Thursday, 28 July 2016

It's The Neighbourhood, Not The Nation

Five problems concern Nanjing residents currently. Apparently, none of them involve the economy or political reform.

That’s the inference of a report in today’s edition of Nanjing Daily [南京日] which gauges the areas of dissatisfaction among local citizens thus far this year. The results didn’t come from a public opinion poll; they’re the product of an ongoing effort by Nanjing authorities to encourage people to tell government agencies of the problems they encounter so that officials can offer remedies.

Local officials here acknowledge privately (albeit reluctantly) that they don’t know as much as they’d like to about the needs and aspirations of the constituencies they ostensibly oversee. That’s largely because cadres spend far more time inside the government apparatus trying to create policy than among the citizens those policies are supposed to target. The Chinese political system, even at the urban level, simply isn’t built for communication from below, because it centers on achieving consensus among decision-makers and developers to at least do something. Just making a public policy—something that’s meant to address the actual daily challenges faced by residents--is difficult enough in China.

Observers from far away like to praise China’s progress— infrastructure investment, major high-profile projects, high-speed rail and city skylines–as evidence of a potent decision-making process that they claim is absent in their home countries. But they’d get a very different picture if they spoke with Chinese officials themselves--who, while taking justifiable pride in economic development, bemoan the social problems that they think won’t be addressed until they’re allowed to experiment with small-scale solutions.  China works just well enough for drive-by scholars and tourists to be awed, but not nearly as good as it could be for actual residents.

Chinese officials largely know that: They don't need to be instructed from afar about how to be better public administrators in their own policy space.

What they insist they need is far more information.

That’s a major reason why Nanjing initiated a “12345” hotline, so that citizens can call to express their concerns about what’s occurring in their own communities and that they think local officials should fix. The hotline also directs callers to relevant offices, and often follows up to see if their complaints have been addressed in a way that satisfies the caller. Other cities have copied the idea; some have employed it as a crisis line; a few like Shanghai have begun experimenting with more expansive information collection efforts known as “Big Data” [大数据], aimed at traffic control and other forms of social management [社会管理]. But Nanjing (and its adjoining townships which fall under its administrative control) was one of the very first, and is thus far one of the very few offering a regular means aimed at revealing what residents are unhappy about, with the genuine goal of making government more relevant, more of a trouble-shooter.

According to the report, there were 140,638 complaints filed by phone as of July 26th. Problems with the management of residential communities, interruptions in water supply, illegal construction, consumer rights, and the quality of housing were the top 5 complaints, accounting for 27.4% of the calls.

What evidently matters to Nanjing residents most is the proper management of property.

Government officials responsible for the 12345 hotline told reporters that the main grievances revolve around where the management company responsible for residential communities isn’t attending to complaints; levies sudden and arbitrary charges; has a poor attitude towards service [服务态度]; isn’t interested in keeping the community “green”; or is lousy at upkeep and maintenance of the facilities.

Likewise, many Nanjing residents grumbled about the quality of the housing that they live in—complaints that were said to have swelled in the heavy rains that hit Nanjing this summer, as walls leaked and collapsed, and the developer or other responsible parties were cited as being at best slow to respond to calls for repair. In some cases, citizens complained that the warranties turned out to be worthless.

For local officials, these results appear to be something of a revelation. Neither property management problems nor the quality of housing, they noted, were in the top 10 complaints in previous years.

At the same time, the report seems to suggest that officials assume that the issue isn’t with unscrupulous developers or irresponsible property management offices, but the rising expectations of residents. Given the very close ties between local government officials and developers in Nanjing (many of who also own property management companies themselves), that’s not surprising.

It also shouldn't be surprising that the complaints called-in to "12345" appear to have been confined to neighborhood problems. That is, these aren’t general criticisms of government or even a particular official, or calls to reconstruct Chinese society. Citizens want a higher power—the present ruling political authority—to step in and solve their problem, not those of the nation. After all, this is a region and a country filled with residents, not revolutionaries. Nanjing knows that, and it would be nice if others started thinking along the same lines.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Driving Policy Second-Hand In China

China’s national economy continues to swerve; sometimes decelerating-but-steady and other moments looking to some observers like it could be headed for a crash. Jiangsu’s situation appears to be much the same, with many local housing markets maintaining a torrid pace while service industries in Nanjing and nearby seem to be slowing due to the recent bad weather.

Yet it seems somehow appropriate to the complexity of Chinese local governance that Beijing and Nanjing are issuing very different warnings about one of the more promising sectors of the economy, especially for low-income residents: the second-hand car market.

