Saturday, 28 May 2016

Not King For A Day, But Party Secretary For A Week

For all of the attention observers have paid to efforts by Beijing to impose political discipline on Communist party members—from fighting graft to demanding loyalty in the ranks—local efforts by cadres to address local problems have received little attention. 

Historically, cadres and government officials usually have three choices--at least where local problems are concerned.

The first choice is to simply abide by what Beijing wants—especially when Beijing wants all lower-levels to go along with a campaign that the leadership initiated. Such is the ongoing anticorruption crusade; it was also the case with a crackdown on religious cults, and other draconian campaigns that are really designed to centralize authority and to remind cadres to take orders instead of initiative. 

The second avenue is for cadres to apply generally what the central government commands, but interpret the directive in light of local conditions. That approach sometimes meets with approval, if the decree from above empowers local officials to go along with a general effort to reform existing practices in some way and when Beijing isn’t too focused on ways and means. In other words, a measure of decentralization is allowed, to make sure that even if the local methods adopted might be different from intended, the end-result is what Beijing has ordered. So an edict to reduce student unemployment might involve sending graduates out to assist with a harvest where earlier that event was the responsibility of farmers solely. Quotas issued to local levels for a certain number of criminal suspects to be apprehended is another example—or, in an earlier time, identifying counter-revolutionaries or Rightists.  There's nominal agreement, and it's often about numbers.  

The third avenue is what a few districts in Nanjing are doing now:  taking a slogan or two appearing in Beijing’s playbook and being innovative in interpreting and implementing particular catchwords—not to please the central leadership per se but to seek to solve real problems as Nanjing officials see them.  And because daily problems need solving.

Party media has often highlighted what they refer to as “the last kilometer problem” [最后一公里问题] –the inability (or unwillingness) of cadres to connect with the masses, especially those who are not urban dwellers or exist on the margins of society, geographically or otherwise. Officials have been too focused on economic development, personal promotion, impressing visiting leaders from higher echelons--all the while, streets go unbuilt or unpaved, sewer systems and water infrastructure left to crumble, and economic development itself creates a whole host of problems (often environmental) that are simply treated as the unavoidable social fallout of local progress.

For a number of years, Beijing’s response was to push cadres to get out to the urban outskirts or the countryside to visit residents who simply weren’t responding to its campaigns and having them explained. Various experiments, including “pocket cadres”, were tried without much result, in large part because there wasn’t much follow-up—part of the problem of the “policy as faucet” approach in China, turn something on and then turn that something off.  Experiments might have been innovate, but they ended up being unsupported and therefore unsustainable.  

Nanjing’s current effort is from the bottom-up:  actually, from the grassroots to the grassroots.  It’s not explaining directives so much as espousing care and concern for residents, and identifying problems that escaped attention. Of course, the sincerity part of the mission is part of the portfolio of Chinese leaders on inspection tours, such as the one by Party Chairman Xi Jinping to Heilongjiang recently. But the experiments in Nanjing are local, neighbor-to-neighbor efforts, conducted by so-called “One Week Secretaries”:  These are older members in the party ranks, some of them retired, who rotate assignments and reach out to villagers to let them know that the Communist party is interested in their welfare, and wants to help solve problems. 

As described by local party media in Jiangsu, the approach has been a straightforward one that began in October 2015. For example, the Organization Department in the Qixia district of Nanjing assigned 39 party members to participate in the program, divided into groups of three people, with a term assignment of one week. (That number has recently grown to 104 cadres.) These “One Week Secretaries” meet with villagers every morning, then follow up with inspectors in these same villagers to hear of their challenges and determine the correspondence between complaints heard earlier in the day to problems that village officials identified.  An additional cadre was often assigned as a floating troubleshooter, someone who “could intervene more quickly, to deal with a specific problem” of pressing importance--something that could be solved and needed to be.

One party member, surnamed Chen and 66 years old, said that, in a village of 3700 people on the Dongjiang River in the district, he discovered problems: “There was garbage everywhere and the traffic situation caused great inconvenience.” After studying the situation, according to the account in Nanjing Daily, Chen was able to get money to repair and reposition the roads, reinforce the bridges, and construct roadside parking spaces to ease the traffic flow. 

