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 [南京日报] 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.