Overseas, people still think of China as a monolithic state, ruled by a larger-than-life autocrat whose diktats reverberate in the nation's farthest reaches. But even as top party bosses gathered in the seaside resort of Beidaihe earlier this month to decide when Hu would replace President Jiang Zemin, ordinary Chinese were finding the selection of the country's next supreme leader largely irrelevant. After more than two decades of economic reform, China's centralized system has given way to clusters of fiefdoms operating outside Beijing's shrinking sphere of influence. Absolute power, once exemplified by the personality cult of the Great Helmsman, has devolved to regional party bosses who now hold sway over citizens' everyday lives. "Hu is being groomed to run a country that is increasingly ungovernable," says Wu Guoguang, a former Communist Party aide now living in Hong Kong. "There are too many little emperors in China to listen to just one big man."
If the interests of local kingpins were aligned with those of the central government, life might go on much as before. But increasingly they are not, and abuses have transformed China from a straightjacketed but ordered society into another chaotic and corrupt developing country. Across northern China, for example, local officials are ignoring a more forgiving tax code championed by Beijing and instead are forcing peasants to pay exorbitant taxes on land that ceased to be fertile years ago. In other places such as Henan, Fujian and Gansu provinces, local bosses have taken central government funds for combating drugs, human smuggling and HIV, and used them to build palatial homes.
The clout of local autocrats is undermining Beijing's highest-priority reforms. A Shanghai-based executive for a European sporting-goods company dismisses the notion that China's entry into the World Trade Organization (WTO) will eliminate trade barriers. Even after the WTO agreement kicks in, his company will still have to pay an amount double the current national import tariff to ship his sneakers from Shanghai to the central city of Chongqing, because of protectionist fees imposed by provincial governments. Earlier this year, a U.S. automaker discovered that sending a sedan from Shanghai to northern Ningxia province is more expensive than shipping it from Detroit to Shanghai because truckers have to pay a toll—read bribe—every time their load of new cars crosses a provincial border. An Australian lawyer in Shanghai says she discarded her copy of the Chinese legal code when it became clear local party officials were ignoring national regulations. "No one seems to pay much attention to laws," she says, "unless they can figure out a way to make a profit from them."
China's citizens say graft and corruption are their top concerns, according to a study by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing. But despite a highly publicized national crackdown—Chinese newspapers are constantly filled with stories of big-name arrests and executions—Beijing appears unable to stem a flood tide. Individually, ordinary Chinese can do little to protect themselves. In the city of Yiyang in central Hunan province, a middle-school teacher was killed recently by a hit man, according to the police, after he told local journalists that 600 teachers had not been paid in months because the local government was pocketing their salaries. Last month, a millet farmer surnamed Song traveled 36 hours from Yan'an county in Shaanxi province to Beijing to complain about having to pay $700 a year in local taxes when his annual income was only $800. Song took his petition to the special complaints office in Beijing reserved for Shaanxi residents, only to watch a yawning bureaucrat toss his papers in the trash. "My trip was a waste," he says. "I found out that there is no one in Beijing who can help me. We farmers are without hope."
The upcoming transition to new leadership threatens to further reduce the central government's authority as cadres jostle for position. If Jiang wields limited power compared to his predecessors, the enigmatic Hu, who has only made one noteworthy public address to date, has even less influence. Indeed, there is a growing movement in the capital to keep the 75-year-old Jiang in power a bit longer. His supporters argue the nation needs his steady hand beyond this fall's congress, when Hu is slated to take over.
A belated effort to raise Jiang's stature in the party pantheon is under way. "Glorious Jiang is the Core of Our Country's Future," intoned one recent newspaper editorial. Political acolytes are lobbying to enshrine Jiang's tepid ideology alongside Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory, the hallowed manifestos that form the foundation of correct political thought in China. Getting anyone but scholars to pay attention to Jiang's national mission statement is a challenge. Few outside intellectual circles can name even one of the "Three Represents," his awkward effort to integrate modern capitalism with communist principles.
Meanwhile, irate citizens across the country continue to gather by the thousands to protest local corruption. Demonstrations in Henan and Liaoning provinces fizzled after organizers were given lengthy jail sentences. But collective outrage could galvanize a violent and destabilizing force. "Instead of worrying about whether Hu is going to rule or Jiang is going to rule," says a former editorial writer for the official People's Daily, "China's leaders should be trying to figure out how to control the abuses of all these local leaders." The ancient Chinese proverb: "The mountains are high and the Emperor is far away" is increasingly sounding like a curse.