Just a quick note about what I see happening behind the scenes in China.
The administration of Hu Jintao has made a recent effort to push for transparency and accountability in China, especially related to disbursement of funds related to the Sichuan earthquake, and then acting quickly against corrupt local officials in Wengan in Guizhou province.
The center in Beijing is responding to a popular demand for greater accountability and transparency, and is using this as an opportunity clean house within the ruling party. The message from Beijing to the local party officials is simple: Shape up or be removed from your position.
When Deng Xiaoping introduced his reforms beginning in 1978, he gave local officials wide leeway as to how investment was brought in. The reason for this was simple: Beijing had no money; it was bankrupt. The side effect of this policy has been rampant local corruption. All kinds of games have been played in the name of making the numbers reported back to Beijing. Many of these corrupt officials have escaped China, and are living in the US in multi-million dollar mansions paid for in cash. Behind the scenes, the Hu administration has been quietly working with the US’s Justice Department to bring these officials back to China for prosecution.
As the amounts of the corruption have grown, so has popular resentment. Beijing knows that it must act to clean house. The failure of local governments and party organizations to act forcefully and clean up their own houses have handed Beijing an excellent excuse to act forcefully, and handed multiple PR victories to the center. Chinese bloggers who highlight local corruption have become the eyes and ears of Beijing on the local level. When the decision is made that local corruption needs to be escalated to the national level, then Xinhua mobilizes its formidable machine to shape public opinion on the national level. Then Beijing comes in and acts forcefully, removing the corrupt officials, and making them an example to local government and party organizations all over China.
If you believe that this is simply about accountability and transparency though, you would be naive. It is also about money and how investment decisions are made in China.
Beijing is seeking to recover many of the financial and investment decision making powers which Deng handed over to the provinces and local party officials. In the context of this drive against local corruption, the local administrations and organizations are in a weak position to resist Beijing’s efforts to recover investment-making decisions. China needs higher value-added, higher technology industries which rely more on research, development and IP. Provincial governments and party organizations have not acted quickly enough to upgrade from inefficient, dirty industries which rely on cheap labor. This means that now the investment decisions need to be made from the center in Beijing, with the support of public opinion, of course.
While the Chinese government does not understand PR in a western context, it knows exactly what it’s doing in a Chinese context.