The best thing China’s ruling Communist party can do for itself, for its people and for the stability of the nation, is take seriously all petitions for redress of grievances, investigate all claims of official corruption, negligence or assault, give weight to collective or individual property claims by punishing officials who steal property, blaze a path toward transparency in banking, ban government cover-ups and establish a zero-tolerance policy for public officials who use their power to punish or intimidate citizens who come forward seeking justice.
It may sound like a tall order, or an overly optimistic thing to ask, considering China’s authoritarian history and authoritarian present, but there is really no point to such a level of centralization or state orchestration, other than the better legitimating of the claims of citizens against injustice or hardship.
A staunch, credible, transparent anti-corruption campaign might be a type of incremental democratization the Central Committee mullahs could countenance, allowing them to test and demonstrate some of what they claim is an ideology of people’s government, in a country so starved for it that real, widespread unrest is growing ever more a genuine risk.
Beijing needs to consider seriously the best, most authentic way to implement a decentralized petition system in which local officials are rewarded and promoted for aggressively siding with aggrieved citizens. The process needs to be backed up by serious, credible criminal proceedings against officials who impede corruption probes or assault investigations.
A centralized review process that would make it possible to track specific examples of well-practiced petition resolution and of failed petition resolution, and be open to independent scrutiny, would allow the government to take the side of citizens and urge improvement. Local citizens’ boards, with rotating membership, a non-political selection process and transparency monitors or human rights groups supervising selection, would provide the checks and balances to ensure state power is not misused in such hearings.
Time is past for China’s rulers to expect any credibility or the illusion of legitimacy simply from inertia, from the notion that Chinese power is inherently noble and immaculate. There is no saving face for the government without demonstrating this fundamental respect for its citizens’ right to justice and fairness. There must be procedural evidence of clean rule and legitimacy must be evidently rooted in responsiveness to the needs and will of citizens.
For the government in Beijing to continue governing as if the regime were in the midst of a post-takeover state of emergency is, however inconvenient it may be to recognize it, an admission of failure on a colossal scale, to have failed to create a viable, malleable people’s government, even after 60 years in power.
It is possible now, with the information made available via global media, to see the reality of the situation for the Chinese state, and to take stock and make the necessary improvements to ensure the logic of the state remains credible. Even as factional movements threaten regional separation and an increasing segment of the population, both urban and rural, clamors for better treatment and more opportunity, the environment across China is in decline, threatening sustained food insecurity.
Water scarcity and a deficit of dependable arable land are increasing pressure on authorities to find economic solutions in an economy accustomed to unsustainable rates of growth and nevertheless plagued by massive chronic deprivation. Addressing these crises, along with the political tensions growing up around dissident groups angered by authoritarian policies, will be much easier with the participation of a citizenry convinced of its government’s commitment to the value of each individual life and circumstance.
- Originally published 11 March 2009 at CafeSentido.com