The fiasco of the Olympic Torch Relay has focused attention on the condition of human rights in China. What is the source of human rights abuses in that country today? Many people assume the problem is that China remains a communist dictatorship, and that abuses occur because a strong centralized Chinese state ignores the rights of its citizens. With regard to Tibet and the suppression of the religious movement Falun Gong, this may be right. But the larger problem in today’s China arises out of the fact that the central Chinese state is in certain ways too weak to defend the rights of its people.
The vast majority of abuses of the rights of ordinary Chinese citizens today—peasants who have their land taken away without just compensation, workers forced to labor under sweatshop conditions, or villagers poisoned by illegal dumping of pollutants—occurs at a level far below that of the government in Beijing. China’s peculiar road towards modernization after 1978 was powered by so-called “township and village enterprises” (TVEs), which were local government bodies that were given the freedom to establish businesses and enter into the emerging market economy. The TVEs were enormously successful, and many today have become extraordinarily rich and powerful. In cahoots with private developers and companies, it is they who are producing conditions resembling the “satanic mills” of early industrial England.
The central government, by all accounts, would like to crack down on these local government bodies, but finds itself unable to do so. It both lacks capacity, and depends on local governments and the private sector to produce jobs and revenue. The Chinese Communist Party understands that it is riding a tiger. Each year there are several thousand violent incidents of social protest, each one contained and suppressed by state authorities, who nevertheless cannot seem to get at the underlying source of the unrest.
Americans traditionally distrust strong central government, and champion a federalism that distributes powers to state and local governments. The logic of wanting to move government closer to the people is strong, but we often forget that tyranny can be imposed by local oligarchies as much as by centralized ones. In the history of the Anglophone world, it is not the ability of local authorities to check the central government, but rather a balance of power between local authorities and a strong central government, that is the true cradle of liberty.
The nineteenth century British legal scholar Sir Henry Sumner Maine in his book Early Law and Custom points to this very fact in a fine essay entitled “France and England.” He notes that the single most widespread complaint written in the cahiers produced on the eve of the French Revolution (which Tocqueville also refers to in The Old Regime and the French Revolution) were complaints by peasants over encroachments of their property rights by seigneurial courts. According to Maine, judicial power in France was decentralized and under control of the local aristocracy. By contrast, from the time of the Norman conquest, the English monarchy had succeeded in establishing a strong, uniform, and centralized system of justice. It was the King’s Courts that protected non-elite groups from depredations by the local aristocracy. The failure of the French monarchy to impose similar constraints on local elites was one of the reasons why the peasants who sacked manor houses during the Revolution went straight to the room containing the titres to property that they felt had been stolen from them over the preceding generations. In England, the legitimacy of existing property rights was much more broadly accepted.
State weakness can hurt the cause of liberty. The Polish and Hungarian aristocracies were able to impose their equivalents of the Magna Carta on their monarchs; those countries’ central governments, unlike their English counterpart, remained far too weak in subsequent generations to protect the peasantry from the local lords, not to speak of protecting their countries as a whole from outside invasion.
The same was of course true in the United States. “States’ Rights” and federalism was the banner under which local elites in the South could oppress African-Americans, both before and after the Civil War. American liberty is the product of decentralized government balanced by a strong central state, one that is capable, when necessary, of sending the National Guard to Little Rock to protect the right of black children to attend school.
It is hard to know if and when freedom will emerge in 21st century China. The latter may be the first country where demand for accountable government is driven primarily by concern over a poisoned environment. But it will come about only when popular demand for some form of downward accountability on the part of local governments and businesses is supported by a central government strong enough to force local elites to obey the country’s own rules.