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Discussion Section: “It’s Just a Local Issue”

Earlier this evening, I was checking the comments thread on my most recent post and was surprised to see that David Cohen had linked to it in The Diplomat. Here’s where we came up in his piece:

So I’m surprised to see Ji’s story being reported as another example of the Chinese state cracking down[link to ChinaGeeks] on the freedom of speech, and the efforts to intimidate him being misreported in English as detention or even jail time. On the contrary, both cases seem to belong to a thuggish and desperate effort to control PR fallout by local interests. That national papers, including People’s Daily and the official Xinhua news agency have covered the stories shows very clearly that the officials involved lack the kind of high-level protection it takes to get stories suppressed by the state’s censorship authorities.

This is an important distinction: while journalists in Luoyang encountered serious problems – murder, intimidation, and a clampdown on local coverage of the Li Hao story that succeeded for two weeks – they were local responses that posed little difficulty for a national paper like Southern Metropolis. The story here is less 1984 than Deliverance – in the absence of effective central oversight, much of China is governed by almost feudal networks of patronage and protection, no more answerable to Beijing than it is to the public.

To begin with, I’m a bit baffled that he linked us there. I think my original post was pretty clear; I said specifically that the hassle Ji got was because he caused local police to lose face, and I never suggested the central government had a hand in it. I did suggest Ji was detained — apparently that’s not entirely accurate — but there I was only paraphrasing a New York Times article that said the same thing (which was linked via this CDT article). I believe that was the most accurate information available at the time I posted the article (which was an opinion piece, not reporting).

Anyway, I want to address the distinction Cohen is making here. His argument is that this and other incidents were local issues that don’t really implicate the central government in anything except perhaps ineffectiveness and inefficiency. This is an argument one hears all the time, and I must admit, I find myself agreeing and disagreeing with it at the same time.

Before we go further, I do want to state that I don’t think there’s anything in particular wrong with Cohen’s article, nor am I arguing against his specific conclusions there so much as I’m arguing against the general argument one hears all the time in China: ‘The central government is good, it’s just these local officials are out of control and corrupt!’

On the one hand, there’s no denying that many of the high-profile problems reported in the media are, at their heart, local issues. In the case of the stories that have been dogging Luoyang for the past few weeks, this is certainly true. The central government didn’t have a real hand in directly causing any of these problems, at least as far as we know.

And yet, something about the argument rings hollower to me every time I hear it. While national media did report the story, for example, I wonder if the central government — presumably now they’re aware of it — will take steps to punish the national security agents who harassed Ji. A year from now, I wonder, will Luoyang still be producing gutter oil? Will its government still be kidnapping petitioners (and tourists) from Beijing and dragging them back home? Or will these news stories lead to central government intervention and increased oversight in the future?

It’s the future, of course, so who knows. But history tells us that the central government, for all its promises, won’t do much. Sure, these are local issues in that the central government was not manufacturing sewer oil or kidnapping tourists. But how many years have we already been reading stories about gutter oil? About black jails? About the harassment of journalists both foreign and domestic? These are not new stories, they’ve been being reported for years now. All that changes is the place names.

Sure, the incidents in Luoyang were local. And the next high-profile black jail case will be a local story too. It will be local police and local officials acting, and ultimately local police and local officials who will fall if the stakes get high enough.

Increasingly, though, I feel like the distinction is an irrelevant one. If the central government can’t or won’t put a stop to these problems, aren’t they ultimately also culpable?

bloody-mapDeliverance was about one isolated, backward area of the US. But China has little Deliverance moments happening all over, all the time. Take forced demolition, for example. Readers of Shanghaiist may recall the “Bloody Map” they posted last year tracking incidences of violence related to forced demolitions. Each one of those dots on the right represents what is fundamentally a local issue. But if you look at the map as a whole, it should be fairly obvious why some people tend to lay the blame for these “local issues” at the feet of the central government.

On the other hand, as Cohen points out, state media has been allowed to report on many of these issues, although often only after a story has already been broken by independent media, usually one of the Southern Media Group papers. People will learn about these stories either way via Weibo and other social media; why not allow the state media outlets to build a little bit of a rep for being critical reporting damage that’s already been done anyway? I’m not sure the central government deserves any credit for having done something right if it isn’t also fixing the problem that’s being reported on ((Yeah, fixing these problems isn’t easy, but the central government runs the country. If it’s too hard, too bad. You’re the effin’ government, nut up and do your goddamn job!)).

