The Social Pressures Are Real

Carl Minzner in The New York Times, November 23, 2012

Media Source

Carl Minzner is an associate professor at Fordham Law School specializing in China law and governance. He is the author of "China's Turn Against Law".

For decades, Chinese leaders have relied on authoritarian rule to govern a rapidly changing society and economy.

Xi Jinping needs to address governance failures and channel mounting unrest toward gradual political evolution, rather than radical revolution.The costs of that choice are now becoming clear. Lacking effective bottom-up legislative channels to participate in official decisions that affect their lives, Chinese citizens are increasingly resorting to (sometimes violent) street protests to challenge environmental pollution or land seizures. Absent independent judicial checks on official power, some local Chinese governments have devolved into corrupt, quasifeudal satrapies run for the benefit of individual party leaders -- Bo Xilai being simply the most notorious example.

Recent years have disillusioned those hoping for reform. Since 2005, Chinese authorities have rolled back limited legal reforms they themselves had initiated in the 1980s and 1990s. Political campaigns have warned judges against emphasizing the supremacy of the law, rather than party policy. Harassment of public interest lawyers has escalated. And party authorities have sponsored a huge expansion of domestic security forces to quell social unrest.

It is doubtful that coming years will witness major policy shifts. Observers view the new party leadership slate as a victory for opponents of political reform. And any meaningful efforts to increase government transparency or accountability will face strong resistance from numerous vested interests for whom the existing system has proven highly lucrative.

Nonetheless, limited reforms may be under consideration. Central authorities appear to be moving to restrain the bloated domestic security apparatus, perceiving it as a possible threat to their own power. Some party officials have suggested that revived attention to legal norms may be one component of these efforts.

Fundamental reform is needed to address deep governance failures in the Chinese state, and to channel mounting social pressures toward gradual political evolution, rather than radical revolution. Whether China's leaders will respond in time is unknown.