Local Government Reforms Lead to Unsettling Merger of Party And Government Posts

December 20, 2004

According to a report in the 21st Business Herald, reforms in one set of townships in Anhui province are reducing the overall number of official cadres, but also prompting an unsettling merger of government and Party posts.

Recent experimental reforms begun in Xuancheng city have directed subordinate townships and districts to eliminate and merge overlapping government and Party offices. These efforts follow leadership pronouncements at the Central Committee plenum meeting in September 2004 that direct local governments to carry out similar reforms with the aim of "increasing Party governance capacity."

As one former township head notes, these reforms are the necessary result of recent efforts at tax reform. To raise rural incomes, the central government has carried out significant campaigns to reduce rural taxes in recent years (in Anhui, since 2000). Rural taxes are the main source of income for local governments, and abolishing them pressures local officials to reduce the size of government.

While the reforms described above seem to reduce the total number of officials and lessen the tax burden imposed on local residents, these measures also tend to concentrate Party and government power in the hands of a few officials. For example, in Banshu township’s proposed reform plan, the Communist Party secretary also serves as the head of the township government. One deputy Party secretary also serves as head of the local people’s congress. The other leads the procuracy.

Chinese leaders historically have supported the separation of Party and government posts as a check on the individual power of local officials. But as scholars note with concern, these reforms may remove this check on the abuse of power, potentially helping to create local strongmen. Such developments illustrate the need for local Chinese governments to develop effective forms of popular participation and non-party organizations as alternative means of limiting the power of local officials.