HONG KONG—A top law enforcement official has called on Chinese local authorities to "keep trouble in the townships," referring to the tens of thousands of clashes that happen annually between protesters and the authorities around the country.
In a clear endorsement of recent crackdowns on petitioners seeking redress for grievances against the government at a higher level of authority, Zhou Yongkang said "conflict should not be handed up to a higher level."
According to a recent report in the official Communist Party journal Qiushi, Zhou told a Dec. 18 nationwide law enforcement teleconference that "small problems should stay in the village, and bigger problems should stay in the township."
Zhou, political and legislative committee chairman for the Party's Central Committee, said efforts should be made to address the source of complaints against the government, which often center around the appropriation of farmland for development, or the eviction of residents to make way for new, and lucrative, construction projects.
Ming Xia, professor of politics at the City University of New York, said the real problem lies with the fact that local governments rarely have the ability to settle disputes by themselves.
"A lot of these disputes and clashes are created by policies of the central government," Xia said.
"The central government sends out a lot of directives, but it doesn't always make the funding available to carry out its wishes."
Many local governments, faced with a series of blank checks from central government, lack the budget to do what the central government directs, he said.
Unable to follow orders
Chris Wu, editor-in-chief of the online magazine China Affairs, agreed, saying local governments are often unable to follow orders from Beijing.
"It can't be fixed at a local level because the problem is a systemic one," Wu said.
"For example, forced evictions have sent hundreds of thousands of people to make complaints against the government, but the eviction policy was set by local government."
"Permission to demolish housing is approved by the State Council according to rules decided in 2002 or 2001," he said.
"If these regulations tell local governments they can demolish things, then they have the power to do so, and it doesn't matter how many department chiefs there are in between. None of them is going to do a thing about it."
Profits from new property developments can swell local coffers and boost tax revenues to the central government in Beijing, Wu said, adding, "How are you going to solve such a structural problem?"
China's "Regulation on Petitions," issued by the State Council, states that petitioners may voice their grievances to higher-level government offices.
But those trying to do so are frequently held in unofficial detention centers, or "black jails," before being taken back to their hometowns.
Many petitioners have spent years pursuing complaints against local officials over disputes including the loss of homes and farmland, unpaid wages and pensions, and alleged mistreatment by the authorities.
Few report getting a satisfactory result, and most say they have become a target of further harassment by the authorities.
Land disputes have spread across China in recent years, with local people often complaining that they receive only minimal compensation when the government sells tracts to developers in lucrative property deals or evicts them from their homes in downtown areas.
Attempts to occupy disputed property frequently result in violent clashes, as police and armed gangs are brought in to enforce the will of local officials.
Original reporting in Mandarin by Shi Shan. Mandarin service director: Jennifer Chou. Translated and written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.