Contemporary China, 19: 66, 2010

[2] Thomas Heberer and Rene Trappel, Evaluation Processes, Local Cadres’Behaviour and Local Development Processes, Journal of Contemporary China, 22: 84, 1048–1066, 2013

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