Thursday, 22 June 2017

Contrary To That Other Gang Of Four, Not Everyone Loves To Be A Man In A Uniform

According to some media accounts, this year’s local military recruitment drive is going rather well.

For example, a recent headline in Nanjing Daily trumpeted that “The number of conscripts this year is expected to double from last year” [今年征兵数预计比去年翻一番].

That sounded like good news. But that announcement was solely in reference to students joining up from a single technical college—and specifically about a program within the school that was established in 2015 largely to funnel talent into military enterprises, something that other vocational colleges in Nanjing are also doing. There’d hardly be a need for that program and others like it if the annual military conscription effort here was finding qualified recruits with ease.

Instead, there are signs that another shortfall in soldiers, sailors and airmen could be in the offing for this year.

First of all, Jiangsu’s economy is humming along, and so unemployment in the province—and especially in Nanjing and the surrounding areas—is low. Jobs are plentiful, and new labor regulations make it difficult for companies and contractors to avoid paying reasonable wages. In previous periods, the military here was a haven for those without much economic opportunity. Those days are gone—at least for now. So long as the housing market continues to thrive, even unskilled youth won’t want for jobs in Jiangsu.

Second, the Chinese military needs youth with intellectual talent and technical proficiency—and given Jiangsu’s outstanding educational system, there’s plenty about. But graduates are going mostly into civilian sectors, inspired in part by higher pay and government programs that subsidize innovation and new industries. Even with cash incentives given to new recruits (6000 RMB in one township), the military has trouble in the labor marketplace when local governments are themselves looking for better-trained workers. Not for the first time here in China, one part of the State ends up actively undermining another part.

Jiangsu isn’t unique in this regard. Chinese military authorities, central and local alike, are well aware of the challenges. And to “vigorously solve deep-seated contradictions and problems” [大力解决深层次矛盾问题] in the conscription process—code-words for “coping with problems”—military officials are making new moves.

For example, they’ve made it easier for prospective recruits to start the process of enlistment; accelerated the health examination process to tell applicants online if or how they might meet recent higher health standards to join up; and sent officers and other military personnel onto university campuses in greater numbers—and often to smaller schools at the county-level--to convince students to enlist.

And at the soft end of the spear is propaganda—from videos extolling the new reach of China’s military, to making conscription sexy, or at least one’s comrades appear so. There’s also a campaign to use pop-stars to appeal to middle school students to think about a military career and to be sure to register as soon as they are eligible (something that more than a few aren’t clamoring to do).

Those are smart plays, made by strong people trying to solve problems that lack easy, linear solutions. But as in earlier years, it’s not clear that these attempts to galvanize the right sort of Chinese youth to enroll in the military are working any better this time around.

For example, Liberation Daily [解放日报] warned that some of these efforts to animate audiences by appealing to patriotic sentiment may have been overkill; that material extolling the armed forces had to be made more specific to certain places and provinces, instead of merely an effort to further excite the already excitable. By the armed forces’ own reluctant admission in recent years, China’s lower military ranks aren’t replete with well-trained recruits so much as high-strung ones. Beijing seems to be understanding that one uniform doesn’t fit all.

Indeed, there’s not even consensus in the Chinese media about from whence actual recruiting is being done—whether, for example, middle school students are being sought to register for the armed forces before the legal age of 18, or just being prepped to do so in the name of patriotism. That there’s confusion about the actual recruiting pool indicates the anxiety among some military commands about how best to solve these problems where there are so many differences across and within provinces. It’s unlikely that there’s a lot of coordination and information-sharing between agencies and local military institutions, if only because that’s how the government here in China almost always works. 

Perhaps even worse news is that some military recruiters, hard-pressed to procure candidates, could be engaging in corruption.

While the ways in which that corruption is taking place haven’t been made public, earlier this year People’s Daily indicated that “the incorruptibility [] of the entire process of conscription” was at stake. According to the article, discipline-inspection units had “launched an honest and clean conscription campaign” [开展廉洁征兵] to “strengthen supervision and inspection, and make others take responsibility for accountability seriously”—raising the possibility that filling the ranks is just making some recruiters rank.

None of this is all that new--which in its own way is news. For a supposedly ever-changing China, some things need to change but stay too much the same.

