By QIAN GANG

Keyword: social construction (社会建设) Related Term: civil society (公民社会)

So far in this series, I have dealt with political reform issues and watchwords that are predominately about the reform (or not) of China’s political institutions. How do China’s leaders propose to deal with the problem of over-concentration of power? How will the incoming generation of leaders conceptualize power and its relationship to the Party and to Chinese society? Yet another oft-overlooked issue integral to political reform is the role of society in China.

In recent years, the relationship of the government to society has become a topic regularly discussed in China. Academics, journalists and others routinely describe China as a place where “government is strong and society is weak,” or qiang zhengfu ruo shehui (强政府、弱社会).

In one recent example, Chinese historian Xiao Gongqin wrote in the magazine China Entrepreneur:

Under the ‘strong government ‒ weak society’ system, the collusion of power and money drives inequality in society and it’s hard for [this nexus of power and money] to be subjected to effective oversight by autonomous social forces . . .

So where does Chinese society and its development fit into the overall picture of political change in China?

Volunteers donate blood in Guangxi province following the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province. Photo from Bxzzk.cn.

 

Ever since the 17th National Congress in 2007, the terms “social construction” (shehui jianshe), “social management” (shehui guanli) and “social system reforms” (shehui tizhi gaige) have been heating up as political watchwords.

Before the 17th National Congress, I wrote an essay called “Keep Your Eyes on Hu Jintao’s ‘Social System Reforms,'” in which I shared the views of Chen Ziming, a leading Chinese economist and political thinker who was jailed through the 1990s for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen protests. Chen said that reform in China was an opera in three acts, moving the country from economic reform to social reform and eventually to political reform. He argued that the chief task of the present generation of leaders, Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao, was to move the country toward an “opening of society.” The task of pushing political reform, or “opening up politics,” would fall to their successors.

This prompted me to pose the question:

. . . In observing President Hu Jintao, then, is it possible that our focus should be on how far social system reforms can progress, and not on how substantial his steps on political reform are?

Hu Jintao raised the issue of “social construction” not long after he took office. In his 2004 “Decision” on strengthening the leadership capacity of the Chinese Communist Party — I’ll spare readers the full title of that policy document — he said the Party needed to “strengthen social construction and management.” According to the document, this included “bringing into play the capacity of autonomous grassroots social organizations to coordinate interests, resolve conflicts and mitigate hardship.” Grassroots social organizations could be used, it said, to provide services and relay the demands of various social groups, “joining the forces of social management and social service.”

In China, social system reform is often regarded as a kind of subset of political reform. Its goal is the building of a civil society. But along the color spectrum of Chinese politics, “civil society” is in fact what I call a light blue term, used by market-driven media and academics (even some within the Party establishment) but never by senior leaders.

On the eve of the 17th National Congress in 2007, Yu Keping, a theorist some observers believe is closely aligned with Hu Jintao, wrote in the official Beijing Daily: “Since the 16th National Congress the Party and the government have paid more attention to the role of various kinds of social organizations, including civic organizations, industry associations and community organizations. They have begun to emphasize [the need for] reform and improvement of the social management system. This means the Party and government have in fact already begun to see the existence and role of civil society as an important basis for decision making.”

The cover of Making Democracy Benefit China, a book of discussions with political theorist Yu Keping.

 

The political report to the 17th National Congress did not use the term “civil society.” Ahead of the congress, I believed it might actually appear in the report, but the five years since have indicated there is little hope of that.

After the 17th National Congress, there were a number of developments on the “social construction” front in China’s southern Guangdong province. In the fall of 2010, Shenzhen was Premier Wen Jiabao’s first stop in what would later be known as his “seven mentions of political reform” ‒ seven separate speeches in which he urged political reform as an imperative. Not long after Wen’s run of political reform speeches, Shenzhen held a series of events to commemorate its 30th anniversary as a Special Economic Zone, and President Hu Jintao traveled to the city to attend.

Responding to a general interest in Shenzhen as a beacon of reforms — economic reforms were jump-started there in the 1980s — the city’s top leader, Wang Rong, suggested openly that new reforms were in the offing. “Shenzhen is an immigrant city of economic vitality,” he began, referring to the sea of migrant labor the city had attracted from the countryside and from other cities. “We hope that in this new kind of society that we can be the earliest in building a civil society,” he said, adding that “if no new efforts were made, the special zone would not exist.”