For Beijing, the issue is obedience to policy instructions.

The central government is insisting that provincial governments implement a policy directive passed by the State Council at the end of March to allow purchasers of used cars to relocate their vehicles when they themselves move to a new province.

Without that regulation, owners who’ve bought a second-hand automobile within a 50 day period would be driving and housing that vehicle illegally; they’d also have to pay taxes and fees commensurate with its value to the province they moved to, possibly in addition to where they purchased the car originally. There would be little reason for low-income consumers priced out of the new car market to buy a second-hand automobile if they couldn’t transfer title and registration when they joined China’s great urbanization wave.

So the State Council directive was designed and decided upon to help that situation, and to “accelerate the formation of a unified and national organization of the second-hand car market”—a market that, according to the report in People’s Daily, deserved a bit more of a boost, as in 2015, the total amount of second-hand car trading in China was 9.41 million, far less than the 24.5 million new vehicle sales recorded. It made good administrative sense to issue this order, and that way encourage relocated residents (families looking to move up to middle-income status, retirees, farmers who’ve sold their land, for example) to aid China’s faltering auto industry, especially as many second-hands cars sold are Chinese brands.

But as of mid-July, 17 out of China’s 22 provinces (23, if one includes Taiwan; 34, if one is counting administrative units) haven’t bothered to comply with the State Council’s directive—even after Beijing issued a second order in June commanding them to follow the first one.

Beijing frequently faces these sorts of policy challenges. One difficulty lies in the nature of the directives the State Council issues. In this instance, the orders to provinces are in the form of a意见--a formal opinion or observation, drawn up to reflect the consensus of the State Council to take action on a particular issue. Beijing can direct and even demand; but because so much of China’s policymaking power is distributed across many agencies, offices and levels, what gets issued often isn’t implemented.

Adding to the problem is that some of China’s provinces as well as a few major cities are allowed exemptions for environmental reasons, to make sure that cars there meet recently adopted higher clean air standards for their areas.

However, as Deputy Secretary General of China Automobile Dealers Association, Luo Lei [罗磊] notes, so many provinces not implementing this particular policy is “representative of ‘regional blockades’ [地区封锁]”—that is, when local governments find excuses to delay and obstruct Beijing’s authority for their own reasons—such as wanting the right to collect higher taxes and other local fees on relocated as opposed to resident vehicles. As another Chinese official put it, some of the provincial authorities are simply playing “word games” [文字游戏], findings ways to reinterpret the new rules just to avoid having to implement them.

Nanjing’s own problem with second-hand cars isn’t structural or strategic, but seasonal: It’s worried that consumers looking to buy a used car here locally won’t, because they’re scared they’ll end up purchasing an automobile waterlogged from recent floods that hit the region.

Nanjing officials estimate that “flood cars” [水淹车] have been flowing into the used car markets here since the deluge of heavy rain began, with at least 1 in every 5 cars in local repair shops having experienced some water damage. Insurance companies investigating claims frequently tow flooded vehicles to a central location; some of those cars are then sold, if the owner thinks that the cost of repairs is too high. Others are placed on the market without necessarily noting that they were soaked in some way. The commentary appearing in Nanjing media seeks to ease the minds of prospective buyers of second-hand automobiles by offering clear instructions about identifying cars that were swamped by higher waters, so that consumers won’t be taken advantage of—and, perhaps more importantly, don't think they will be.

Nanjing officials aren’t pursuing those goals with inspections of repair shops, sweeps or supervision of used car markets, or making sure that sellers strictly cooperate. They’re offering advice to the public, rather than reminding residents that they’re in command.  Authority is assumed, not imposed. At most, Nanjing is playing the part of nanny, believing that citizens have at least some faith in the abilities of their local officials to look out for them.

There’s no exact equivalency here. Beijing is attempting to see central directives enforced, while Nanjing is looking to make the local more liveable. Differences in scale deserve to be kept in mind.

Still, governance comes in many forms in China. Beijing, especially under the present leadership, insists on driving all the time. Nanjing, for its part, often offers directions from a different map. Given China’s complex social challenges, it’s still not clear which will be the road best taken.  

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Ramping Up To Resist Religious Cults

Are religious cults [邪教] suddenly resurfacing in Nanjing?

Not to any immediately noticeable degree. But the local government here has been ramping up to counter spiritual sects, raising the question of what’s prompting some new policies.