Thursday, 8 June 2017

California/Tumbles Into The Sea

International news outlets presented U.S. California governor Jerry Brown’s recent trip to China as a major event. For many, the visit was a clear acknowledgement that Beijing was taking command of the climate change agenda and committing itself to global leadership on the environment as well as major investments in energy savings industries.

Then why doesn't China's State-controlled media agree?

One reason is that Brown’s trip isn’t really big news here, particularly in Jiangsu where he’s visited and signed agreements in 2013 and 2015, and with whom California already enjoys a strong relationship. Nanjing Daily [南京日报] didn’t bother to cover the visit for their daily subscribers; local newspapers largely consigned Brown's stopover to the inside pages if that; and even social media had very little to say on the subject.

That’s partially because Jiangsu has been engaged in its own environmental campaign for well over a decade. Officials here aren’t all that interested in passing along what works in Jiangsu to other nations because they know from experience that there are major differences across counties, never mind countries. Decision-makers have enough of a challenge seeing local projects to completion so they’re not going to spend too much time discussing matters with visiting dignitaries, nor announce new policy.[1] There wasn’t news to report (save Brown’s ongoing interest in high-speed rail) because it’s not new, and not all that significant.

Central news agencies here did broadcast Brown’s meeting with Chinese president Xi Jinping, but that's because coverage of Xi dominates the news—not because an American governor stopped by to congratulate China on its supposed success. And Xi’s focus was on US-China cooperation generally; when Xi spoke of California’s contribution, he noted science and technology as well as innovation [创新], but barely nodded at the issue of “green development” [绿色发展]. If Xi’s emphasis was on leading the fight against climate change and for green energies, Brown’s visit was a perfect opportunity to make that plain. But Xi didn’t do that. Xi clearly has other matters on his mind, at home and abroad, and the news coverage here in China reflects that his focus is currently elsewhere.

There’s another reason why State media coverage didn’t extoll Brown’s efforts: Beijing wants to make sure that it, not the provinces, directs China’s environmental policies.

There’s always been tension between central and local governments in China over environmental matters, with lower-level officials here often eager to make progress and conclude agreements with representatives of foreign governments and companies, without having to wait for Beijing to sign off. Many local officials also want more autonomy to deal with disputes and protests related to environmental matters, and dislike and resist recent efforts by Beijing to intervene and supervise green policy generally. 

This pulling and hauling between agencies and levels of government in China means that Beijing doesn’t have a single environmental policy or a climate change strategy; it has a multitude of them. The Xi leadership has been trying to transform that situation, pushing to centralize decision-making, give less authority to local governments, and put its people in places where loyalty to Beijing has been questionable. Xi and his people want to be in charge, and many haven't been happy with provinces pushing their particular agenda at the expense of the central government.

Whether that’s a smart move or a misguided one by Beijing is open to question, since sometimes China’s local officials help to protect the environment while at other moments and places, economic development and political promotion takes priority for them and they couldn't care less about their constituents. What is clear is that, under Xi, Beijing wants to dictate how provinces and cities handle green development, and not allow localities to make their own policies without central imprimatur.

So that’s another reason why media coverage of Brown’s visits to locales was constrained: It reflects the current political line that environmental policy is what Beijing is supposed to be in charge of, not local governments. Why hype a visit that reflects a reality that Xi is trying to have changed? Speaking well of Brown's visit would encourage this sort of soft separatism, and so Chinese media was clearly told by Beijing to stay quiet.

There’s a larger lesson here—or at least there really should be: That assuming that China is doing something that the United States isn’t—or doing something far better—is dumb. Indeed, that recent assessment that Beijing is leading the way in green energy and Washington is falling behind—a claim that China’s local officials scoff at--is precisely the same argument made by the same people early in the decade. That conclusion was wrong then, and it’s still wrong. The reason everyone should know that is because China’s own media tells us so.

[1] Press coverage in the Los Angeles Times was bizarrely breathless, and, in the case of the headline stating that “Chinese climate officials let loose on President Trump as Jerry Brown concludes visit,” guilty of hyperventilating. There’s only one Chinese official cited as criticizing Trump and he’s retired—so he’s not only not “officials”; he’s also not “official” any longer. The so-called large amount of attention in China devoted to Brown’s visit claimed in the Los Angeles Times by a “Special Correspondent” (a title which may mean the reporter is not accredited) apparently refers to the English-language media here in China--not the actual Chinese media, which is what residents here rely on for information and policymakers for the current political line. The former is presented as policy to foreigners who don’t or cannot read Chinese newspapers and other media; but it’s simply propaganda, designed to deceive. Foreign reporting that relies on those sources is suspect at best.

