China appears to be an unlikely host for accountable governance. But in recent years, a number of social accountability innovations encouraging public supervision have emerged at the subnational level. This seminar discusses how public supervision operates in China. Detailing the case of Wenzhou city’s Civil Monitory Organization, this seminar discusses how civil monitors manage to supervise local cadres who are not institutionally accountable to citizens. Based on ethnographic observation, this research has found that local public supervision is empirically real. To mitigate the plague of cadre misconduct in lower echelons, principals in the higher level government may enlist citizens as volunteer monitors. This structural opening generates a mechanism of ‘state-backed supervision’ wherein monitors use delegated and entitled state authority to apply pressure on unaccountable local cadres. This seminar will explain three basic strategies of state-backed supervision: (1) seeking support from local ruling elites; (2) collaborating with intra-state accountability agencies; and (3) using official policies and commitments as a rhetorical weapon. Support from local ruling elites may exert a temporary ‘doping’ effect, but it is sustained collaboration with intra-state accountability agencies and iterative use of rhetorical weapons that gears public supervision towards institutionalization. In this process, monitors can achieve a self-empowering effect, thus becoming ‘rightful monitors’ to whom local cadres feel obliged to be answerable. While cadres cannot be accountable to citizens in the truest sense, de facto checks and balances have gradually emerged at the grassroots level.
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.