Fighting 'little emperors': China must not rely on public opinion to rein in power

Public opinion has continued to sway judicial justice in China since ancient times, according to EAI senior research fellow Lance Gore, and this reflects the lack of rule of law in the country and the problems with an authoritarian regime. He discusses why China has not been able to modernise its governance system and the possible reforms to right the wrongs.
Pedestrians crossing the road in front of office and commercial buildings in the central business district of China's capital Beijing, on 9 December 2023. (SPH Media)
Pedestrians crossing the road in front of office and commercial buildings in the central business district of China's capital Beijing, on 9 December 2023. (SPH Media)

An incident in Qianxi county, Hebei province in China, has recently stirred online controversy. The comments about it have coalesced into a huge discussion far beyond itself, alluding to the political system. With many experts and scholars engaged, public sentiment is rife with anticipation of a major event.

The party concerned is Ma Shushan, a 75-year-old retired cadre of Qianxi county’s Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Affairs.

Labelled 'danger to society' 

On 6 December 2023, the Qianxi public security bureau (PSB) received a written police report from the county’s party committee office, claiming that it had received registered letters forwarded from several staff members. 

The gist of the letters’ content was to report the abnormal and improper appointment of personnel by the party committee’s secretary and head of organisation department, as well as the county’s spending of tens of millions of RMB on a main street lighting project despite fiscal difficulties after Covid-19.

The party committee office declared these allegations as “without factual basis” and “seriously undermining the political ecosystem and overall social stability of Qianxi county”.

Upon receiving the police report, the PSB detained Ma Shushan on 9 December 2023, and the county procuratorate approved Ma’s arrest on 20 December. The PSB concluded its investigation on 28 December and transferred him to the county procuratorate for investigation and prosecution on the allegations of making false accusations and fabrication. The case was filed with the county court on 2 January 2024.

Ma Shushan, a 75-year-old retired cadre of Qianxi county’s Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. (Internet)
Ma Shushan, a 75-year-old retired cadre of Qianxi county’s Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Affairs. (Internet)

Ma’s lawyer applied for bail pending trial after Ma was detained but was rejected by the procuratorate on 29 December 2023 on the grounds that Ma “may be sentenced to more than imprisonment and is a danger to society”.

Turnaround: intervention from highest authority

A public furore ensued once the case was reported in the newspapers. The Supreme People’s Procuratorate and Hebei province sent a joint investigation team to Qianxi on 12 January 2024.

On 15 January, the county court decided to allow bail pending trial and Ma returned home after 5pm that day. Subsequently, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate instructed the county procuratorate to withdraw the charges against Ma on 16 January due to “no criminal facts found”. 

Responding to the public on 18 January, the Supreme People’s Procuratorate said that there were severe issues with the county procuratorial authority’s fact-finding, application of law, application of mandatory measures as well as supervision and execution of duties, for which “accountability must be solemnly pursued”. It further cautioned procuratorial authorities at all levels in China to “heed this as a warning, draw inferences from it and assiduously prevent recurrences”.

This morality show, in which justice trumps evil and righteous officials deliver justice for the people, has been played countless times in China’s history and is now re-enacted in a new form on the internet.

Scoring political points while damaging rule of law

After Ma was arrested, it was an article in The Economic Observer entitled “75-year-old Retired Hebei Cadre Arrested and Prosecuted After Whistleblowing on Local County Party Secretary” that incited the uproar, and the overturn of events at extraordinary speed brought cheer to many. 

This morality show, in which justice trumps evil and righteous officials deliver justice for the people, has been played countless times in China’s history and is now re-enacted in a new form on the internet.

The narrative by official media is that “with the country’s highest authority’s attention and intervention, an ordinary citizen’s grievance is resolved and reputation restored. This fully encapsulates the basis and execution of procuratorial duties to ensure that “the judiciary serves the people to their satisfaction."

In the absence of other effective oversight mechanisms, spontaneous public opinion often sways judicial justice.

Food delivery men ride electric scooters along a street at central business district in Beijing on 16 January 2024. (Wang Zhao/AFP)
Food delivery men ride electric scooters along a street in the central business district in Beijing on 16 January 2024. (Wang Zhao/AFP)

While public opinion has righted many misjudged cases and wrong policies, the problem is with distinguishing between the vigilante of public opinion and the hijacking of the judiciary, which are often confused in China. 

Legal issues have become a matter of taking sides and politics.