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

Social Protests Matter Less Than Unsocial Behaviour

It’s a small story in a medium-sized city about a large problem.

During the recent Dragon Boat Festival in Nanjing, the city management bureau [市城管局], checking to see how traffic was flowing, came across unauthorized fee collectors [停车收费员]—people charging drivers for parking their cars in spots that either should have been free, or where they had no right to pose as city agents to collect money.

According to the brief account rendered in Nanjing Daily [南京日报], 32 people were cited and charged, 3 were arrested, and more than 50 received warnings and told to move along or else.

“Like all kinds of irregularities, the purpose was to put the parking fee into their own pockets,” Deputy Director Lin Fujian [林福建] of Nanjing’s Parking Facilities Management Center [市停车设施管理中心] summarized.

Indeed; and like all kinds of social conduct in China, it’s another tale of people behaving badly.

It’s also about what local officials do about such behaviour.

There’s been a lot made of the recent anniversary of a case of political rebellion, and how many in contemporary China are casting it years later as something necessary to maintain order. That was a seminal event, to be sure. But what matters on a daily level here to officials and citizens in Local China far more are the individual, barely organized challenges to authority generally. In China, efforts to loot are about ambition--and more generally, the seeking of advantage in small ways that are defiant of rules and regulations, laws and social strictures governments have put into place.

Any and every resident of Local China sees disobedience on display here daily. The people who cut in line or decide in smoke in spaces that prohibit it; the vendors who manipulate weighing scales and sell produce and other products they know to be tainted; the individuals who grab public goods and common land for private use; the drivers who switch lanes and license plates with abandon; the touts and tour guides who offer a back way into parks and places of historical interest—this is a class of people without class [素质] when it comes to conduct.

Not everyone here acts that way; but enough do for local governments to spend a lot of time and energy wondering what to do about it.

Some officials want to continue to emphasize the importance of civilizing citizenry. Education, persuasion, social pressure—those are all strategies already in place that are supposed to hold people accountable to do the right thing, as defined by the State.

Others think campaigns [] against criminal (or even unethical social) behaviour are the best approach—that you can’t stop uncouth conduct, but you can contain it by strict enforcement.

Whatever the approach—and some local governments tend to pursue both simultaneously—it's not protests they practice for, but identifying problems. Local officials do not see incivility or rent-seeking as a sign of subversion or authority disintegrating, but a symptom of a society requiring better guidance and stricter supervision. These days, the focus is on a more comprehensive practice of social governance, playing better offence instead of defence, problem-solving the street.

Efforts at better management don’t mean local government is desperately trying to keep society stable: That’s a canard. There are all sorts of ways to accomplish that objective simply by becoming more draconian. Chinese officials tend to reserve their batons for specific groups they see as especially troublesome--religious cults, weiquan [] lawyers, and the like—that is, power that’s trying to be organized as an alternate authority but ends up failing because the State is too savvy and too strong. Some here may admire their struggle, but few ignore the scarceness of their success.

The real struggle isn’t State versus Society—and both practitioners and observers who act and think otherwise are mistaken. The battle is within the Party and the government, especially at the local level: Between those officials who want to increase the level of pressure on wrongdoers in society, and those cadres who think the only way to civilize is to be civilized in the effort.

The objective though is the same: Stopping those who are trying to take advantage, who look to become their own local authority at the expense of the State—as in the parking fee collectors caught by the city because some officials went out looking for trouble and squelched it. The offenders didn’t want to overthrow the government, just undercut it.

That may seem like another small story, and compared to the social rebellions of nearly 30 years ago, it is. But the larger tales and longer trajectory of Local China will come to depend on who decides how uncivil behaviour gets dealt with locally.

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Never Mind The Tigers And Flies, Let's Get Some Lions

As an exhaustive anti-corruption crusade against high-ranking “tigers” and low-level “flies” continues, some in the Communist party have decided that the organization now needs “lions”.

