Thanks to Premier Wen Jiabao’s (温家宝) speech in Shenzhen last month, the issue of political reform once again became the focus of widespread attention in China. Wen Jiabao’s speech was essentially a review of the political report to the 13th National Party Congress, and Deng Xiaoping (邓小平) himself once made similar statements. People’s heads are buzzing with anticipation over whether real and deep reforms can be jump-started, and whether a “special” zone like Shenzhen might serve as an example for the whole country.
[Editor’s Note: The 13th National Party Congress took place in 1987, and the political report Xiao references is that of Zhao Ziyang, something that cannot be mentioned directly in the editorial. The 1987 political report is still an important benchmark for political reform goals in China, and the report mentioned many concepts, such as “separation of the functions of party and government” (党政分开), or dang zheng fenkai, that are highly sensitive and have rarely been seen since. Wen Jiabao’s remarks back in July were perhaps closer to the 13th Party Congress benchmark on political reform than any remarks we have seen in a long time at such a senior level. But Xiao’s juxtaposing of the two is more rhetorical than rigorous. His point is to invoke the 1987 report, and in fact the gap is still wide between the 1987 report and Wen’s remarks.]
In fact, over the years we have seen a good number of attempts at political reform, not just in special zones but in provinces and cities too. Guangzhou took the lead, for example, in making its finances public. In Guangzhou also, higher appointments within the People’s Political Consultative Conference were subjected to debate by conference delegates before submission to the People’s Congress and the Municipal CCP Committee. There have been experiments in some areas in using the Internet to encourage discussion of political affairs.
Five or six years ago, political reform pilot projects were attempted in Honghe (红河), in Yunnan province, Buyun (步云) and Ya’an (雅安), in Sichuan province, and in Xianning (咸宁), in Hubei province. These experiments ultimately proved that it is ultimately unworkable to rely solely on the power of the system itself to achieve reform, even if that power comes from the highest levels.
If we weigh the obstacles that inhibit reform and the forces that drive it, looking for practical ways forward, we will see that civil society (公民社会), and the enlarging and strengthening of civil society (做强做大公民社会), is a road that is open to us.
The most basic character of civil society is autonomy. Civil society is about developing communities with autonomy as well as autonomous industries and professions.
One of the positive gains of the development of our housing market over the past 20 years has been the emergence of a property-holding class in China on an unprecedented scale. Most of these property holders are highly educated and possess a strong civic consciousness. They also have a decent grasp of modern political culture. They have substantial economic and social resources, and unlike other segments of our society, such as migrant workers, the property-holding class is not fragmented and dispersed. They live in close proximity to one another, and they have a natural tendency toward organization. This segment of society, comprising the property-owning middle class, will provide the principal force of civil society development in China.
This relatively strong class is also a comparatively rational class. They have property, they have knowledge and skills, and they are socially rather well cultivated. These qualities guide them to restraint, calmness and a certain scrupulousness. You could say that while they are a social force of undeniable strength, they are also driven predominantly by a practical wisdom and constructiveness.
For all these reasons, this is a class that can be trusted and counted upon. They harbor hopes and feelings for reform. Because they know there has been no progress, and perhaps even has been a step back, on community autonomy in practical terms over the past few years.
Just look at Guangdong. If you gauge the degree to which property owners are represented by ownership committees, even including those committees run by property developers, you find that these account for about 15 percent of property owners in Guangzhou, 30 percent in Shenzhen, and only 10 percent in Dongguan. The vast majority of communities don’t even have ownership committees, so the very idea of community autonomy is a moot point.
The erosion of community autonomy presents a serious threat to the rights of property holders in China. In a much larger sense, however, the deficit of community autonomy has shut China’s entire middle class outside the door of civil society. They have no way of organizing themselves. The result is that a powerful and rational social force has been completely squandered. And this is a monumental waste of social resources.
The most basic unit of rural life is the village. The most basic unit of urban life is the community. Political reform places particular emphasis on the super-structure. But the stability of society relies on more than just the political super-structure. Even more, it requires a stability that can be relied upon at the basic unit level. If the base of society is stable, then society is stable. This is why the autonomy of villagers and the autonomy of urban communities is absolutely critical.
This means that the building of autonomy is an urgent task of the moment, even more crucial than political reform itself. Essentially, the center of gravity in Chinese society needs to be moved downward. The social center of gravity needs to be established at the basic unit level, at the level of the village community and the city community.
And yet, in recent years, the forced intervention of the government has pushed autonomy to the margins, both in the villages and the urban communities. This does not bode well for general social development. But even if the weakening of rural communities is such that autonomy will be much harder to build there, we can rest assured that the strength of the property-holding class and China’s middle class as a whole will be sufficiently strong to support the building of community autonomy.
The building of civil society through the building of autonomous communities is a workable and practical path toward social transition in China. The process involves enlarging and strengthening civil society through the development of autonomous urban communities, professions and industries, and then harnessing the strength of civil society to press for further reform of the social management system. This does not involve a terrifying tidal wave of change, but rather quiet and incremental development. But this quiet process of development would prove strongest and most effective.
These days, we ask ourselves how exactly Shenzhen is special. The new point of breakthrough for this special zone, however, is clear. As the first city in China to pioneer a new style of community, and as a city with a strong property-holding class and middle class, the seeds of civil society have already been planted in Shenzhen. Why don’t we begin by trying it out there?
This article originally appeared in Chinese at China Youth Daily