Anyway, it’s a complex issue and I’ll concede there are some pretty valid arguments on both sides, so I wanted to turn it over to our crack team of commenters for analysis. What do you think? Are local issues really local?

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0 thoughts on “Discussion Section: “It’s Just a Local Issue””

  1. “Increasingly, though, I feel like the distinction is an irrelevant one. If the central government can’t or won’t put a stop to these problems, aren’t they ultimately also culpable?”

    Ultimately responsible perhaps, but that’s miles away from having a hand in harassment. Far less culpable than you actively repeating someone else’s erroneous reports of detaining journalists.

    Of course, if you want to be cynical about it. Any government inaction to problems would amount to some kind of Big Brother operation.

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  2. Local officials in China respond to whatever incentives they are offered by the central government. While the central government has expressed increasing concern about local land grabs and other abuses, the general incentive that drives local behavior has not been touched.

    Local officials are most highly incentivized to deliver economic growth. It is economic growth that gets them promoted.

    And while they are also incentivized to maintain social stability, what local officials know is that economic growth is still the best guarantor of social stability. If the local economy is growing, more jobs will be created and people will be kept busy working.

    Local officials also understand that some of their efforts to generate economic growth will result in social instability among a relative handful of citizens, but that is what police and chengguan are for: to repress those whose rights are trampled in order to deliver economic growth for the highest number of people.

    The central government has, so far, been able successfully to insulate itself from the behavior of local officials in the minds of most Chinese citizens (and apparently some foreign commentators as well).

    China is no different from any other country in the world. If you want to understand behavior, just follow the money.

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  3. As you say, while specific issues may be “local”, those “local” governments are subordinates of the central folks. It’s not like democracies where municipal, state/provincial, and federal governments have their own jurisdictions and are independent of other levels of government when dealing with those jurisdictions. In the fantastic CCP system, if a local problem continues to fester and recur, then the CCP is either unwilling, unable, or un-interested in dealing with it. So perhaps for a single issue on a single occasion, it is up to the locals to deal with it. But when it is a repeated issue on repeated occasions, the buck stops at the top. In that sense, Cohen is correct since he is speaking to a few incidents that happened this one time; however, your conclusion is also entirely legitimate because you’re taking the general trend of events over time in their totality.

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  4. Or you can be like the US or some other European country where they can just sweep these problems under the rug. For example, there’s thousands of people camped out and protesting in Wall Street and police acting like thugs. While there is defiantly people who are corrupt, the US government went business as usual while the Media dismiss these people as anti-capitalists and complain that these protesters cost Police overtime.

    These foreign reporters complaining of corruption in China while ignoring problems back home.

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  5. A not-uncommon sequence:

    a) Land is seized & a development project is pursued which will furnish revenue to the local government.

    b) At some point (generally before the completion of the development) irregularities come to light. The compensation is less than promised; or the tenants were subject to violence; or the use to which the land is actually put differs from what was announced.

    c) The development is completed and the local authorities profit from it.

    The problem is stage c). In a big country undergoing rapid development, it is reasonable to say that a) and b) are inevitable. c) is not inevitable. If the Central Gov’t wished to address this phenomenon with one-tenth the diligence it devotes to detecting separatist sentiments, it could intervene by requiring the local government to make whole — ideally with treble damages — any previous occupants who were mistreated or shortchanged. They wouldn’t need to press criminal charges or air the dirty linen of cadres abusing peasants. Just make sure ample restitution is paid. Beijing wouldn’t need to do this too many times: a few well-publicized examples would heighten the sensitivity of local authorities, and incidentally would be a massive PR victory for Beijing.

    But that doesn’t happen, does it? And the fact that it doesn’t happen says a lot about what (and who) really matters to Beijing.

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  6. LOL Pug. You are a fascinating specimen both in your inability to produce a logical or relevant argument, and in your unwillingness to learn from your prior illogical mistakes. THe end result, after all this time, is that you still miss the point of the OP’s, and provide fodder that is at best only good for a hearty laugh (not that I mind, of course…so thanks again, I guess).

    THe point of the previous thread was about the urge to save face at all levels of Chinese government, often at the expense of fairness and justice, among other things. Examples were given of local events that may have limited national significance, as well as historic events that certainly resonate nation-wide.

    This thread in turn further explores whether issues should be considered local or national, or more specifically, at what point should issues neglected at the local level be considered to be within the domain of the central government. The contention is that local problems that recur over time reflect on the inertia (whatever the cause) of higher levels of government, up to and including the central dudes.

