Sunday, 11 December 2016

It's The Cadres, Not The Classroom for Xi Jinping

Chinese president Xi Jinping gave an important speech this past week during a 2-day conference on China’s colleges and universities. According to a number of observers, a major message delivered there was the need to crack down on intellectuals and alternative views in the classroom--part of Beijing’s ongoing strategy to tighten social control and fight against forces promoting “Western values”.

But Xi never conveyed that sentiment. He’s got another agenda.

What Xi did say, starkly and forcefully, was that China’s universities are unique institutions, repositories of Chinese socialism; that political and ideological control of China’s universities had to be strengthened because their role was to mold and shape a moral individual; that one of the major means of doing that—namely, Marxism and “socialist core values” [社会主义核心价值观]—needed to be taught with more vigor to students and instructors alike; and that colleges in China needed to follow the leadership of the Communist party first and foremost.

In other words, Party officials at universities charged with those responsibilities weren’t doing their jobs. If they had been doing so, Xi wouldn’t have needed to give the speech—and with 4 members of the Standing Committee in attendance, there’s clearly high-level support for his stand on those shortcomings.

Xi’s target isn’t intellectuals or instructors per se; it’s university cadres whose inattention creates problems (corruption for one—witness anti-graft czar Wang Qishan’s presence and recent visits) and whose adherence to Beijing’s edicts is therefore suspect. Xi’s speech is another in a series of his wake-up calls designed to scold and school officials (in this case, Party administrators at Chinese colleges) to start taking their portfolios seriously—or suffer the consequences.

There’s ample reason for Xi’s concern with cadre performance, because many officials have grown accustomed to more autonomy in their political affairs than Xi and his supporters are comfortable with. Indeed, already some Chinese officials are interpreting Xi’s speech differently, with the Minister of Education arguing that subversion often starts at the campus gate, while conceding that the Cultural Revolution “pretty much wrecked ideological work” [文化大革命”对意识形态工作造成了巨大破坏]—a position at odds with much of Xi’s own take. Vice Premier Liu Yandong [刘延] spoke the same day as Xi about the importance of “running a socialist university with Chinese characteristics” [办好中国特色社会主义高校], but emphasized universities as “crucial cultivators of talent” [要以人才培养为中心] not apparently as places where ideology should be central. So there's pushback of sorts, as one should expect. Xi can cope with resistance and even opposition; what he clearly loathes is simple disregard for one's responsibilities as a Communist party member in seeing socialism through.

Still, there's nothing in what Xi said during his speech that should make anyone sanguine about his view of the state and the role of Chinese universities. As with many other areas of contemporary life in China, Xi is arguing for more Party control and guidance, not less. This is not Xi going soft, but continuing to work for a hardline solution. But he's looking to crack down on cadres because they're causing the problem, not the classroom.
It’s not clear yet how increasing the Party’s role in Chinese universities will play in the provinces. Recent efforts by Beijing to try to manage national education haven’t ended well for the local cadres tasked with implementing them. Some are already subscribing to a harder line than even Xi seems to be urging.

But what should be apparent is that while Xi conceives of the Communist party as the answer to what ails China, he also thinks it’s the core problem that needs solving. Much of Xi’s tenure thus far has been a course in trying to resolve this conundrum. The final grades for that aren’t yet in.

