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?
. . . 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.”
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.
. . . [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”?