Wang’s implication was that even though Shenzhen was no longer special in the sense that the economic reforms piloted there in the 1980s were now happening all over China, it should remain special by staying at the forefront of the reform effort. In what seemed an even more significant piece of information, Wang Rong said that “the greatest advantage rendered by the central Party leadership is permission to experiment,” a remark seeming to suggest that the city had received the blessing of senior Party leaders in its plans to push civil society development.

A headline at QQ.com on September 1, 2010, reads: “Shenzhen Party Secretary Wang Rong: We Hope to Build a Civil Society Even Earlier.”

 

At the time there were reports in both in the Beijing Youth Daily and Hong Kong’s Ta Kung Pao:

Headlines in China Youth Daily and Hong Kong’s Communist Party-backed Ta Kung Pao in September 2010 report on Shenzhen’s supposed advances on civil society construction. The China Youth Daily headline reads: In Civil Society Construction, Shenzhen Moves to the Forefront.”

Nevertheless, at the very same time that Premier Wen Jiabao’s discussion of political reform was meeting resistance within the Party and political reform became a taboo issue in the media, Shenzhen’s experiments in “civil society” came to an abrupt halt.

At the end of 2010, the top Party leadership in Shenzhen submitted a report to leaders at the provincial level in which they introduced the work they had done in Shenzhen to build civil society. They assumed that their breakthrough work on this front would be welcomed by Wang Yang, the top Party leader in the province, who is one of the chief contenders now for entry into the powerful Politburo Standing Committee. They were reportedly sorely disappointed, however, as the report brought fierce criticism from Wang Yang.

The following is a report from Hong Kong’s Apple Daily on Wang Yang’s response to efforts in Shenzhen.

Hong Kong’s Apple Daily reports in late 2010 that Guangdong leader Wang Yang has criticized leaders in Shenzhen for playing politics.

The second line on the Apple Daily headline reads, “Wang Yang Staunchly Criticizes Shenzhen: ‘Don’t Talk Politics.'” Wang Yang’s “politics” reference here points to a deep division within the higher levels of the Party over so-called social construction. Hardliners within the Party have an animosity toward the idea of civil society.

For example, in a May 2011 article published in the Party’s Seeking Truth journal, Zhou Benshun, secretary of the Party’s Central Politics and Law Commission, viciously attacked the idea of social organizations working independent of the government. Zhou said China had to avoid the “pitfall of ‘civil society’ designed for us by certain Western nations.”

A Chinese-language report from France’s RFI on May 16, 2012, quotes Zhou Benshun’s remarks that civil society is a Western “pitfall.”

Lately, some people have had two misunderstandings about social management overseas. The first is the idea of ‘small government ‒ large society,’ that the bulk of social management should be taken on by society. In fact, not all developed nations follow this ‘small government ‒ large society’ model, and quite a number of large nations have large governments with the government taking on the principle tasks of social management. Second is the idea that social organizations are a ‘third sector,’ independent of the government and of the social management system. In fact, the vast majority of nongovernmental organizations overseas have government backgrounds, and all are under the effective management of the government. In our country, we must properly regulate conduct in fostering and developing social organizations, first putting ‘safety valves’ in place, thereby preventing the propagation of social organizations with ulterior motives.

In Chinese political lingo, “ulterior motives” are often ascribed to groups or individuals that the Party sees as undermining its leadership, including foreign organizations. Wang’s remarks are in fact quite typical of the xenophobic conservatism generally shown by senior leaders on China’s Politics and Law Commission.

In 2011, the term “civil society” became highly sensitive in China and a number of related bans were issued by the Party’s Central Propaganda Department to the media. In response, more professionally inclined commercial media wanting to explore this general topic used instead the phrase “folk society,” or minjian shehui. Even during this sensitive period, a number of Party officials wrote their own articles dealing with related issues under the umbrella of “social construction.” And even as Wang Yang warned Shenzhen officials against talking about “civil society,” he promoted a number of “social construction” initiatives in Guangdong.