Legal issues are often handled like political issues, resulting in the objective to “win the people’s hearts and assuage the people’s anger” rather than to build up the rule of law. It scores political points in the short term but damages the rule of law in the long term.

For example, as a result of this case, the prosecutor-general has cautioned the national procuratorial authorities to “be squarely on the people’s side” and “consciously accept public supervision, humbly listen to public opinions, and actively respond to public concerns…” Legal issues have become a matter of taking sides and politics.

Who's the bad guy? 

Public opinion is always black and white, and it is easy to fall into the trap of good guy–bad guy absolute thinking. When public opinion is lopsided, bending the law under the pressures of political correctness becomes the choice, which is completely opposite to the rule of law that emphasises facts and evidence. 

For instance, Ma was easily made out to be a flawless knight in shining armour by public opinion. Indeed, he is a “good man”, with netizens rapidly surfacing his “glorious achievements”, such as being awarded the honorary certificate of “outstanding retired Hebei party cadre” by the provincial department, a 2014 Tangshan Labour Daily article entitled “Ma Shushan: A Good Man From Qianxi Who Finds Joy in Helping Others”, and a 2016 article by the provincial Civilisation Office entitled “Ma Shushan: Channelling enthusiasm for public welfare to action in his twilight years”. Reporters have seen many awards and pennants in his home, and his neighbours have commented that he has always been widely regarded as a good man and a long-term donor for education and the poor.

However, for someone like Ma whose reputation could have brought about some pretentiousness and who always wants to exert influence and make a difference, it is not difficult to imagine his shortcomings. Chinese grassroots petitioners (上访者) often include such people in their ranks. Ma’s neighbours have also said that he is a nosy person. 

Buildings in Pudong's Lujiazui Financial District in Shanghai, China, 29 January 2024. (Raul Ariano/Bloomberg)
Buildings in Pudong's Lujiazui Financial District in Shanghai, China, on 29 January 2024. (Raul Ariano/Bloomberg)

While it is normal to report the county party secretary and head of organisation department to their superiors, it is rather puzzling that the letter was sent to 30 leading cadres of the Qianxi county party committee, county government, county bureaucracies and townships, which appears to give credit to the allegation by the county’s party committee office that Ma was “seriously undermining the political ecosystem and overall social stability of Qianxi county”. Similarly, it is a little unusual that he continued to pay attention to the activities of the county’s party organisation department after retiring for more than ten years. 

It goes without saying that the county’s party secretary, chief of the public security bureau, chief prosecutor and chief justice would end up as the villains. This is the only outcome in the effort to assuage public anger. Whether they are truly villains depends to a great extent on their political ecosystems, which their will and resolve are unable to change.

 All will be good as long as they serve their superiors well.

When the county party chief is god

Ma was detained by the police on 9 December 2023 and prosecuted on 2 January 2024, a span of just 24 days. It took four days after the public security bureau transferred the case to the procuratorate on 28 December to file for prosecution.

These four days coincide with the three-day holiday period over the New Year, which means that the procuratorate worked through the holidays in overtime to draft the prosecution documents. This is "seamless" cooperation among the various departments.

But at the intervention of a higher authority, the prosecution was withdrawn in only two weeks, making the entire process seem like child’s play. Where does this high efficiency come from?

A netizen described the political ecosystem at the county level as such: “You may not know that a secretary exists like a god in a county. When the god commands, will the underlings dare take no action? ... If the police, prosecutors and the courts dare to defy the secretary, they will be removed from office at the minimum.

"An ill-tempered party secretary will not only oppress you but also take disciplinary action and send you to prison. Even if you are an honest and upright person, he can still find some fault... Even if the police, prosecutors and the courts at that time were not these people, the result would be the same. They will still carry out the orders and bully the commoners.”

The fundamental reason for this ecosystem is the top-down appointment of cadres, which only makes them do their superiors’ bidding. All will be good as long as they serve their superiors well.

A surveillance camera is silhouetted behind a Chinese national flag in Beijing, China, 3 November 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
A surveillance camera is silhouetted behind a Chinese national flag in Beijing, China, on 3 November 2022. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)

The county’s party committee office can decide Ma’s reporting as “without factual basis” and make the police report on behalf of the “falsely accused” county party secretary, initiating the whole legal process. According to the latest news, these government departments may have taken the initiative to settle everything for the county party secretary without his instructions.

From top to bottom: producing 'little emperors' 

What is more frightening is that this power structure and the resultant interest structure are the same everywhere in China.

