China appears to be an unlikely host for accountable governance. But in recent years, a number of social accountability innovations encouraging public supervision have begun to emerge at the subnational level. Detailing the case of Wenzhou city’s Civil Monitory Organization, this seminar explores the challenges and opportunities of public supervision politics in China, and specifically how civil monitors manage to supervise local cadres who are not institutionally accountable to citizens. Based on ethnographic observation, this research finds that local public supervision is taking place in China. To mitigate the plague of cadre misconduct at lower echelons, principals in higher-level government may encourage the public to help sound the alarm. This structural opening generates a mechanism of “state-entitled supervision” wherein monitors use delegated state authority to apply pressure on unaccountable local cadres. This seminar will explain the three basic strategies of state-entitled supervision: (1) seeking support from local ruling elites; (2) cooperating with intra-state accountability agencies; and (3) using officially sanctioned values and commitments as rhetorical weapons. While initially public supervision often heavily relies on the personal authority of local ruling elites, it can become institutionalized if monitors iteratively take advantage of intra-state accountability agencies, and tactfully employ rhetorical weapons to legitimize their claims. In this process, monitors can achieve a self-empowering effect, thus becoming “rightful monitors” to whom local cadres feel answerable. However, state-entitled supervision is fraught with constraints. The patron-client relationship between local government and monitors makes it difficult for monitors to check critical power abuse related to their patrons. Moreover, in key policy areas public supervision is alienated as an instrument of state control, which entrenches the authoritarian power structure.
Zhuang Meixi is a PhD candidate in the Department of Political and Social Change at The Australian National University. She 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.