In November 2011, Guangdong announced that it would relax registration rules for so-called mass organizations, generally including associations, federations and charities closely aligned with the government. According to the new rules, taking effect on July 1, 2012, social organizations can now register directly with the Ministry of Civil Affairs ‒ that is, without their application having the sponsorship of a government institution. The rules also paved the way for greater competition by allowing the registration of multiple organizations serving a particular interest or group. Wang Yang said that any activities social organizations could “handle and manage well” would be entrusted to them.

From September to December 2011, the residents of a small village in northeastern Guangdong called Wukan staged a mass rights defense action. Angry over the sale of their land, for which they received no compensation, the villagers ran their local officials out of town and dug in for a long standoff, as they demanded that the government address their concerns. The conflict, now known widely as the “Wukan incident,” resulted in the death of one village-appointed representative, and was only resolved after the intervention of a special “work group” appointed by provincial leaders to negotiate with the villagers.

Zhu Mingguo, a deputy secretary of Guangdong province, speaks with villagers from Wukan in December 2011. Photo from Economic Observer Online.

One of the most important signs of compromise on the part of the government during the incident was its recognition of the legitimacy of the provisional committee formed by the villagers to represent their interests. The government had for a time designated the committee as an illegal organization. This was the first instance in China of a popularly elected village organization receiving official recognition. And the handling of the Wukan incident offered a glimpse of Wang Yang’s thinking on the issue of “social construction.”

On November 14, 2011, Wen Jiabao made a speech about proposed further reform of China’s administrative license system. This system, set up in China in the 1950s, basically awards certain organizations power over prescribed activities ‒ such as the operation, for example, of gas stations, or providing telecommunications services. A legacy of the planned economy, the system has slowly been dismantled to allow for greater private participation in certain areas of the economy.

But Wen Jiabao’s speech on the administrative license system also brought in the related issue of social construction:

. . . [We must] further clean up, decrease and adjust the areas subject to administrative license, promoting a transformation of the government’s role. [We must] adhere to the primacy of the market to the principle of social autonomy. In those areas where the market has the ability to make effective adjustments, citizens, legal persons and other organizations can make decisions autonomously, industry associations can [serve as mechanisms for] self-regulation, and the government should not set up administrative licenses . . . There are three priority areas. The first is investment. [We must] continue to deepen investment system reforms, establishing the principal status of enterprises and individuals citizens in investment. The second area is [in the provision of] social programs. [We must] . . . break through monopolies, expand openness, allow fair access and encourage competition. Third is the area of nonadministrative licenses. [We must] clean up cases where agencies and local governments use red tape to restrict [the activities] of citizens, enterprises and other organizations.


[ABOVE: In late November 2011, Guangdong’s Southern Metropolis Daily reports on plans to relax restrictions on the registration of social organizations in the province.]

The Chinese Communist Party has howled the cry of socialism ever since it came to power in 1949. But as Xiong Peiyun, a well-known Chinese writer and academic, has quipped, for many years now China has “had the -ism but not the social.” To put it another way, the Party’s practice of socialism has been radically antisocial, crippling society through decades of political movements in order to serve a powerful state.

The rebuilding of society in China, the nurturing of its social roots, will be an essential part of the long process of political reform in the country.

At we watch the 18th National Congress from the sidelines, “social construction” will be another important watchword to bear in mind. In particular, we can ask the following three sets of questions:

1. How will the political report to the 18th National Congress characterize “social construction,” “social management” and “social system reform”? Will it resort to hard-line views like those of Zhou Benshun, who called civil society a Western “pitfall”? Will it borrow from Wang Yang’s “social construction” playbook (à la Wukan), what is now being called the “Guangdong model“? Will there be traces of Wen Jiabao and his emphasis on autonomous organizations and individuals?

2. Will there be mention of “social self-governance,” or shehui zizhi, which is core to the concept of social construction? The term “self-governing grassroots organizations” appeared 10 years ago in the political report to the 16th National Congress and senior officials have raised a number of related concepts since. In 2004, the People’s Daily ran an article from an academic that advised the leadership to “actively foster nongovernmental organizations and self-governing social organizations.” In a 2005 speech, President Hu Jintao said that “the administrative function of the government and the function of self-governing social organizations should be complementary.” The 2007 political report talked about “expanding the self-governing scope of masses at the grassroots.” Will the political report to the 18th National Congress mention “social self-governance”? And if so, how?

3. The chances are perhaps miniscule, but we must ask: Will we be completely surprised by the appearance in the political report of the term “civil society”?