Wednesday, 7 December 2016

Nanjing Tries To Tackle Poverty By Being Different--And Not Screwing Up

The front page of Wednesdays edition of Nanjing Daily [南京日报] announces that the city will move into a new stage of the national poverty alleviation [扶贫] programs being pushed by Beijing. In Nanjings case, that means building a long-term mechanism [长效机制] by which low-income residents left behind by economic development will be provided ongoing assistance. The approach in Nanjing will be nuanced, the article notes, with some areas receiving more infrastructure, construction, and public utility projects, while others will get direct subsidies, disaster relief aid, and training for better employment and entrepreneurial opportunitiesan attempt, in other words, to meet local challenges in Nanjing locally.
Unmentioned in the announcement is perhaps an even greater challenge for Nanjing: keeping local government officials from stealing the money being allocated for this program.
Thats at least the clear impression any reader of the Communist partys flagship newspaper Peoples Daily [人民日报] gets from news coverage of this national initiative as its been applied elsewhere in China over the past few years.  Its not been a happy story of socialism in action thus far.
Back in November, Chinas Central Discipline and Inspection Commission [中央纪委] listed 9 typical cases where poverty alleviation funds were diverted for personal use, often blatantlytransgressions so egregious that the national evening news mentioned them.
For example, in a village in Hebei province, the party branchs director siphoned off monies allocated to assist the indigent and disabled, using the name of his wife, daughter, and mother as deserving applicants, all of whom were in fine fettle. Officials in Ruicheng county in Shanxi province used funds allocated for benefits for themselves over a 2 year period, while awarding contracts for building renovation work to friends and receiving kickbacks in the process. A different county in a different provinceLinquan county in Anhui--saw similar practices there, though in that instance it was continuing to claim rural assistance payments for already unqualified relatives even after they had died.
More of the same sort of malfeasance was found in Shandong province where, for a period of 5 years, officials in the city of Qingzhou skimmed off subsistence payments to pensioners seeking poverty relief.
And in an especially obnoxious instance, officials in a township in Hunan province not only applied for and were awarded funds for the resettlement of migrants that evidently didnt exist in the numbers claimed and for disaster relief for a disaster that may not have happened, they also stole the money that Beijing provided for these fictions for themselves.
From forestry projects in Qinghai that saw walnut seedlings perish because funds were pilfered; to villages in Yunnan where officials spent monies allocated to rural cooperatives for medical care on air tickets and travel accommodations for themselves and their relatives; and in the province of ever-growing economic powerhouse Guangdong, where from January to October of this year alone, 344 cases of corruption were unearthed and People’s Daily stated that those who are already rescued arent in need of further rescue [导致该救助的没救助,不该救助的被救助]---few local leaders granted poverty alleviation support for their residents in recent years were ever in danger of impoverishing themselves or their relatives. Not for the first time in China, central government relief from local hardships provided excellent opportunities to resident cadres for personal enrichment.  
As ever, Nanjing is endeavoring to be different.
According to the article, the city has spent 2 years assembling data on residents to gain a clearer idea of the nature of the problem Nanjing faces. Instead of simply submitting requests to get funds, cadres and bureaucrats here are attempting to know what they need. With more precise statistics in hand, Nanjing officials are also pulling away from the idea of relief as the approach to solve the problem of poverty [and instead] pay more attention to using development as a means of not ending poverty but reducing the existing income gap. Instead of looking to construct new institutions or reformat existing administrative organizations to incorporate these new tasksthe typical approach in China where nationally-funded initiatives are concernedNanjing will pay more attention to long-term policy innovation”. That strategy is different from the one-off attempt to payoff deserving residents--which often ends up just robbing the poor to enrich the rich.

In one sense, this is Nanjing playing the part of innovator, leading a different sort of reform instead of slipstreaming behind change thats been authorized by Beijing. That's been the nature of post-Mao reform in China: localities and provinces desperate for solutions and, when to comes to policy initiatives, asking for forgiveness from the central government for acting unilaterally, instead of permission ahead of time.
But its also officials here trying to learn from the errors of others, instead of experimenting simply because something might work and everyone's desperate. Nanjing cadres and bureaucrats aren't fools: They need only look around to see what went wrong elsewhere to find that corruption got in the way of performance, and theyre clearly trying not to make the same stupid mistakes. Their approach may not be exciting or necessarily path-breaking, but at least its safe because its potentially clean and possibly quite promising because the policy is walking another path. Frankly, in an era of crackdowns and centralisation where the only reform is of the conservative stripe, that's an interesting move in itself.