    So, after comprehending those two threads, and given a suitable amount of time to engage your brain and reflect, what do you come up with?” “you can be like the US or some other European country where they can just sweep these problems under the rug.”— WTF?!? What “problems” have they been “sweeping” under the rug? What issues have arisen in those places borne out of an overarching desire to save face above all else? What examples of long-festering problems at local levels would you like to lay at the feet of higher levels of US/European government?

    “there’s thousands of people camped out and protesting in Wall Street and police acting like thugs.”
    —and your point is…? First off, if “thousands” of people were allowed to gather in protest, that’s already quite a big improvement on CCP CHina. What does that have to do with “saving face”? I understand police did cordon off the NYSE; but how were they “acting like thugs”? Were they beating people into unconsciousness like those cops did to the mistaken petitioner? If the NYC cops were “thugs”, how would you characterize the dudes in Laoyang? I mean, if you’re gonna compare and everything (which seems to be about all you can do, on a good day), then let’s compare, eh?

    “While there is defiantly people who are corrupt,”
    —perhaps I’m mistaken, but can you point to an instance in the past 2 OP’s where the word “corrupt” pops up (apart from the end of paragraph 3 on this thread where Custer says it in jest)? These two threads aren’t even about corruption…yet here you are.

    “US government went business as usual while the Media dismiss these people as anti-capitalists and complain that these protesters cost Police overtime.”
    —but where’s the cover-up? Where’s the face-saving injustice that would at least bring it on par to what Custer is talking about? Here’s your chance to shine, baby! It’s possible some media were dismissive. But certainly not the ones I read. So once again, you are mistaking your own ignorance and limited consumption of media for some generalized narrative about “western media”…not unlike your limp-wristed attempt in the last thread to suggest that media hadn’t reported on the reasons for the London riots or that civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan were top level military secrets.

    “These foreign reporters complaining of corruption in China while ignoring problems back home.”
    —well, we’re not even talking “corruption”. You’re perseverating over it in response to the voices in your head. In any event, people aren’t “ignoring” things elsewhere. But since this is a thread about China, it should not surprise you that people talk about China-related issues here. WHich brings us back to you. You don’t seem to like to talk about China. That’s cool. Not everyone’s cup of tea. But you should really ask yourself what you’re doing here.

    “If one local government official is corrupt, the whole government is corrupt. ”
    —we’re not talking corruption, but clearly you’ve got corruption on the brain, so let’s go with it at least until your meds kick in. Where to start? Well, let’s just say that if Chinese people are just dealing with “one local government official” who is corrupt, I think they’d be ecstatic. But the reason why this issue is front of mind for many is because there are slightly more than one corrupt dude in government. No, one bad apple doesn’t ruin the whole lot. But in Chinese government, you’re talking quite a number of bad apples, especially at the local level. Now, is there a magic number beyond which “the whole government” is corrupt? No. Is there any indication that every single official in every single corner of China is corrupt? No. But if you don’t think people are concerned that the Chinese government at many levels has serious issues with corruption, then you’re not very in tune with the sentiment of Chinese people.

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  7. Oh, I should add that you ought to feel no shame that you aren’t plugged in to the sentiments of Chinese people, since you’re not one of them. Let’s not forget that you’re American, with apparent snippets of Chinese DNA.

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  8. @ usual suspect: “Ultimately responsible perhaps, but that’s miles away from having a hand in harassment. Far less culpable than you actively repeating someone else’s erroneous reports of detaining journalists.”

    Leaving aside the ridiculousness of your overall assertion that my citing a New York Times report in an opinion piece on a blog is somehow more egregious than the systematic harassment of investigative reporters and the central government’s total failure to protect them from it, I wonder, what is the difference between “detained” and “harassed”?

    Obviously, i know the difference; what I mean is, practically speaking, as far as the argument I was making is concerned: does the fact that he was simply harassed and threatened rather than detained have a significant impact on the point I was making? Does it have an impact at all?

    It doesn’t. Obviously, that’s no excuse for reporting errors; however: (1) that was the information that was available to me at the time of posting (2) that post was clearly intended as opinion, not reporting and (3) this is a blog that’s written by volunteers as a hobby.

    If you want exhaustively fact-checked posts, feel free to start making donations to pay for our time, or just set us all up with salaries. Otherwise, go yell at the guy who wrote that New York Times piece.

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  9. @ pug_ster: Come on dude. Even for you, this is weak sauce:

    Or you can be like the US or some other European country where they can just sweep these problems under the rug. For example, there’s thousands of people camped out and protesting in Wall Street and police acting like thugs. While there is defiantly people who are corrupt, the US government went business as usual while the Media dismiss these people as anti-capitalists and complain that these protesters cost Police overtime.

