In early June, Chinese president Xi Jinping deployed eight SWAT-like inspection teams across China. Unlike that of a typical SWAT team, their mission was bureaucratic: to ensure that local officials were complying with Xi’s ambitious reform agenda, which includes meeting new environmental targets, eliminating unnecessary licenses for businesses, and cutting official spending on travel and entertainment. Armed with expert knowledge of Xi’s reforms, the teams, composed of more than 100 officials, interrogated local officials, raided offices, and pored over reams of data to root out non-conformers.
After ten days investigating China’s wayward provinces, the teams submitted a 1,000-page report with a simple conclusion: local leaders, looking out for their own financial interests, were consistently ignoring directives from Beijing.
For Xi, these findings must not have been surprising. Over the past few years, he has engineered a bold new program of economic reform, discarding the old model -- which often sacrificed air, soil, and water quality for GDP growth -- for one prioritizing more sustainable growth and environmental protection. Speaking at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in October 2013, Xi spoke against “draining the pond to catch fish,” or promoting fast growth over long-term development and quality investment.
Still, for all the mandates from Beijing, there have been few noticeable improvements in key areas of the agenda. There has been little progress, for example, on the construction of affordable housing, the breaking down of state-owned monopolies, and the promotion of the private sector. In all of this, local leaders bear a good deal of blame.
Indeed, the relationship between Beijing and the provinces has always been nettlesome. The Chinese central government has a reputation for being an all-seeing, all-knowing Big Brother, but nothing could be further from the truth. Beijing officials wield a certain amount of power, of course -- they can jail a corrupt individual, for instance, or close a factory -- but province-by-province, city-by-city, they struggle to enforce centrally mandated policy.
Their biggest challenge is the current bureaucratic structure, in which local branches of central ministries report only informally to Beijing. Local leaders hold immense power over the policymaking process, especially because they control the career trajectories of local bureaucrats. As they say in China, “Heaven is high and the emperor is far away.” And, in fact, Beijing has traditionally turned a blind eye to provincial officials that adapt central policy to local needs, so long as they meet certain economic targets.