The Accountability Function within a One-party Regime: The Case of China’s Local People’s Congress
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This is a study of Chinese local legislatures, the Local People’s Congresses (LPCs), and their accountability function within the one-party regime. The focus is to what extent, how, and why LPCs can promote political accountability in the face of the dominant Communist Party Committee as well as powerful government institutions in the reform era.Studies of accountability relationships usually are concerned with (1) vertical relations between voters and elected representatives and (2) horizontal relations between legislatures and governments. However, we should also distinguish between relationships in different policy areas; for instance, accountability in budgetary matters compared to other policy areas. This study views the accountability function of LPCs from a holistic perspective, based on an in-depth fieldwork of four LPCs in East and middle China.Starting with a “zero-based-monopoly model,” where LPCs exert minimal influence, this study finds that LPCs in recent years have strengthened all of the different aspects of accountability that were scrutinized. Compared to the previous monopoly model of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), controllability, transparency, and answerability have increased over time, although electoral accountability has been relatively limited due to its political sensitivity in the eyes of the CCP and governments. Significant progress has been made in other accountability aspects, however. The main strategies adopted by LPCs and congress deputies to increase influence have been to persuade the CCP to provide support, to strategically communicate with governments, to motivate the involvement of multiple forces such as the public, social organizations, and media, and to assert influential power instruments. At the same time, the analysis indicates great variation among the LPCs, something that might be attributed to factors such as distinctive power structures among the CCP, governments, and LPCs, personality traits of the elites, political promotion from social organizations and the public, and the subsequent institutional innovations at a micro level.One important finding of this study is that LPCs have succeeded in pioneering new mechanisms, such as the creation of a series of co-governance oriented institutional reforms in the budgetary arena, to enhance influence and to ensure accountability. Given the dominant technical attributes and implicit political attributes of the public budget, it seems a promising route to assert accountability, compared with the sensitive electoral issue under China’s current political circumstances. However, electoral accountability serves the function of potentially affecting the chain the accountability in other aspects; thus, the long-term performance of the LPC accountability still relies on the holistic development of multiple aspects. This is one crucially important accountability aspect that has been neglected in previous research.With that said, this study also finds that the CCP still plays a key role in defining and influencing accountability functions. Stronger LPCs do not necessarily weaken the legitimacy of the CCP—quite the contrary. Concessions may actually strengthen its legitimacy by providing a more flexible system. Indeed, the CCP has supported and inspired the changes in the accountability function of the LPCs. At the same time, the CCP does not shy away from imposing constraints when reforms are seen to challenge its dominance.To conclude, then, the obvious deviation from zero-base monopoly model that has happened in the Chinese local scene, where current authoritarian institutions have not dislodged CCP dominance. That is to say, the accountability function of LPCs is moving forward for real, but not at an overwhelming pace. In this sense, we can say that neither conservative nor fundamental changes are happening, but rather, the changes are necessary for responding to increasing governance problems as well as a way of enhancing the legitimacy of the established political system in conjunction within intensified public political consciousness.