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Date Posted: 23:30 09/10/2005

Taishi and the woes of government

The more things stay the same, the more they change.

NOTHING illustrates China's current difficulties more than the recent events in the village of Taishi in Guangdong Province. The efforts by local residents to recall the local Party Committee boss, as is their constitutional right, have led to widespread intimidation and reprisals by hired goons, the mass arrest of petitioners, and a nationwide media cover-up. On Saturday night, it also led to an attack on a number of intrepid foreign hacks.

One of the hacks in question, Benjamin Joffe-Walt of The Guardian, flew to the region yesterday afternoon to report on the unfolding mayhem of Taishi, which began in Summer when Party bosses sealed a profitable (and probably corrupt) land deal worth as much as RMB 100 million. You could argue that Joffe-Wait escaped from his baptism of fire relatively unscathed: one does not hold out much hope for his travellling companion, the activist Lu Banglie, who was bludgeoned unconscious after the car they were driving was stopped by hooligans working with the local police.

While the central government continues to talk about the progress of grass-roots democracy and the efforts to enforce the rule of law in the country's wild interior, local governments - which in many cases run little more than protection rackets at the expense of the communities they are supposed to serve - are naturally reluctant to cede any control, ignoring edicts from Beijing as well as the anger of local residents.

The human rights activist, Zhao Xin, put it well in a recent interview. 'China's central government has a lot of good policies,' he said, 'like wanting to move towards the rule of law. But when you get down to county, township, village level, they are simply not being implemented.'

'Central government is on the wane,' he said, 'and it's giving way to local chieftains who have unlimited powers.'

Beijing sometimes seems quite amenable to this interpretation of events, setting itself up as a crusading government trying to break through the inchoate structures of local bureaucracy and thus shifting the blame. The central authorities devise a number of well-meaning national policies relating to issues such as environmental protection or coalmine safety, but the local authorities tend to ignore them until the shit finally hits the fan.

A coalmine flood in Meizhou, also in Guangdong Province, killed 123 people in August this year, largely as a result of local government collusion and corruption. The central authorities launched another 'strike-hard' campaign against unregulated mining. A month later, the deadline for local officials to withdraw their investments and interests in the coal industry came to pass, with few tangible results and only a handful of arrests. As the media storms subside, one expects business as usual to resume.

And so, local officials in poverty-stricken rural counties squander money on banquets and limousines and opulent office blocks, and jockey for kickbacks and share options as they flog off yet another stretch of river, yet another hectare of land, yet another illegal mining concession. Beijing doesn't like it. Beijing occasionally sends in the inspectors. But what, in the end, can Beijing do?

A government, any government, rarely does anything of any use to anyone unless its very survival is at stake. Even then, and especially in a nation of near irreconcilable division, a government is generally inclined to bolster its natural network of support - what the great John Kenneth Galbraith described as its 'constituency of contentment' – and will tend to do so at the further expense of the regime's losers.

Recent efforts by the Chinese government to enforce environmental or work safety regulations were made in recognition of the fact that much of the country is being steadily poisoned and asphyxiated by excessive coal use, promiscuous industrialization, the carefree use of pesticides and the pumping of chemical waste into lakes and rivers. The laws to improve local democracy were, at the same time, part of the attempts to give the dispossessed and indigent masses some kind of role in the distribution of the spoils of economic growth, much of which was enriching only the lucky few.

However, Beijing finds itself trying to regulate the very people on which it depends for support. They, in turn, have been enriched by routinely flouting such regulations. China's pack of watchdogs, including the State Administration of Work Safety, the State Environmental Protection Administration and the National Audit Office, are usually let loose on a list of pre-arranged targets, and the state media hails their victories as a new era in good governance. Nevertheless, the campaigns fade from view, the inspection teams withdraw, and things tend to return to normal, leaving the local governments even more anxious to cover up any future discontent.

Plus c'est la meme chose, plus ca change. The longer these glorified local government protection rackets remain intact and unreformed, the harder it will be to keep a lid on the anger. But with the central government anxious, above all, to maintain stability, it no doubt prefers to allow the variety of vested interests throughout the country to remain in control, and will assist in the necessary cover-ups and crackdowns. Business as usual, indeed.

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