Ignoring Bejing’s Directives

Local leaders rarely incur heavy political penalties for failing to carry out the central government’s economic directives. Officials in Beijing frequently order clampdowns on the makers of pirated goods. Offending factories are sometimes closed. But local officials who condone such operations as a way of boosting their local economies are seldom punished. Nor are officials who turn a blind eye to polluting industries, unless they cause big accidents or trigger unrest. Transgressions are so widespread that it would be destabilising to launch a crackdown. But just to make sure that career-damaging information does not reach Beijing, local governments often arrest petitioners who travel to the capital to raise complaints.

Central leaders are comforted by the knowledge that direct political challenges to their authority by local governments are extremely rare. Li Fan, an independent consultant in Beijing who advises local governments on election-related issues, says there is strong demand among lower-level officials for political reform. But very few rural townships have pushed experiments with freer elections or more open government beyond the party’s guidelines. And none has tolerated organised opposition or open attacks on the party leadership. China’s local leaders know where to draw the line.

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