Chen wasn't from Beijing, but from the area. He wasn't freelancing, nor was he using backchannels. Chen had time and clout, as well as an assigned responsibility.

Nor were these one-off efforts, according to the account.  Each of the “One Week Secretaries” was “required to write a diary to record daily work and establish a ledger to facilitate inquiries.” There was a bulletin board posted in the village to record every week the tasks assigned and to track the progress made. Villagers could then use that information to go directly to the village committee to follow up, and the committee in turn was empowered to enlist hold the villagers themselves accountable, to participate in the solving of their own local problems. 

Apart from the practical solution proffered by these “One Week Secretaries”, there’s a psychological boost, at least according to other media reports. Not to the residents only, but to the party rank-and-file participating.  The purpose is “to achieve a degree of regularization, enhance the sense of responsibility on the part of party members, and to provide a sense of belonging [to the local constituency].” In short, the program also imparts meaning and mission--primarily to older cadres, to be sure, but the lesson is clear for other officials whose neglect of their main job has led to the program to start with.

The media reports of success with this project are recent; they likely reflect pressure from at least the provincial level (and very possibly above) to justify the initiative.  It’s also likely that some of its sponsors would like to see the project extended and expanded, to include other areas of Jiangsu or beyond.  And there may be other officials at higher levels who would like to see the same experiment applied to younger cadres because it seems to be working. 

At the same time, this is a project that illuminates the challenges that government officials confront in trying to address local concerns:  Younger cadres seem to be looking more at promotion than policy; villagers feel neglected; and it’s left primarily to the old guard cadres to act because they’re not playing much of a role anyway.  The “One Week Secretary” program is intriguing in conception and application, yet it’s also disquieting.  For it’s clearly not only the constituents who are unsettled, but also the local cadres who are supposed to be governing them.    

Thursday, 19 May 2016

Injecting Courage Into Comrades

For the past year and half, when there was an announcement about provincial-level party cadres in media outlets, it usually meant that there was an inspection team visiting, an investigation underway, or a verdict rendered regarding malfeasance by one or another official.

Those notices haven’t disappeared completely, of course. But there’s been far fewer of them in recent weeks.

A major reason seems to be that the Party leadership seems to be signaling that the anticorruption crusade has been scaring too many of the wrong officials—for example, those who were eager to see the crackdown on graft succeed so that they could start paying attention to local problems. These clean cadres bought into Chairman Xi Jinping’s political platform long ago, and they’ve been eager to implement reforms at the local level, only to be stymied as Beijing’s focus has been on cleaning up corruption.

One of those reforms is very much a transformation, and because it’s so sensitive, cadres are reluctant to refer to it directly—even in private.  The effort is this: dissolving the ties between officials and developers—a connection that was the fulcrum of local economic expansion and political advancement. 

Each side benefitted from that arrangement. Party members and government officials saw economic growth (particularly in the housing market), which got them promoted under Xi’s predecessors. Developers received special access and resources granted by those who made such decisions, so that they could continue honing their craft. For a local official, being good at your job meant getting more jobs. That almost always involved releasing land for sale to property companies, who would then lease it out for housing, manufacturing, or hawking it to other firms (which were often just extensions of government offices).

The temptations were obvious, and evolved into a self-reinforcing ring of graft, which spiraled into deeper and more expansive levels of vice. So, if you were good at being bad, you’d get promoted—and the scale of your thievery grew; that is, you became a “tiger”. If you were just hovering around the edges, you were a “fly”.

It’s been this connection between the private sector and public servants--a couple of decades in the making--that’s responsible for the vast majority of the local government corruption in China. 

And Xi and his allies knew it.

For a while, the only way it seemed to get at the rot below was to decapitate those who were now at or near the top.  So there were campaigns to snare “tigers”, and recent threats to go after “flies”—even an effort to grab both, because some in the Xi leadership clearly recognize that there’s a connection (for example in Henan, which has started to resemble a warlord province, impervious to Beijing’s supervision). 

