Friday, 2 February 2018

Two Snowstorms, Two Contrasting Interpretations About What It All Means

As if two recent snowstorms weren’t enough for Nanjing officials to contend with, there now seem to be two competing interpretations of the lesson to be learned from that experience.

The first interpretation appeared shortly after the city’s impressive cleanup was largely concluded and was rather militaristic.[1] The blizzards were battles, the local Party media said, and they were won because of the city and provincial-level governments, the military, and the masses. Particular credit was given to official institutions and their preparation and energetic response. The snowstorms were struggles--sieges, really--but Nanjing had triumphed. Time to celebrate, and then move on.

That takeaway received more reinforcement in the form of Thursday’s edition of Nanjing Daily [南京日], which included a 20-page supplement, entitled “The Decisive Engagement Against Ice and Snow” [决战冰雪].[2]

The section, full of pictures of cadres and citizens alike, led off with an essay that described Nanjing’s various city districts’ response to the storm’s “surprise attack before dawn” [凌晨袭] . Officials and others here, according to the account, believed that “Nanjing is very sound! In the ultimate battle with ice and snow, Nanjing can win!” [南京很拼!决战冰雪,南京能赢] . It was that martial spirit and the mobilisation it engendered, this interpretation has it, which proved decisive.

There’s no disputing that there was city-wide determination on display, and that a pair of storms that might have paralyzed other places for days was dealt with expeditiously here in Nanjing.

But sliding in between these clarion calls of battles waged and won was a somewhat different analysis of what it all meant.  

Just the day before the lengthy supplement above was distributed, an unsigned (and thus authoritative) commentary appeared in Nanjing Daily.

The commentary, titled “The successful fight against the blizzards highlights the city 's ‘inner strength’ [成功抗击暴雪彰显城市内功’],” struggled to give credit for the city's triumph while being cautionary.

The piece stated that while it might be appropriate to conceive of Nanjing’s response to the snowstorms as “a battle that has just been won,” the event actually offers the chance for “a major review of the city's ability to govern”--“a new opportunity for a new starting point…to promote the city governance system and modernize its capacity.”

That’s because, the essay argues, “governance capacity depends on not only the circumstances of normal governance, but also the level of emergency management under abnormal conditions, especially the ability of city managers to respond to emergencies.”

So it's right to draw lessons from the experience--but they need to be the correct ones, the commentary is saying.

One lesson, the commentary contends, is that “it’s actually very hard to use very powerful force” [用非常之力,竟非常之功]— a classical aphorism [成语] which usually denotes that authority is often limited in its reach. In this instance, the essay implies that mass power—or mobilizing the masses--doesn’t solve all problems, that there’s more to governance than gathering up volunteers and going all-out. What made the campaign mentality possible was Nanjing's way of governing, according to the commentary.

Nanjing's approach revolves around the notion that “this is the age of examiners, where we [the government] administer and evaluate tests, and so do the people.” [时代是出卷人,我们是答卷人,人民是阅卷人] . 

In other words, each side has expectations of the other, and decisions by authority are not made in a vacuum--they are and will be evaluated not only by cadres and bureaucrats, but residents.

This commentary then seems to be arguing a different line—that the results on performance aren’t all in yet. Beating the snowstorm might have been a battle, the essay concedes. But policymaking in Chinese cities isn’t a war to be waged, so much as an ongoing process by which government tries to prove itself as both concerned and competent all the time. “Inner strength” makes it possible to be outstanding when crises such as these snowstorms appear, but that needs to be nurtured.

It's as if some officials in Nanjing would prefer a little less backslapping and a little more back-and-forth. And it may well be that these are reformers within the Party speaking yet again about alternatives that are available, policy options that need further reinforcement, experiments that merit support.

There’s an even larger issue in play here.

A consistent political line is crucial in China. It reflects the prevailing view of the Party and government leadership, and indicates that decision-makers have achieved consensus. When such a line exists, it provides a route for the State-controlled media to run stories on, and enables readers (that is and often especially, other officials) to see what leaders think and proceed accordingly. Debates and discussion, as well as implementation, go more smoothly, because both upper and lower echelons of authority are clear about what’s permitted and what’s not. 

So for Nanjing to be showing two separate lines about a major event—one of those saying that the Party-led government triumphed, and the other saying that the situation really deserves further study—has to concern some local officials, if only because of the lack of clarity in where to go from here. Some provincial-level cadres might also be a bit worried.

Maybe this is a rift that provides an opportunity for open debate about just what city governments should be focusing on. 

But there’s already some space between how Beijing wants to proceed with national policies and what Nanjing believes will work locally. Nanjing will need to be careful to secure consensus within its own walls soon, lest its ability to chart its own course melts away as quickly as the snow here is is already starting to.

[1] Perry Link speaks of the use of military metaphors in his An Anatomy of Chinese (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2013), pp. 251-254, but he doesn’t make it entirely clear if he thinks that they’re being employed more now than in previous decades. 

[2] Normally, the various large kiosks that display the daily editions of Nanjing Daily put up every page for passersby to read and are changed regularly. Thursday’s, containing the supplement, was evidently too long to be posted, and so, in at least some kiosks, the previous day’s edition remained in place.

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