Wednesday, 28 June 2017

It's A Nice Bike, Just Not In My Front Yard

Some residents in Nanjing got together recently to deal with another challenge of shared-bikes in the city.

Whether or not the bikes should be banned from residential compounds.

Last Friday, the Yuhuatai District Yuhua Street Flower Temple Community [雨花台区雨花街道花神庙小区] convened a special meeting to hear residents’ concerns about the use of shared-bikes in their specific compound.

This gathering is another step in city authorities’ ongoing efforts to try to manage the shared-bike phenomenon in Nanjing. Like other meetings here, this was democracy with Chinese characteristics. Three residents from the community were chosen to represent different views within the compound.

One view was that shared-bikes had to be left outside the compound, possibly in already allocated areas on public avenues nearby.

Another option aired was to seek specific spaces outside for bikes that could be used by residents, instead of simply leaving transport outside on the streets as others already do. That would rid residents of the temptation to park a bike in the compound to access more easily.

Another representative argued that there should be rules and regulations for those bringing shared-bikes into the community, with residents organizing patrols “to strengthen publicity and patrol management, encouraging the civilized use of shared bicycles.” [加强宣传和巡逻管理,文明使用共享单车] That proposal included the community having its own shared-bike spaces within the compound, though bicycles parked there wouldn’t necessarily be returned there, so as to make sure “to prevent sharing from becoming exclusive” [防止共享变独享]--a sign that local socialism is surely not on its last wheels.

All agreed that with over 200 or so shared-bikes being parked overnight in the community, there was a need to reach clarification on the role that the property management office should play—something that the local Party representative said was becoming a more important issue where shared-bikes were concerned. Property management companies in Nanjing are perhaps better than in some other cities and counties, but the track record of many is uneven at best.

As is always the case here in China (especially in Nanjing, where every resident seems to either work or have worked in the local government, or knows someone who is or has), there were officials present for “face-to-face exchanges” [面对面交流]. During this session, representatives from the District Urban Management Bureau, Housing Bureau “and other functional departments and street leaders” [职能部门和街道领导] also attended to share views of the local government. Like residents themselves, local officials are scrambling to find solutions.

Indeed, the account acknowledged that Nanjing government “has not yet introduced a clear approach to managing” the problem. The article also noted that, for their part, “residents in the end did not form a unified opinion, but they had enhanced understanding and tolerance” of the situation [但彼此间却增进了理解和包容]. For now, residents agreed to have the property management company take a more active role in addressing the issue.

It may not be the ultimate solution or the best way to go forward, but it’s a further sign of just how start-and-stop policies are these days as the wheels here keep turning.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

We Welcome Comments, Criticism, Especially Contained And Constrained

While many foreign observers of China think that the country needs democracy, many Chinese citizens would be pleased if there was greater transparency [透明度].

In Nanjing at least, local residents are getting more evidence of the latter at work--construction work, to be precise.

But the actual goal and role of this transparency are where matters get complicated.

Nanjing’s ongoing water renewal project that began last year is one example of the government's strategy to be more open about local construction. Citizens were invited to leave comments; to contact site supervisors with questions or concerns; and to peruse various postings that carried information about the purpose and objectives of the construction.

That approach is being replicated in at least one other major project—the widening of an important North-South Road in the eastern part of the city.

On the one hand, the purpose of this transparency seems to be clear. By telling residents the tasks and the timeline of the project, local officials believe that property owners and renters will see the inconvenience as merely temporary; that specific concerns (such as noise or dust) will be raised with the appropriate company representative on-site for response; and that rumors won’t take root. This isn’t about maintaining social stability by stopping protests but attending to local society through better governance. It's more than a little impressive.

Transparency also works to hold the construction company doing the work accountable. Instead of residents complaining to the local government and expecting official intervention, minor problems that can be resolved at the project site by contacting the people at the listed phone numbers. That approach improves efficiency, lessens the need for administrative oversight, and casts officials as problem-solvers instead of problem-creators. It also ensures that local construction firms stay on the right road themselves—that is, they don’t take the awarding of contracts for granted, and treat projects not as prizes but assignments to be completed.

But there’s a larger aim at work here which isn’t so—well, transparent.

Local governments in China—Nanjing and others in Jiangsu included—are known for favoring construction firms with close ties to powerful developers. Those developers often have connections with officials. That’s certainly been the case with housing projects in recent years, and now that local infrastructure projects are receiving more funding by governments interested in attracting and retaining the right kind of residents, there’s concern in some circles that the same outfits will benefit.

That’s to say, the corruption that’s here won’t be going away unless something’s done about it. So while Beijing hunts “tigers” there and abroad, Nanjing is after local game.

To address corruption in the construction industry, Nanjing government has “started special action” [整治专项行动序幕] to “tightly grasp the outstanding problems in the realm of construction engineering projects” [紧紧抓住工程建设领域的突出问题] and “combat all kinds of illegal acts” [打击各类违法行为].

In other words, at the same time that authorities here are holding construction firms to account by increasing public supervision, they’re also launching a local rectification campaign, sending inspection teams into offices and job sites, looking into bidding processes, and how materials and equipment are purchased.

Is this a coordinated policy with the aim of reining in firms whose conduct will no longer be tolerated?

That’s likely, because the announcement of the campaign also mentioned “enlarging the role of guided public opinion” [加大舆论引导力度] and “striving to create a good atmosphere for the masses to support and participate” [努力在社会营造群众支持参与].

That may seem to be boilerplate language about “the masses”, but in this context, it’s significant because it indicates recognition in official circles that top-down regulation isn’t sufficient to fight local corruption. Residents will provide pressure from below to help oversee implementation of construction projects, while officials will supervise from above. 

At the same time, there’s just not enough interest in official circles in letting the public play a more direct role in fighting graft. Commenting on policy shortcomings is clearly welcomed, even encouraged in Nanjing, though residents are expected to provide general approval and to dissent only on the details. 

Allowing residents to express specific discontent while seeking to steer public sentiment towards approved targets reminds all that China remains a State-directed society. Transparency of the sort being practiced in Nanjing these days may seem to some as a door to democracy, but it’s far more likely to remain merely a window.

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.