Beijing's reach isn't big enough to stop local governments from abusing the rights of ordinary citizens.
By Francis Fukuyama
Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2008
The fiasco of the Olympic torch relay has focused attention on human rights in China. What is the source of human rights abuses in that country today?
Many people assume the problem is that China remains a communist dictatorship and that abuses occur because a strong, centralized state ignores the rights of its citizens. With regard to Tibet and the suppression of the religious movement Falun Gong, this may be right. But the larger problem in today's China arises out of the fact that the central Chinese state is in certain ways too weak to defend the rights of its people.
The vast majority of abuses against the rights of ordinary Chinese citizens -- peasants who have their land taken away without just compensation, workers forced to labor under sweatshop conditions or villagers poisoned by illegal dumping of pollutants -- occur at a level far below that of the government in Beijing.
China's peculiar road toward modernization after 1978 was powered by "township and village enterprises" -- local government bodies given the freedom to establish businesses and enter into the emerging market economy. These entities were enormously successful, and many have become extraordinarily rich and powerful. In cahoots with private developers and companies, it is they that are producing conditions resembling the satanic mills of early industrial England.
The central government, by all accounts, would like to crack down on these local government bodies but is unable to do so. It both lacks the capacity to do this and depends on local governments and the private sector to produce jobs and revenue.
The Chinese Communist Party understands that it is riding a tiger. Each year, there are several thousand violent incidents of social protest, each one contained and suppressed by state authorities, who nevertheless cannot seem to get at the underlying source of the unrest.
Americans traditionally distrust strong central government and champion a federalism that distributes powers to state and local governments. The logic of wanting to move government closer to the people is strong, but we often forget that tyranny can be imposed by local oligarchies as much as by centralized ones. In the history of the Anglophone world, it is not the ability of local authorities to check the central government but rather a balance of power between local authorities and a strong central government that is the true cradle of liberty.
The 19th century British legal scholar Sir Henry Sumner Maine, in his book "Early Law and Custom," pointed to this very fact in a fine essay titled "France and England." He notes that the single most widespread complaint written in the cahiers produced on the eve of the French Revolution were complaints by peasants over encroachments of their property rights by seigneurial courts. According to Maine, judicial power in France was decentralized and under the control of the local aristocracy.
By contrast, from the time of the Norman conquest, the English monarchy had succeeded in establishing a strong, uniform and centralized system of justice. It was the king's courts that protected non-elite groups from depredations by the local aristocracy. The failure of the French monarchy to impose similar constraints on local elites was one of the reasons the peasants who sacked manor houses during the revolution went straight to the room containing the titres to property that they felt had been stolen from them.
State weakness can hurt the cause of liberty. The Polish and Hungarian aristocracies were able to impose their equivalents of the Magna Carta on their monarchs; those countries' central governments, unlike their English counterpart, remained far too weak in subsequent generations to protect the peasantry from the local lords, not to speak of protecting their countries as a whole from outside invasion.
The same was true in the United States. "States' rights" and federalism were the banner under which local elites in the South could oppress African Americans, both before and after the Civil War. American liberty is the product of decentralized government balanced by a strong central state -- one that is capable, when necessary, of sending the National Guard to Little Rock to protect the right of black children to attend school.
It is hard to know if and when freedom will emerge in 21st century China. It may be the first country where demand for accountable government is driven primarily by concern over a poisoned environment. But it will come about only when popular demand for some form of downward accountability on the part of local governments and businesses is supported by a central government strong enough to force local elites to obey the country's rules.
Francis Fukuyama is the author of "The End of History and the Last Man."