State and Agents in China: Disciplining Government Officials

State and Agents in China: Disciplining Government Officials

by Yongshun Cai


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State and Agents in China: Disciplining Government Officials by Yongshun Cai

Chinese government officials have played a crucial role in China's economic development, but they are also responsible for severe problems, including environmental pollution, violation of citizens' rights, failure in governance, and corruption. How does the Chinese Party-state respond when a government official commits a duty-related malfeasance or criminal activity? And how does it balance the potential political costs of disciplining its own agents versus the loss of legitimacy in tolerating their misdeeds? State and Agents in China explores how the party-state addresses this dilemma, uncovering the rationale behind the selective disciplining of government officials and its implications for governance in China.

By examining the discipline of state agents, Cai shows how selective punishment becomes the means of balancing the need for and difficulties of disciplining agents, and explains why some erring agents are tolerated while others are punished. Cai finds that the effectiveness of punishing erring officials in China does not depend so much on the Party-state's capacity to detect and punish each erring official but on the threat it creates when the Party-state decides to mete out punishment. Importantly, the book also shows how relaxed discipline allows reform-minded officials to use rule-violating reform measures to address local problems, and how such reform measures have significant implications for the regime's resilience.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780804793513
Publisher: Stanford University Press
Publication date: 12/10/2014
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 8.80(w) x 5.90(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Yongshun Cai is Professor of Social Science, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He is the author of State and Laid-off Workers in Reform China (2006) and Collective Resistance in China (Stanford, 2010).

Read an Excerpt

State and Agents in China

Disciplining Government Officials

By Yongshun Cai


Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8047-9352-0



In 2011, peasant protests in Wukan village in Guangdong province attracted the attention of the media in and outside China. The protests were provoked by the village cadres, who had sold land without informing or asking permission from the villagers. Although the village cadres were suspected of embezzling a large amount of money obtained through land sales, the other villagers were barely compensated. In September, the villagers began to stage protests in their village and in front of government offices after repeated but unsuccessful petitions. The village representatives negotiated with the town- and county-level authorities but failed to reach a satisfactory solution. In December, the city government of Shanwei solved the dispute by removing the village party secretary and the head while arresting five village representatives for instigating the protests.

The way the city government handled this case is familiar. It disciplined the conflict-provoking cadres to appease the disgruntled villagers while punishing the leaders of the protests or the activists to deter other troublemakers. Most protest incidents end this way, but the Wukan case did not. The county-level authority claimed that all of the major issues raised by the peasants, including the village finances, land issue, and village election, had been resolved, yet the villagers were disappointed because they felt that the government's declaration was untrue. The protests recurred, and the conflict intensified when one of the detained village representatives died in police custody. The government claimed that the representative died of heart disease, a conclusion that the family and other villagers did not accept. Instead, they believed that the representative had died of wounds.

The local government's failure to effectively solve the case and the constant attention of the media eventually led the provincial government to intervene. A team of around twenty high-ranking officials from about ten provincial Party and government agencies was sent to investigate the case. The team was headed by a vice provincial Party secretary, who was also a member of the central Discipline Inspection Commission; the deputy head of the team was a vice governor. When they took over the case, other detained representatives were released (two were on probation), and a rein-vestigation into the cause of the representative's death was promised.

The provincial leaders were dissatisfied with the local officials' performance. The head of the investigation team stated that the relationship between some cadres and the people was as incompatible as water and fire. Whether the people were facing difficulties was not these cadres' concern. The head of the team criticized the irresponsibility and irresponsiveness of some cadres, blaming them for failing to consider how the peasants who had lost land could make a living. He said:

In some places, the government continues to ignore the problems that have long been raised by the people. If the problem can be suppressed, the government will take immediate and harsh measures to suppress it. The next step is to postpone the settlement as long as possible. In the cadres' view, leaving the problems to their successors is preferable. Once they are transferred, whatever happens next will no longer be their business. This mentality is common among local cadres.

Nevertheless, although the criticisms made by the investigation head seemed to be based on what had happened in the Wukan case, the team's attitude toward the local officials involved in the case was not critical. Indeed, the local officials had been irresponsive in addressing this case because between 2009 and 2011, before the large-scale protests began, the Wukan villagers had repeatedly appealed to fourteen government agencies. Despite the lack of response from local officials, the head of the team was positive about the efforts of the county and the city governments, claiming that their earlier efforts created conditions for the ensuing solution to the disputes.

The Wukan case, one of numerous social protests in China in recent years, reveals the issue of local officials' accountability in the country. The dispute occurred at the grassroots level between the villagers and the village cadres, but neither the town government nor the county- or city-level authority was able to handle it properly. Eventually, the provincial authority formed a team of high-ranking provincial officials to deal with it directly. This case also reveals the difficulties of using sanctions to ensure accountability. Although high-ranking officials were dissatisfied with the performance of the local officials, the former did not necessarily take punitive measures to deal with the latter.