The Ma case is common and the overturning of events is incidental. In the words of Chinese official media The Paper (澎湃新闻): “If a local judicial authority is reduced to a tool for retaliation against differing opinions, how can there be a healthy, normal political and public opinion ecosystem? ... Ma is fortunate because his case was reported by the media, which roused society’s concern and eventually captured the attention of the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, resulting in its intervention.”

This is the typical political ecosystem of ancient officialdom. It appears that China’s governance has become more feudal instead of being modernised.

Why has the fifth modernisation — the modernisation of the national governance system governing capability — resulted in a regression to the old ecosystem? What has gone wrong? 

... if the power at the top is not caged in systemic checks, neither can the power at the lower rungs.

The original intention of “deepening comprehensive reforms” is to “cage power with institutions”. The Central Comprehensively Deepening Reforms Commission has met monthly for more than a decade and adopted many plans for institution building and reforms.

Building a system to ensure that officials “do not dare to, are unable to and have no desire to commit corruption” has been underway for a long time. Despite improvements in China’s legal system, why do corruption and abuse of power continue to plague the system?

All the laws, regulations and procedures in China are formulated and enacted by the authorities in a top-down manner. Power, innately above these, is also their nemesis.

If at the apex, the head of members of the leadership team forms a patron-client relation, instead of being colleagues, comrades or partners, the model will replicate itself from top to bottom of the party-state hierarchy.

Police officers work outside a hotel in Shenzhen, Guangdong Province, on 24 January 2024. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)
Police officers work outside a hotel in Shenzhen, Guangdong province, on 24 January 2024. (Pedro Pardo/AFP)

Power will be able to bulldoze all institutions, rules, laws, procedures, division of labour and the mechanisms for checks and balances of power. This will result in the top leader at every level, in every locale and organisation all over China ruling like 'little emperors'. 

In other words, if the power at the top is not caged in systemic checks, neither can the power at the lower rungs. Although the system, rules and the rule of law have been meticulously built with frequent initiatives in recent years, they are little more than sand castles.

Rationality missing in governance modernisation 

The modernisation of governance has two aspects: improving efficiency and enhancing rationality. The police, prosecutors and the courts are under the party committee, which together with the government, are led by the party committee secretary.

This power structure has not changed, and “modernising” it greatly strengthened the power and reach of the various petty tyrants. While the abilities in decision-making and execution have been enhanced, but if this governing capability is employed in wrongdoing and corruption, no one can do anything about it because of the communities of shared interests in these circles.

This is the institutional origin of the frequently exposed cases of corruption in which the entire cadre team is implicated. As the fifth modernisation has enhanced efficiency but not rationality, it is unsurprising that corruption and abuse of power are not eradicated.

Members of the party are not made of some "exceptional material" (特殊材料) — there has to be a realistic regard for human nature. 

Political reforms necessary

First, China should abandon the “great leader” illusion. In this complex era of tumultuous changes, the greatness of a leader is his ability to orchestrate adaptive changes, not his unshakeable vision and beliefs. These are deceiving and a self-deception. Humility is the basic attribute of contemporary politicians.

Second, democracy is a must. Effective democracy is local, tangible and targeted. The appropriate systems and mechanisms must be explored and established, so that the local people can have a decisive influence on the careers of local officials. The experiment on intra-party democracy within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) must resume so as to maintain a healthy political ecosystem within the party and earnestly safeguard the basic rights of party members.

Third, judicial justice cannot be reliant on public opinion. In the age of information and the Internet, public opinion is easily manipulated and radicalised, often resulting in mob rule. Public opinion cannot replace professional and objective investigation, and judicial issues must be distinguished from political issues in assuaging public anger.

Fourth, the rule of law must be bonded with self-interests. Lawyers, like Adam Smith’s baker and butcher, produce social returns in their pursuit of self-interests. It is not possible to achieve self-discipline and integrity merely by raising the cadres' consciousness and ideological indoctrination. Members of the party are not made of some "exceptional material" (特殊材料) — there has to be a realistic regard for human nature. 

Finally, reference can be made to the US system. Like the FBI, which is a system by itself bonded to no local interests, the organisations that supervise and scrutinise public authority in China should be made independent of party committees at all levels so as to increase professionalism.

This article was first published in Lianhe Zaobao as “第五个现代化走错路了?”.

Related: Where is China now? | How Xi Jinping built a party-centred administrative regime