The politics of public supervision of government in China: The case of the civil monitory organization

Event details

PSC Seminar

Date & time

Friday 22 June 2018


PSC Reading Room 4.27, Hedley Bull Centre (130), Garran Road, ANU
ANU Canberra


Meixi Zhuang


Helen McMartin

China appears to be an unlikely host for accountable governance. But in recent years, a number of local innovations encouraging public supervision of government have emerged. Detailing the case of Wenzhou city’s Civil Monitory Organization, this seminar discusses how citizen participants (called civil monitors) managed to supervise local cadres who are not institutionally accountable to citizens. Based on 13 months’ ethnographic observation, this research has found that local public supervision is empirically real. To mitigate the plague of cadre misconduct in lower echelons, resource-constrained principals may adopt public supervision as a cost-effective measure for information and control. By championing participants as officially-recognized civil monitors, principals require their agents to directly face public grilling, but without having themselves accountable to citizens. This power structure generates a mechanism of ‘state-backed supervision’ wherein monitors use delegated and entitled state authority to apply pressure on unaccountable local cadres. State-backed supervision thus offers a pathway for citizens to exercise accountability vis-à-vis local cadres who would otherwise dismiss bottom-up initiatives for opening the black box of politics.

This seminar will explain three basic strategies of state-backed supervision: (1) seeking support from local powerful leaders; (2) collaborating with official accountability institutions; and (3) using official policies and commitments for the creation of the rhetorical weapon. Empirical findings suggest that support from individual local leaders may exert a temporary hyper-enforcement effect, but it is sustained collaboration with official accountability institutions and iterative use of the rhetorical weapon that geared public supervision towards institutionalization. However, state-backed supervision features contingent participation. Monitors are only allowed to act in a limited scope, and with a limited range of issues. The vexed relationship between local government and monitors makes it difficult for monitors to check critical power abuse beyond prescribed boundary. Moreover, in contested policy areas public supervision is often alienated as an instrument of state control, which entrenches the authoritarian power structure. Public supervision innovations in other field sites vary in scope and effectiveness, yet similar patterns of opportunities and constraints are present despite local variations. Drawing from the China lesson, this study contributes to the scholarly understanding of the opportunities and dilemma of operating social accountability by public supervision when formal political rights are constrained.

About the Speaker
Zhuang Meixi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political and Social Change at The Australian National University. She had previously studied at The University of Nottingham, The Chinese University of Hong Kong and Communication University of China. She is currently writing a PhD dissertation about the politics of local public supervision in China.

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