It’s an initiative announced recently by Wuhan [武汉], the capital of Hubei province--to identify officials unafraid to take on new challenges. Wuhan is struggling to address its own social challenges by looking at how officials operate with various groups in the urban community, and the solution according to some rests with better personnel.

But this is also a tale of tensions within the Party about whether to continue to focus on fighting corruption or start trying something else—less about rectification and more about reform.

What is a “lion cadre” anyway—or one that would embody the values of a lion [狮子型干部] in Chinese politics?

According to Wuhan’s Communist party chief Chen Yixin [陈一新], it’s a person “whose loyalty is clean, whose ideology is liberated, whose thinking is open, and who is willing to fight for as well as play with new ideas”. Chen says that more committed and innovative officials are needed for Wuhan because "after the main political line is determined, the cadres are the decisive factors" in carrying it out.

Wuhan’s problem is that these “lions” are as scarce and elusive in Chinese political life as they are in nature.

In fact, in this period of “the new normal” [新常态] where reform and development need to be deepened—a favorite theme of Party chief Xi Jinping and his allies-- there are those in the Party rank-and-file who, according to Chen, simply aren’t up to the task:

“In reality, some cadres occupy important positions, but have proven themselves unable to exert command or grasp the overall situation, as they lack the competence, the ability, and the fighting spirit to dare to tackle that which is difficult. These same cadres become hopeless, stand by and watch, doing nothing, while local development gets left behind and the people's livelihood turns bitter. This situation has not only affected reform and development plans, but also harmed the Party’s connection with popular sentiment.”

Those are serious charges: Quite apart from some cadres being corrupt, some are being labeled as incompetent.

In order to locate officials in Wuhan capable of being “lions”, research units in the city government have been tasked to find about 100 cadres capable of filling various bureau-level positions. But after a month and a half of looking about for those qualified, the article concedes, many posts remain unfilled. It was probably a mistake, the essay acknowledges, to think “that there’s a Bo Le [伯乐] in Wuhan”—a figure in the Zhou dynasty with the uncanny ability to identify wild horses capable of being tamed for service to the State—that is, a single good judge of hidden talent.

In fact, what’s really needed, according to the article, are “institutional mechanisms [体制机制]”—systems in place that will assess performance, and separate actual change-agents from the change-artists. If the Party can “establish a sound and effective assessment as part of the current supervision and approval apparatus, as well as vigorously creating a good environment for cadres to do a good job in their respective positions to open up a new frontier,” then it should prove easier to locate the lions the locality--and the nation--need.

That’s an interesting argument, in part because it’s really an attack on the system as it is; a criticism of Beijing’s anti-corruption campaign, which is cleaning up the Party but isn’t solving the fundamental problem of competency. When all Beijing wants to do is punish officials for wrongs committed, cadres become even more cautious about experimenting—they become lambs. They’re not enough lions, Chen and others are saying, because they’ve not been encouraged to breed.

What Chen and his allies want is to feel supported when they are pro-active in solving problems, for Party life to have greater meaning, something beyond meetings, meandering speeches, and admonitions against malfeasance. They see the problem as organizational, and they’re pushing reform instead of Party rectification—and not for Beijing to think that the latter is the former.

That will be a tough sell. But this conversation about what to do in Wuhan reflects the larger debate among local Party members about what changes in politics are needed to make what the Party does more relevant to citizens and cadres alike.

Some commentators argue that the challenge is in the way Party cadres are trained in Wuhan and elsewhere, and that needs to be changed.

Others insist that officials aren’t allowed enough latitude to make local decisions and what plagues Wuhan cadres is a lack of initiative. 

There are also commentators who hint that “lion cadres” need to be identified and introduced into the ranks immediately, to take a chance with new people, instead of going through the usual vetting channels which would likely produce the same torpid results.

Of course, no one notable within the Party is advocating democratic reform either. But reform-minded officials and their advisers concur that while it’s good to be clean, it’s now time for the Party to get more courageous.

Whether Wuhan can find its “lions” is one question. But what it means if Wuhan succeeds in its experiment is another issue entirely—especially if it inspires some local officials to be fearless in pushing for change on their terms. Some months from now, the problem might not be Wuhan locating “lions” but Beijing finding enough lion tamers.