In China, the performance of local officials is anchored to the fulfillment of their assigned responsibilities. For example, in the case of conflict management, government officials are assessed for their performance in maintaining social stability, and they will be disciplined if they fail. If the threat of discipline is credible, local officials need to be more responsive, either to accommodate the demands of the disgruntled or to silence them. However, this does not always seem to be the case. Although the central authority prioritizes building a harmonious society and allocates resources for this purpose, social conflicts continue to increase. For example, incidents of collective action in China increased by 14.6 times, from 8,700 to approximately 127,460, between 1993 and 2008. As the Wukan case shows, local officials may be exempted despite their failure in the management of social conflict.

Yet it would be misleading to conclude that Chinese local officials face little risk in failing to perform their duties. As a county Party secretary revealed, "Like scared birds, we are on high alert every day, worrying about production safety, sudden events, mass petitions, and other large-scale incidents that will result in punishment." Others also admitted, "Given the various 'one-item veto' responsibilities, we wish we could keep one eye open even when we sleep. We are anxious all the time, fearing that we will be required to take responsibility." Some local officials are punished or even jailed because of their failures in local governance.

Why are some officials who fail to perform their duties tolerated, whereas others are punished? Answers to this question shed light on the issue of cadre management, governance, and state capacity in China. This book addresses the issue of agent management in China by examining the political rationale behind the sanctioning of erring agents. Variations in the state's attitudes toward malfeasant officials reveal the political dilemma in disciplining state agents. On the one hand, unprincipled tolerance undermines regime legitimacy and the state's authority. On the other hand, disciplining can be costly because the government relies on its agents instead of electoral support to stay in power and to govern.

How does the Chinese party-state deal with this dilemma of disciplining malfeasant agents? This book shows that selective or differentiated discipline is a natural means of balancing the need for and the difficulties in disciplining agents on the part of the state authority. The issue then becomes the criterion that the state adopts in deciding whether and how an erring agent should be punished. Two factors significantly affect a malfeasant official's likelihood of being punished: the severity of the consequences of the official's failure in performing his or her duties or in governance and his or her role or responsibility in the failure. However, the effect of these factors can be mediated by the cost considerations on the part of the state authority or individual leaders.

The selective use of discipline has important implications for the behavior of government officials in China. Differentiated discipline inevitably leads to compromise and to the tolerance of certain agents, thus undermining the credibility of discipline. However, the effectiveness of disciplining in China does not depend on the capacity of the state authority to detect and punish each erring agent but on the non-negligible threat it creates for malfeasant agents when the state authority decides to mete out punishment.

Agents and Accountability

Solnick writes, "In any type of regime—from democratic to authoritarian—rulers need an apparatus to be able to rule. Before any set of leaders can think of governing a population, it must first resolve the problem of governing this state apparatus." The state apparatus is operated by state agents. Skillful and loyal agents are an important component of state power because they determine the effectiveness of governance and thus affect the welfare of the public. However, individuals work for the government for different reasons, so the state cannot rely on the agents' goodwill to ensure their accountability; instead, the state has to regulate the agents' behavior. As Grant and Keohane point out, accountability "implies that some actors have the right to hold other actors to a set of standards, to judge whether they have fulfilled their responsibilities in light of these standards, and to impose sanctions if they determine that these responsibilities have not been met."

In political contexts that involve the delegation of power, accountability is tied to the interaction between the principal that delegates the power and the agents that are given the power and responsibility. Given that the delegation of power inevitably creates the agency problem, characterized by information asymmetries between the principal and the agents, on the one hand, and moral hazards on the other, the principal must take measures to ensure the agents' accountability. First, an alignment of interests can be formed between the principal and the agents, regardless of whether the alignment is based on material benefits or ideological attachment to the same cause. Second, the principal may design institutions ex ante to prevent agents from deviating from what the principal has planned. Third, the delegation authority may also take monitoring measures, such as the "police patrol," to detect malfeasance and supervise the agents. Finally, the authority can monitor agents by assessing the outcome of their performance or use ex post measures to ensure that the agents fulfill their assigned responsibilities.

Regardless of the measures adopted by the delegation authority, the underlying assumption about the effectiveness of these measures is that agents with good performance will be rewarded and that agents with poor performance or rule-violating behavior will be disciplined. Hence, a political system defines not only to whom an agent must answer but also the types of punishment to be meted out if he or she fails to be accountable. In other words, ensuring accountability requires two equally important measures: rewards and sanctions. O'Flaherty writes that "politics can be nothing more than meting out rewards and punishments, and doing so in a ham-fisted manner." Dunn also reveals that "for accountability to sustain responsiveness, it must be supported by sanctions and awards." Therefore, principals need to provide positive rewards for those who account well for their work and to impose punishment on those who fail to perform their duties or deviate from the rules.

