This idea of “good governance” is markedly different from the broader definitions of good governance set out by the UN and the EU, which encompass factors such as efficiency, accountability, transparency, inclusiveness the rule of law, civic participation and the protection of social minorities. The UN and EU frameworks explicitly envisage close cooperation with non-governmental actors and place a strong emphasis on the protection of human rights, including civil and political rights.
Use of the term “good governance” in Chinese official discourse took off in the early 2000’s, in step with global discussions around good governance. While in the UN framework the term has expanded to include civil rights protection, public participation and the involvement of non-governmental actors in all public affairs, party-affiliated academics and officials have criticized this “catch all” approach and argued for staying close to the concept’s original definition in administrative science. This means focusing on efficient governance, containing corruption and abuses of power and strengthening the legal and regulatory framework, rather than allowing institutionalized rights to citizens and non-governmental stakeholders to have a say.
The main emphasis is instead on the material benefits and the sense of progress and individual gain (获得感) for individual citizens granted by the state. Especially in the context of COVID-19, the Chinese system of governance has been promoted as a viable and ultimately superior alternative in safeguarding and providing public goods such as safety and health, one not constrained by excessive consideration of individual rights and interests. This focus on output legitimacy is also reflected in the terminology (良政善治). The most often used word shanzhi (善治) might be better translated as “benevolent” governance. The term is derived from traditional political philosophy and is framed by the political leadership as a continuation of Chinese schools of thought. The term lianzheng (廉政), often used synonymously or in conjunction with shanzhi, specifically connotates incorrupt or “clean” governance.
This narrow interpretation is in line with the politico-ideological discourse of the CCP that emphasizes absolute party leadership, which was further encoded in the Chinese constitution in 2018. The primary goal is to ensure that the CCP fulfils its role in governing the country well. Public order, social stability – i.e. the absence of protests – and provision of economic growth are seen as key benchmarks of success. The strong emphasis on the higher common goods of public order and security means that even laws that heavily restrict civil liberties are seen as important pillars of good governance. For example, the introduction of the National Security Law for Hong Kong and of coercive re-education measures in Xinjiang were hailed as steps towards good governance, despite conflicts with international human rights norms.
The concept of good governance is also closely tied to new initiatives expanding the use of digital technologies. Xi Jinping has been promoting the new concept of monitoring-based “smart governance”, i.e. tight, digitally supported supervision and disciplinary governance by the CCP and public institutions, as well as companies and citizens. This drive to modernize governance emphasizes technocratic, data-based control under centralized CCP leadership and supervision, rather than sharing watch-dog responsibilities with non-governmental actors or the media. presented as a more efficient and superior model to the Western approach to governance and its focus on the rule of law and the supervision of state power through the separation of powers and press freedom.
This definition was written for the Decoding China project. To learn more about Decoding China, visit the project website HERE.