China's leaders have anticipated the strongest opposition to their planned concentration of powers that will come from vested interests at the local level. That is why the judiciary, controlled by Beijing, has been given freer rein and a string of corruption trials can be expected to showcase President Xi Jinping's use of age-old divide and rule tactics.
Most of the opposition is likely to come from localities, which have the most to lose in this program of concentration of power in Beijing. For this reason, the new role of the judiciary, which according to the Plenum communique will be "authoritative" (quanwei), is significant.
This does not mean that the judiciary will be independent from the top leadership of the Party. The Party will give freer rein to judges and prosecutors at the provincial level in going after cases of corruption, which so far have mostly concentrated on theunhealthy ties between local administrations and state-owned enterprises (SOEs).
This element shows that Xi is bracing for a long and protracted internal struggle against his reforms. He is preparing to fight it with arrests and trials that should gain him the support of the people, who will be happy to see corrupt officials in jail, and root out or weaken all those who would want to go against the new course.
Here there are very practical issues to tackle. Disgraced Chongqing leader Bo Xilai was able to establish his control over the southern city through ruthless control of the judiciary. Officials, businessmen, and common people who opposed his will were branded as gangsters and put in jail or executed.
No intervention from Beijing could save them. This was mainly because the judiciary at provincial level has been under the local party chief. Now this is going to change: the provincial judiciary will answer to Beijing's Supreme Court and the top leadership, and local ties will be looser. It will thus be harder for another Bo Xilai to rise.
Moreover, people do no trust local officials. Many tell stories of village chiefs denounced to the county courts but shielded by local judges. Trust in the system is low at the local level, but most people still believe Beijing can redress all wrongs - and for this reason they travel to the capital with their grievances.
Reform of the judiciary should create greater distance between prosecutors, judges, and local administrators, and thus should better serve the needs of the people. This element is an extremely important first step for political reforms. While the Party still holds the ultimate power in Beijing, in order to strengthen its hold, it has to divide power at the local level. The reform of the judiciary creates the first real division of power between local administrators and the courts.
This division adds to the greater role granted to the market, which deprives SOEs of many of their privileges. Next, and in order to expand and improve its rule in an increasingly complex society and world, Beijing has decided to let go of some of the levers it holds over the economy and use a policy of divide and rule at the provincial level.
In other words, the top leadership is trying to trade its internal divisions among warring factions of vested interests for a seminal external division of powers.
These words should not be misunderstood: China does not have the Western tripartite division of powers, but the leadership understands that internal factional divisions block reforms and effective exercise of central authority, whereas a devolution of power to the local level and in non-strategic sectors supports the clout of the central leader.
Here, there is nothing new under the sun. The rulers of the Roman Empire knew the principle of efficiency of authority and thus spoke ofdivide et impera, or divide and rule. Later, King Louis XIV of France in the 17th century granted more authority to a newly established local bureaucracy (possibly inspired by Jesuit translations of the Chinese classics and accounts of China's situation) and bestowed more rights to a burgeoning bourgeoisie in order to concentrate powers in his person and take it away from a sprawling and arrogant class of aristocrats.
The principle of careful division of powers below and concentration of authority on the top was how the British managed to rule the immense territory of the Indian empire with only a few thousands officials.
Xi is thus rediscovering an old principle of wielding power: you can't control everything, but to exercise effective control you have to divide your subjects. In this historical moment, the central government increases it control by slowly strangling and changing the vested interests through a mix of concentration of power, division, and crafty use of the judiciary.