    ….and your point is what, exactly? China should do whatever the US does? (Also, you might check today’s New York Times for some coverage of Occupy Wall Street…what was that about sweeping under the rug?)

    These foreign reporters complaining of corruption in China while ignoring problems back home.

    Not sure who you’re referring to here, but you are aware that foreign correspondents in China are assigned to report on China, right? Complaining that they are ignoring what’s happening in the US is like going to a car dealership and complaining how you can’t get a decent meal. What did you expect; if you want a meal you should have gone to a restaurant.

    As far as this blog is concerned, you have no idea whether or not I or anyone else who writes for this blog is “ignoring” what’s happening in the US and elsewhere. We don’t discuss it here because this is a China blog. I realize this is a concept that continues to elude you, so I’ll break it down for you.

    A China blog is….
    A blog that is about things that happen in China.

    A China blog is not….
    A blog about things that happen in America.

    Question: Why don’t you discuss [insert American current event here]?
    Answer: Because this is a China blog.

    I do hope that going forward, if you have problems with this concept, you can refer to the helpful guide above. And on a personal note, I’d love to remind you that much as it may seem like it, you don’t actually know me at all, and you have no idea what I’m ignoring or participating in on a day to day basis. This blog is one small part of my life and unlike most of my life, it is public, but that does not mean you should draw conclusions from it about the rest of my life.

    If one local government official is corrupt, the whole government is corrupt. That makes alot of sense.

    You’re right. That doesn’t make sense. But since no one said that, I’m not sure what your point is. Seriously, did you even read the original post?

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  10. “if you want exhaustively fact-checked posts, feel free to start making donations to pay for our time, or just set us all up with salaries. Otherwise, go yell at the guy who wrote that New York Times piece.”

    Yeah, I guess your “face” is more important than the facts, but less important than money.

    Like you said, there is no excuse. So I don’t know why you bothered with the above line, if not intended as an excuse.

    Is that your “systemic harassment” of the facts?

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  11. “I guess your “face” is more important than the facts,”
    —what is the matter with you people? Can any one of you CCP apologist-types freakin’ read? Where does Custer say he is trying to save “face”? And idiots like you completely miss the point of Custer’s earlier response, either because you intentionally do so in order to avoid retracting your earlier statements (since you people seem to systematically lack the strength of character to do that), or because you’re simply too stupid to understand what Custer said. Can the CCP not do better than people like you?

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  12. Yeah, I guess your “face” is more important than the facts, but less important than money.

    Like you said, there is no excuse. So I don’t know why you bothered with the above line, if not intended as an excuse.

    Is that your “systemic harassment” of the facts?

    If I were trying to save face, I would have just edited the original post and deleted the reference to detention. Instead, you’ll note that I used a strikethrough to make it clear to anyone reading that the initial wording was a mistake.

    As for the rest of your comment, it doesn’t even make sense. I note that you also ignored the main point of my comment in response to yours.

    Let me take a stab in the dark here: you’re a frequent commenter on Hidden Harmonies, aren’t you? 😉

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  13. 700 protesters were arrested in NYC this past weekend. If this happened in Beijing or Shanghai, Human Rights Watch would have a field day. Somehow a word crackdown is not used. I wonder why?

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  14. @ pug_ster: Perhaps it’s because the protesters were walking on the roadway, which is illegal and which they’d been instructed not to do by their own leaders prior to the march. Perhaps because even if they’re in still jail (which I don’t think they are at this point), they know they’ll be treated in accordance with the law and if charged with a crime they have the right to a public trial by a jury of their peers. Perhaps it’s because none of them will be beaten, killed, or shipped to their “hometowns” after being arrested. Perhaps because if they are going to be charged with a crime, their families will be notified and they will not simply disappear. Perhaps it’s because they know that their stories can be (and were) reported by the nation’s top media outlets, so they couldn’t be “disappeared”. Perhaps it’s because in American jails, no one dies playing “hide-and-seek.”

    Those are just a few theories I have.

    You forget, this did happen in Beijing and Shanghai. The difference is that some of those people are still in prison, others were held for months without trial or access to legal counsel. Some were tortured. In some cases, their families were not even informed of their whereabouts. Reporting on the incident was banned and websites that mentioned the word “jasmine” in Chinese were blocked on many domestic servers. Western reporters seeking to cover one of the protests were beaten in the street despite having violated no Chinese laws or regulations that govern foreign reporting in China. Etc.