Still, the anticorruption crusade was scary, and it was diverting:  Local cadres began to believe that cleanliness was important than competence.  They hunkered down, instead of saddling up.

But there are some signs of change—or at least signs of experimenting with changes that would pull cadres away from worrying about inspection trips and push them to start working on problems that matter to the masses.  Party publications have been encouraging officials “not to be afraid to play” for some time now.  More recently, People’s Daily and other outlets have urged more tolerance for cadres who do experiment, arguing about efforts in Zhejiang that reform and innovation are process of trial and error, that failure is to be expected and not punished.  The signals of forgiveness for being proactive are there.

And in Jiangsu earlier this week, the head of the province—Party Secretary Luo Zhijun—proposed that the goal should be “to further improve the mechanism by which faults would be accepted and correct; to actively create conditions conducive to exploration; to have an atmosphere of work that would tolerate mistakes.”  Luo and his colleagues put the problem as officials having “an insufficient mental appetite” [干部精神状不振]—that there is a tendency on the part of some officials to say something can’t be done, or shouldn’t be done, or isn’t the problem, and then not act at all. 

In other words, cadres are not to be chastised for addressing local problems, even if those initiatives should fail.  But they must do something.

As ever, the question is, what's responsible for these moves?

It’s possible that party reformers in Beijing are using the various obstacles with the anticorruption campaign that Xi and his allies have run into as an opportunity to push forward ideas, especially to get cadres to pay more attention to their real bosses than local tycoons.  These reformers don't like the status quo of a cozy relationship and are signalling lower echelons that they expect action to do more than just transfer property.  

It’s also conceivable that the cleaner of the cadres are pushing for political cover so that they can experiment with new arrangements and new policies that are unsustainable without that support.  Local officials might be seeing signs of unhappiness at the grassroots level.   

Maybe it’s a bit of both.  

Whatever the case, it’s yet another instance of at least an attempt at reform.  For that reason--and others--it's worth paying close attention to see where it goes, and how it all ends up.

Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Please Be Kind And Don't Bombard These Headquarters

This week’s 50th anniversary of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution threatened to pass officially unnoticed until in the very last hour of the actual day marking the kickoff of the campaign, People’s Daily ran an editorial under the authoritative pseudonym “Ren Ping”

The commentary is somewhat important where content is concerned, in that it reiterated the verdict reached in 1981 that the Cultural Revolution was an enormous mistake that originated at the apex of the political system (read:  Mao and both his supporters and those who did little or nothing to stop or at least deflect him).

It's more important for the reasons it appeared.

There was no attempt at all in the commentary--or the few essays that accompanied it—to revisit the Cultural Revolution in terms of what happened, or why. This was a commentary of reconfirmation, without a hint of interest in a reinvestigation.  Indeed, the very placement of the commentary in the printed edition—on an inside page—indicates that this was not meant to be a trumpet blast, signaling something new from Beijing, but just a continuation of the same soundtrack that’s been playing for decades now. 

Still, that the commentary appeared at all is interesting, in particular from the perspective of local officials and their own concerns.

In the immediate run-up to the anniversary, Chinese social media became inundated with comments about the reasons and ramifications of the Cultural Revolution, tales of individual experiences and tragedies in far-flung regions, and the odd interpretative analysis. The brilliant Chinese intellectual Qin Hui weighed in with quite possibly the most provocative essay, arguing that perhaps the prime political lesson about the Cultural Revolution a half-century later was that one shouldn’t try to overthrow a leadership in modern China. Many people were asking questions, and more than just a few were seeing answers—but answers from others in cyberspace, not from Beijing. Social media was starting to scribble its own history of the Cultural Revolution.

As the day of the anniversary wore on, many were finding that getting information about what some have called “China’s lost decade” was easy. 

Too easy, apparently.

It wasn’t what was being said, but evidently that things were being said at all. The leadership in Beijing seems to have believed that if they didn’t talk about the anniversary directly or publicly, others would understand that they needn’t—or shouldn’t—either. 

But that was a miscalculation on someone’s part in Beijing.  It had to be worrisome especially to political hardliners that the conversation was taking place and starting to pick up pace. 

