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University of Pennsylvania Journal of International Law



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China, local agents, cadre responsibility


Chinese cadre responsibility systems are a core element of Chinese law and governance. These top-down personnel systems set concrete target goals linked to official salaries and career advancement. Judges and courts face annual targets for permissible numbers of mediated, reversed, and closed cases; Communist Party secretaries and government bureaus face similar targets for allowable numbers of protests, traffic accidents, and mine disasters. For many local Chinese officials, these targets have a much more direct impact on their behavior than do formal legal and regulatory norms.

This Article argues that Chinese authorities are dependent on responsibility systems, particularly their use of strict, vicarious, and collective liability principles, as an institutional tool to address pervasive principal-agent problems they face in governing a large authoritarian bureaucracy. But excessive reliance on these methods to control local officials ironically fuels governance problems that Chinese central leaders seek to address. Central Chinese authorities do not want township officials colluding to falsify tax records or engaging in ill-conceived development projects that waste central funds. Nor do they want rural residents burning down government buildings or staging mass petitions to Beijing to protest the actions of local officials. But these are the direct results of cadre evaluation systems that Chinese authorities use to govern their local agents.

Continued reliance on responsibility systems as a tool of governance raises significant conflicts with the legal reforms that Chinese authorities have pursued since 1978. And recent developments suggest that central Chinese authorities may be backing away from their efforts to govern China, and their local agents, through law and legal institutions. At least some leaders appear to favor an alternative strategy--strengthening the role of responsibility systems as a tool for monitoring local agents. This is a fundamental conflict over the core question of how to govern China. How it is resolved will have lasting implications for China's domestic evolution and stability.