Nevertheless, the use of sanctions to deal with erring agents is not an easy undertaking. In theory, democratic governments generally face a stronger need for disciplining malfeasant agents than their nondemocratic counterparts do. In a mature democracy with elections, a free press, and the rule of law, politicians have limited discretion in protecting erring agents because they and their parties face electoral pressure. As Key suggests, "The only really effective weapon of popular control in a democratic regime is the capacity of the electorate to throw a party from power." Moreover, given the rule of law, agents who engage in serious malfeasance are subject to legal punishment that is beyond the control of politicians.

However, even in democracies, politicians may avoid punishment. One reason is that voters may not have sufficient information to make the right judgment. People's understanding of government behavior is constrained by "the sheer complexity of the social world" and their own "limitations of time and cognitive capacity." Moreover, as Maravall points out, "Governmental action is multidimensional, and voters may want to reject some policies but retain others that they value. Incumbents will fully play a balancing game, making popular and unpopular policies interdependent. Also, citizens may dislike the opposition even more intensely." Another reason is that a society or its constituents can be divided. For example, in India, corrupt officials are not punished partly because of the divisions among the constituencies. Politicians who are corrupt but are able to bring benefits to their communities are still acceptable to their communities. Sondhi writes that, in India, "it is no surprise, therefore, that at times the corrupt political leaders walk majestically to the court and acknowledge their supporters' greetings as if they were to receive an award for public service." Thus, Limaye concludes, "A badly divided electorate cannot be expected to devise effective corrective action against political immorality."


Although a democracy may not always ensure accountability, it is more conducive to accountability than alternative regimes. Consequently, research on the monitoring of state agents in mature democracies tends to focus on the introduction of monitoring mechanisms such as "fire alarms," "police patrols," or other procedures that can prevent the agents' deviations. It is generally assumed that the disciplining of agents who deviate from the rules or regulations is duly carried out.

Compared with democratic governments, authoritarian regimes face limited or no pressure arising from elections. Given their monopoly of political power and their control over the flow of information, authoritarian governments assume more autonomy or discretion in disciplining state agents. However, this discretion does not necessarily ease the issue of discipline. Authoritarian governments rely on their agents for governance and rule, and this reliance complicates the discipline. For one, the use of discipline demoralizes not only the disciplined agents but also their supporters. If the disciplining is not well institutionalized, consensus building is often needed in the decision making, which can be difficult because of factional politics. Furthermore, serious disciplining of certain agents means wasting the resources invested in them. Because of their reliance on their agents, authoritarian governments tend to be more concerned with these difficulties or the costs of discipline.

Yet, a lack of discipline inevitably results in serious consequences or creates concerns for the party-state. One is that a regime's legitimacy will be damaged if the state authority fails to discipline malfeasant agents. Although authoritarian regimes do not rely on legitimacy for survival, they still face the legitimacy constraint and have incentives to build and shore up legitimacy. Authoritarian states with a higher level of legitimacy not only have a better chance of surviving crises but also avoid the cost of imposing strict and constant control over society. As Easton suggests, "A belief in legitimacy is necessary for the maintenance of support, at least for political systems that persist for any appreciable length of time," because legitimacy is a "belief in the right of authorities to rule and members to obey." According to Gamson, "The existing trust orientation toward authorities ... affects the means of influence a group will use." In other words, people are less likely to take action to overthrow a regime if they still believe in its legitimacy. Therefore, Saxonberg writes, "Even if the Soviet-type regimes never gained complete legitimacy in the sense of gaining popular support for the system, they certainly tried."


Excerpted from State and Agents in China by Yongshun Cai. Copyright © 2015 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Figures and Tables ix

Acknowledgments xi

1 Introduction 1

2 Government Officials' Malfeasance in China 20

3 The Politics of Disciplining Government Officials 49

4 Disciplining Officials for Duty-Related Malfeasance 71

5 Punishing Corrupt Agents 104

6 The Politics of Blame Avoidance 134

7 Reform-Minded Officials, State Tolerance, and Institutional Change 159

8 Conclusion 181

Appendix: Data Collection 195

3.1 Collection of 111 Cases of Media Exposure 197

3.2 Collection of 133 Cases of Officials' Duty-Related Malfeasance 198

4.1 Cases of Disciplining Cadres in Conflict Management 199

5.1 Cases of the Disciplining of 1,012 Officials 200

5.2 Cases of High-Ranking Officials Given Serious Legal Punishment (N = 41) 203

Notes 205

Index 241

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