China’s recent history is replete with instances where cults and renegade religious organizations worried officials into a variety of reactions, the most well known of which was Beijing’s crackdown against Falun Gong that began in 1999. Nanjing in particular was smacked hard by the central government during that campaign, because the cult was said to have penetrated areas where university professors and local officials lived—people who commanded respect in their communities. Within a few years, however, Nanjing was seeking to reshape that strong-arm policy, experimenting with study sessions to convert cult members, instead of implementing Beijing’s hard coercion. While the actual success rate of this softer approach is uncertain, the effort does reflect how Nanjing is often unafraid to be inventive when it comes to reacting to social challenges.

This time around, Nanjing is taking a two-track approach to religious cults, and its focus again seems to be Falun Gong.

The first track is punitive, in the form of jail sentences and fines, as was recently the case with a Falun Gong cell in the city’s southeastern district of Lishui [溧水]. The group there formed in 2013, distributed books, CDs, and other promotional material, and, according to a court case that concluded at the end of June, “planned on releasing balloons and other airborne objects to promote Falun Gong propaganda” before they were arrested in early 2014. The organizing members were sentenced to 2 years in jail and fined 20,000 RMB—relatively light for being found guilty under the current Chinese statutes of “criminally conspiring to undermine law enforcement”, but still more punishing than previous laws which allowed judges to direct those found guilty into reeducation or “correction camps”. According to the article, other Falun Gong practitioners have been sentenced to far harsher sentences in the recent weeks, showing that where there are crimes involving cults “heavy penalties are the rule in China.”

At the same time, according to the same account, there’s a need for officials to “further deepen anti-cult propaganda and education so that more people understand cults, consciously resist cults.”

That’s the purpose of a new “Anti-Cult Social Association and Alert Education and Inculcation Center” [反邪教协会发人深省的反邪教警示教育中心] located in the Qinhui [秦辉] district of Nanjing. Instead of the usual posters containing warnings and other admonitions about religious cults, this effort uses theatrical performances designed to illustrate the danger of succumbing to unauthorized spiritual influences. For example, residents are reminded that traveling abroad they may be exposed to leaflets and other materials from cult members “sometimes disguised as Christians”, and to take care that they are not seduced by these approaches, or carry brochures back with them.

These presentations, dances, songs, exhibits, and even “anti-cult poetry couplet competitions” are now part of a citywide strategy underway to “create a strong anti-evil atmosphere”. Central districts in Nanjing—in particular those where Falun Gong infiltration was deepest in the late 1990s—are part of this campaign, with community members reminded, “to fulfill their civic duty to report criminal cults”.

Local officials are also concerned with the city’s outskirts, which are often the new home for migrants from the countryside who are seen as lacking the sophistication to deflect the recruitment efforts of religious cults. Five communities in that region, news reports indicate, each now have “a special anti-cult classroom, a community library room with a special "anti-cult books corner", and a residents activity room featuring a wall with instructions about "simple ways to identify cults" and "how to discover cult activities". Other cities in Jiangsu province—Xuzhou and Nantong, for example—have also launched public education campaigns in recent weeks with the same purpose, as have some locations in Gansu province.

Clearly, the possibility of religious cults gaining traction in local communities is a concern—enough so that party cadres are being assembled in some cities to watch films about the malevolence of spiritual sects, to educate officials themselves.

What we haven’t seen is a public declaration from Beijing directing provincial and local governments to “go all-out in a struggle” [在斗争中全力以赴] against religious cults—or some such language that would indicate that spiritual organizations are a direct threat to social stability.

That nonappearance probably means it’s Nanjing itself taking the lead in its own neighborhood. The government here is likely concluding that a faltering national economy, disruptive floods, and an increase in financial scams could provide fertile ground for the frustrated to search for solutions in realms other than the government. And officials in Jiangsu (as well as other provinces) may well have ground-level information that underground religious cults have been recruiting in certain regions. Cadres don’t launch politically campaigns just for kicks.

If social stability is a worry for some this summer, then it’s shrewd for Nanjing officials to get in front of discouraged residents before they make the wrong move--and even smarter to do so tactfully, before Beijing gets anxious and angry and the truncheons come out again.

Sunday, 17 July 2016

Are China's Party Fundamentalists Trying To Slam The Doors On Reform This Summer?

Yanhuang Chunqiu [炎黄春秋]—the liberal monthly magazine whose name alludes to annals describing the brief and unhappy Chunqiu period of  Chinese imperial history (777-476 B.C.)—is a great read for those interested in how and why Chinese politics turned away from democracy and openness at various points since 1949.

And, it must be added, how the road to political reform in China remains largely impassable today.