It was probably worse for local officials, who had to be using their contacts to implore the central leadership to provide them with some direction.  Should the discussions continue?  What measures should be adopted to stop the postings?  Was the central leadership authorising these comments and the conversation as a whole, or were decisions about to be made to rein them in? When would local cadres receive the necessary instructions—or was the lack of instructions a directive in itself, that it was acceptable to allow the conversation to continue, perhaps to build into a dialogue between the Party and the public? 

The social media posts, the proliferation of comments about the Cultural Revolution, and the appearance of well-known scholars whose writings are seen by the government as suspect—all of these had to be vexing for local officials, and an effort that could undermine whatever political consensus was present in Beijing.    

And it's a complex sort of consensus, very sensitive to the Cultural Revolution.

The Right in China—or what’s left of it—had been using the anniversary to warn about Communist party chairman Xi Jinping being cast as the Great Helmsman and the dangers thereof.  Social media saw that this view was being broadcast more widely. 

Leftists were wondering what all this discussion about "supply-side economics" was coming from (no matter how it was being defined) and why Xi wasn’t more of a Maoist.  Or were the critiques about Mao actually attacks on Xi?  

Meanwhile, down here in the provinces, local officials had to be wondering whether they should start taking action themselves in cyberspace and their own streets--and asking themselves what these developments said about Beijing’s ability to reach decisions and convey them clearly to cadres below in a timely manner. 

Finally, action began to be taken.  Starting in the late afternoon and at a pace that steadily grew throughout the evening, social media posts began being removed.  Qin Hui’s essay was deleted, as were a number of other longer pieces that tried to take a wide look.  As the anniversary night got deeper, discussions about the Cultural Revolution were rolled up and shut down.

Then, right before midnight, the commentary in People’s Daily appeared online, signaling local officials and national audiences that, in essence, the conversation was over; there would be no new dialogue; and that the expectation in Beijing was that the discussion had reached an end.

It was likely that local cadres helped compel their political patrons in the upper echelons to finally do something. 

The following day—a day after the actual anniversary—the commentary that appeared online made the print edition of People’s Daily:  It didn’t get front-page coverage but was relegated to page 4, which is unusual for “Ren Ping” pieces. 

Apparently, the hardliners got their essay; however they weren’t allowed to brag about it.

At the end of the day, the decision to go ahead with the commentary may not have been a close call, but it was a situation created largely by the upper echelons trying to make a non-call.  Given the sensitivity of the subject, perhaps that’s understandable. 

Still, the lack of zeal to come out fast and strong--that is, to put the Party’s imprint down for all to consider--reflects the current situation at the top of the political system here.  That is, it’s not only history and the future that’s being argued among officials in Beijing; it’s the political present.  

That’s not really good news, no matter who's trying to write it. 

Monday, 16 May 2016

Nanjing And Beijing At Odds?

While Nanjing government authorities seem fairly adept at stiff-arming social protest, they continue to struggle to bring prices in the city's housing market under control.  Housing starts across China are up in the opening months of 2016, and Nanjing remains in a bit of a frenzy--even while Shanghai cools off.

There’s a brief account of the situation in Nanjing on the website of People’s Daily today.  It's not complimentary of the fever taking place, and without signalling out officials for blame, it's clear that the intention of the piece is almost editorial: That the Nanjing city government has allowed the market to slip from its control.

Perhaps Beijing is genuinely annoyed with the housing market itself in Nanjing.  But it's also possible that, in calling into question Nanjing's inability (or unwillingness) to manage housing prices, hardliners in the Xi leadership are expressing frustration with the way that the Nanjing authorities handled demonstrations about admission quotas that struck the city on Saturday.

The Xi leadership is still trying to forge some sort of sustainable political consensus at the top.  For the central government to get into a fight with Nanjing about the way its officials are managing the city and its specific challenges cannot be a good thing for anyone.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Local Realities of Political Change

The standard narrative about China is that common people are seeking change and it’s the government that’s standing in their way. 

Chinese people protest; Chinese authorities back down; and as demonstrations grow, so does the possibility that Beijing will be confronted with too many protests than the Chinese Communist party can cope with, and will be compelled to reform quickly or lose power. 