    So yeah, there are a couple minor differences.

    That said, news of the arrests in NYC was front page, headline news on CNN.com, CBSNews.com, MSNBC.com, NYTimes.com, HuffPo, etc. etc. It’s not like it’s being ignored. I’m sure if there are actual human rights violations HRW will jump in, but as I understand it, those people were arrested were arrested for violating a law they were perfectly aware of before they even set out on the protest, and there’s no indication (that I’m aware of) that their human rights have been violated in any way thus far.

    There was, of course, the pepper spray incident a few days ago, but I’m not sure stinging eyes is the most important item on HRW’s agenda on a day to day basis.

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  15. Pug_ster – Until you understand that tu quoque arguments are logical failures right out of the box, you’ll never be more than a laughing stock on any forum that isn’t Hidden Harmonies, where they worship fallacious reasoning.

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  16. People like Pugster love to compare. But for some reason, no one from the CCP on down has taught them that a comparison is only valid if you compare things that are comparable.

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  17. C Custer,

    I’m talking about 700 people getting arrested for ‘walking in the roadway.’ In China, you see protests going to the roads all the time and you don’t see people arrested.

    Can you count how many people whom are jailed for months for ‘protesting’ in China? Probably not close to the 700 people in magnitude.

    http://thinkprogress.org/media/2011/09/20/323856/yahoo-censoring-occupy-wall-street-protests/

    Meanwhile, looks like censorship comes to the good old US of A.

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  18. Oh Pug,
    yet another gold star for effort for you.

    Now, before I spit up my drink from sheer laughter, may I ask if you read your own link this time? Cuz if you did, you might have seen this:
    “Yahoo officially partners with the repressive Chinese regime to provide the government with access to emails related to groups viewed as dissidents. An explosive investigation by Der Spiegel found that Yahoo provided Chinese authorities with access to emails from journalists, and the snooping resulted in the same journalists being sent to prison camps. ”

    Each time, i think “no, da pug can do anything dumber than this”, and each time, you prove me wrong. Well done indeed.

    Yep, looks like Yahoo isn’t such a great corporate citizen…I mean, partnering with the repressive Chinese regime and all…they should be ashamed of themselves.

    “I’m talking about 700 people getting arrested for ‘walking in the roadway.’ In China, you see protests going to the roads all the time and you don’t see people arrested.”
    —the first question you should ask yourself here, if you had a brain, is whether it is illegal to ‘walk in the roadway’ in China. If it is, then you have no comparison whatsoever. If it isn’t, then you should ask why Chinese police aren’t doing their job. Maybe it’s because they’re too busy harassing petitioners and “dissidents” instead.

    “Can you count how many people whom are jailed for months for ‘protesting’ in China? Probably not close to the 700 people in magnitude.”
    —those 700 were arrested. I think they would be “jailed for months” only in the most glorious of your wet dreams. It’s like you’ve given up on logic entirely. You’re just going to string words and phrases together, and hope nobody notices. Good luck with that. Looking forward to your next attempt.

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  19. “I’m talking about 700 people getting arrested for ‘walking in the roadway.’ In China, you see protests going to the roads all the time and you don’t see people arrested.”

    Um…you do? Because I very rarely see protests, and I have never seen one on a major road. The last protest I know of that took place on a road in Beijing was that one with all the artists on Chang’an Lu, and how did that end again? Oh yeah, they all got arrested.

    But the Jasmine “protests” weren’t on a road, and some smaller things I’ve seen in second and third-tier cities also have been in public places, but not on roads. They tend to be gatherings rather than marches, and thus people choose large public spaces like squares or pedestrian shopping streets to meet, where lots of people can stand around easily.

    “Can you count how many people whom are jailed for months for ‘protesting’ in China? Probably not close to the 700 people in magnitude.”

    No, I don’t think it was. However, let’s add up the total number of days in jail. I bet I know whose will be higher even though there were fewer people arrested (since there was no one really protesting to begin with)!

    “http://thinkprogress.org/media/2011/09/20/323856/yahoo-censoring-occupy-wall-street-protests/ Meanwhile, looks like censorship comes to the good old US of A.”

    The “censorship” you’re talking about was an accidental tech glitch (read the updates) and anyway it has nothing to do with the US government. As SK Cheung pointed out above, Yahoo! is pretty notorious for bending over backwards to please the Chinese government, they’re not exactly known for their staunch defense of American values. And if Jack Ma gets his way, they won’t be American much longer anyway….

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