The magazine—which is thick enough to be called a “journal”, especially since its advertising is minimal and its articles are well-sourced and strident--has been around for 25 years. Its contents range from critical discussions of episodes in the Cultural Revolution to missed opportunities for China’s constitutional development, and they always push the political boundaries. The various contributors reflect the disappointments of veteran liberal elites in the Chinese Communist party who are still trying to shake their comrades out of their slumber. Fairly or not, Yanhuang Chunqiu portrays party conservatives as Neanderthals, and hints that hardliners are just ideologues more interested in holding power than helping the country achieve political progress. In a political system where every hold seems barred, this is a journal where the exact opposite takes place.

While Beijing newsvendors often reported that distributors wouldn’t always provide them with copies to sell when a particular edition was especially sensitive, the magazine is both popular and plentiful here in Nanjing, and can often be found at the odd newsstand in the city’s far-flung suburbs. Visitors to workplaces and homes of government officials and even the reception rooms at military installations here are often astounded to see well-thumbed copies of Yanhuang Chunqiu on tables and shelves. Many party cadres have returned to their ancestral homes in Jiangsu upon retirement, and more than a few read Yanhuang Chunqiu regularly these days as a counterpoint to their copies of People’s Daily. The magazine’s views aren’t part of China’s political mainstream, but its fans often are.

The standard Western portrayal of political opposition in China is of young anti-party activists seeking to change a system that they don't believe in. That’s only rarely been true in China’s current century and it isn’t the case with Yanhuang Chunqiu. The editorial board isn’t made up of young Turks, but party elders (including 93 year old publisher Duo Daozheng) and politically-connected publishers (Hu Dehua, a son of late Communist party reformer Hu Yaobang) who often scold the Communist party they belong to for what they see as its failure to admit and correct past errors and its reluctance to get back on a reformist path.
Because of the magazine’s stance, many readers feared at various points that its days were numbered. Political pressures led to the resignation of 2 editors in less than a year, and a recent attempt to devote an entire edition to the unresolved questions of the Cultural Revolution on the 50th anniversary of its outbreak led to the May issue being delayed by half a month. 

Despite those controversies, Yanhuang Chunqiu seemed to be surviving, with just enough space to operate in. Under Party leader Xi Jinping, who encourages internal debate, political reformers within the Communist party weren’t always voiceless; they just weren’t allowed to be very loud.

But now someone wants that interregnum to end.

Recent news reports indicate that major changes are being forced upon Yanhuang Chunqiu. There are shakeups in the editorial board with Duo being apparently pushed out, as well as other members who have been responsible for the journal’s direction and content. Reasoned dialogue about the Communist party’s past and its future was always seen by China’s party fundamentalists as unreasonable. Now, it appears that they’ve gotten their way.

The timing of this editorial purge is revealing, because it shows that China’s hardliners want to prevent any pushback of Xi’s political program at the upcoming annual summer meetings in Beidaihe. Historically, that’s when showdowns over party strategy have occurred, and this year’s shootout is between reformers and fundamentalists.

Reformers believe that China’s strength rests on economic success; that without major financial and administrative restructuring—in other words, decentralization of power—the Party’s authority will be challenged by a population that wants both modernization and political protection of the gains they’ve earned (or been granted) thus far. If economic growth can’t be guaranteed, then perhaps it’s time to start thinking about new strategies—perhaps less social and political control, for a start. They’ve begun to concede privately that it may not be able to fashion a new economy for China without some shift in politics.

Fundamentalists—party conservatives--are of a different mind-set: They’re centralizers, who argue that the country is better off with more political power in Beijing than less. They believe that what China really needs is a smarter Communist party, commanding support because it offers society a vision of a China becoming greater because of its one-party political system. To get that message across, the message itself needs to be better—which is why Xi's allies spend so much time primping and pumping up Xi's profile and the Communist party and country he leads. For fundamentalists, controlling the medium is the message. And Xi's been swinging that way for a while now.

Fundamentalists loathe Yanhuang Chunqiu because they think it spends too much time on the inglorious past and courts social upheaval by embracing political reform. They’d like to see it asphyxiated.

Reformers admire the magazine because it emphasizes where the Communist party missed opportunities for deeper change in and progress for China. They want Yanhuang Chunqiu preserved in its present form, to remain as a platform to hint at a new politics for a new China.

Notably, this political rift is also present in the lower party ranks, raising the question about how local officials and cadres will react if Yanhuang Chunqiu shifts its editorial approach or simply shuts its doors. In looking to prevent one political conversation, party conservatives may end up producing enough resentment to give rise to other, less forgiving ones.