However, the local reality on the ground is far more complicated, as events in Nanjing, the capitol of Jiangsu province, showed this past weekend. 

On Friday last week, Beijing announced that the way the results of China’s annual national examination for college admission were tabulated would change. Jiangsu, one of the country’s more educated and affluent provinces and home to many leading universities, would have to give up 38,000 openings heretofore allocated to the province’s students to fill. The current examination system affords students from urban areas a significant advantage in how the examination scores are calculated and slots at universities are distributed. Many officials have been arguing for years that the current system discriminates against less prosperous provinces in China because those regions have been focusing on short-term employment and industry at the expense of education.

While Jiangsu wasn’t the only province made to sacrifice, officials here have been especially unenthusiastic about reforms to the student selection system, because it makes their region more attractive to educated residents to buy property or remain here after they graduate.  

Jiangsu officials lost the argument. And their constituents weren’t happy. 

The announcement of changes stunned many parents and students in Jiangsu (as well as teachers and tutors there), all of whom--like their counterparts in other regions--spend enormous energy every year preparing for what is essentially the only route for Chinese youth to be admitted into national colleges and universities.  Some parents began protesting at local schools in Nanjing almost immediately. Within hours, China’s social media also erupted in anger at the changes, as did local populations in Nanjing and some other cities in Jiangsu the following day when hundreds took to the streets and demonstrated outside government offices.

Videos posted online show that the protests were loud but peaceful, in contrast to a number of previous episodes elsewhere in China. Within a very short period of time of the demonstrators assembling, provincial-level officials appeared before the crowd in Nanjing and promised to hear complaints about the new policy.      

A few hours later, faced with public opposition, Jiangsu officials promised publicly that there would not be any change to the number of slots available to students in the province, at least for the time being. 

On the surface, the events in Jiangsu appear to confirm the classical narrative of a restive and distrustful public rising up against Chinese authorities, and officials being forced to back down—perhaps even offer a model for future political change in China. So long as demonstrators have will and determination, the government will be compelled to concede. 

But that’s misinterpreting what actually occurred. 

Protests in China like the one in Nanjing rarely start spontaneously; they have to be carefully and quietly organized—something that’s simply impossible to do these days given the heavy monitoring by the government. Indeed, local accounts of the demonstrations indicate that the security forces and the cordon around government offices were actually there before the protests commenced. At the very least, Nanjing authorities knew something might happen and prepared for it. 

In fact, it’s likely that some dissident Nanjing officials, themselves angry at Beijing’s decision, were not entirely displeased to see signs of public fury. They may well have been out to use that anger as a means to pressure Beijing to allow local government to back away from a policy that they themselves didn't like, and knew wouldn't be at all popular.

It’s also important to note that the protest in Nanjing never turned ugly. The demonstrators themselves seem to have been mostly parents, teachers, and educational administrators, who stood with placards outside the headquarters of the provincial government and shouted, but did not move to break the barricade, force confrontations, or threaten to occupy government offices.  Nor did the security forces move aggressively to break up the protests.  Both those protesting and those protecting understood that Nanjing’s government has usually looked to dialogue instead of force to deal with local demonstrations.  While many observers argue that Chinese residents are clamoring for rights, a growing number of Chinese officials understand that the issue for many citizens is more often just the right to be heard.

One reason for this mutual restraint is that the protestors weren’t interested in forcing political change or resignations, just a shift in policy. The protests in Nanjing weren’t about changing to something new, but preserving something old. As united as the demonstrators might have been for the moment, their protest was about something that benefitted them individually—an advantage that they are simply not willing to share with others less fortunate elsewhere. And like many rallies elsewhere in China, the demonstrations were aimed at supporting the previous status quo, not seeking to upend the existing order.

We need to recognize that on the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution there are no rebellions or large-scale revolts on China’s horizon; that political change in China these days is local and mostly peaceful.  Governance is overwhelmingly by directive, with citizen participation appearing only when new policies take away old privileges. 

That may be comforting for some observers, but it’s also discouraging for those Chinese officials and residents who want greater transparency and trust. The recent events in Nanjing show how far away from those goals so much of China remains.