Thursday, 23 March 2017

Wheels and Words, or Did Nanjing City Officials Just Seize The Handlebars?

A lot is made by some outsiders of the anxieties that China’s leaders must feel about declining economic growth, rising unemployment, an unraveling natural environment, and the prospects of social unrest. We're told that Beijing is worried and that’s why President and Party chieftain Xi Jinping and his comrades are cracking down, to tighten control against the inevitable onslaught from the middle class, the poor, laborers, disaffected farmers—the list goes on.

Much of that argument is absurd.

It’s absurd in large part because we never actually see an actual argument: What’s presented as established fact is actually a presumption, a premise twisted into a conclusion. No one ever provides evidence from the Chinese-language state media, or conversations with officials themselves, many of whom exude confidence and conviction, not panic, when you speak with them privately. 

This tendency to over-predict by projecting perspectives and values on Chinese officials occurs because many observers don’t look at the State media or spend much time on the slippery ground that makes up this country. Local problems almost always get resolved locally. And the overwhelming majority of problems here are here—that is, they’re local, not national. So, like the various and sundry forecasts of economic bubbles bursting here, mass protests have not broken out in part because nothing in China is linear for very long. 

What’s just as bad as these predictions (which become predilections) based on what-haven’t-you is that if one is not looking at the words being used in Chinese political discourse, real evidence—words as actions—gets ignored. In China, words are actions. Ignore them, and one ignores changing realities.

There are signs of a changed reality here in Nanjing. The Nanjing news media (including the authoritative party newspaper here) Thursday used two rather important terms in its reporting on the bike-share challenges local government is facing here: (chaotic) and下发整改工单 (the issuance of orders to rectify work).

There's background to this shift.

More than two weeks ago, the Communist party’s flagship newspaper People’s Daily admonished cadres and citizens alike that the bike-sharing phenomenon shouldn’t "become disorderly [无序发展]”. The term they used then--无序--denotes “a lack of order”, and the rendering in the central party newspaper was meant to tell officials and share-bike firms alike to steer carefully or else.

Now, the terminology—at least in local media here—has moved. Quite suddenly, the bike-share situation in Nanjing is being characterized as chaotic, messy—in other words, bike-sharing here has become disorderly after all, and that needs to be fixed. The repairs being undertaken thus far are administrative but they are robust. China’s governance is after all about thumbs, not fingers. It sometimes shakes hands, but isn't afraid to twist arms.

For example, the reports note that Nanjing’s city-level Urban Management Bureau announced that it would be henceforth holding monthly meetings with bike-share companies, in particular to coordinate the management of parking. The firms are also instructed to “commit to scientific and rational delivery of vehicles, and do routine inspection and supervision” and to start hiring more people and paying more attention to how it’s managing its operations.

In short, the bike-share companies are being told that the city government here doesn’t trust them to police themselves.

Interestingly, there’s no indication that the bike-share firms were consulted or agreed to such measures; indeed, it’s likely that they weren’t and they didn’t. 

That’s hinted at because of the second shift in terminology, away from consultation [商量] or “for further consideration” [磋商] to something is now very much a command--下发整改工单--giving instructions to lower levels to make the changes necessary to achieve their work goals. It’s a clunky translation into English, but it’s essentially directing departments to do their job because the bike-share situation has become unsustainable. Instead of the “Opinion” [征求意见稿] posted just a few days ago, Nanjing government has issued orders. The days of discussing policy options with bike-share companies here may well be over. City officials seem to be running out of patience.

Which is not to say that the bike-sharing situation in Nanjing has become one of turmoil [动乱]—a word in the political lexicon here that would signal social unhappiness and unrest. Nor is there any sense that local officials are panicking, afraid that people are about to hit the streets to protest bikes either blocking their way or the government not doing enough to manage the situation. As the announcement in Nanjing Daily noted, “the bike-sharing disorder in Nanjing is still within the controllable range, [limited to certain city districts], and not a large-scale phenomenon.”

In other words, it’s chaotic, but not chaos-which is a crucial distinction here in China. It means that the situation is still fixable, and the city government is quite comfortable in acting unilaterally and preemptively. But unlike many international commentators, Nanjing officials aren’t waiting for an investment bubble to burst to cure the problem, but making policy based on the assumption it won’t.

At the same time, the city government surely recognizes that there are many local scenarios, from a street confrontation between riders and merchants that gets out of hand, to sabotage of bicycles by one firm or another in an effort to corner the market. Nanjing authorities might actually welcome one or more of the companies involved to fail and withdraw from the market; be absorbed by the competition; or enter into an exclusive deal with the city and its own extensive bike-sharing system. Right now, this is a city-level matter (rather than an urban district or provincial one), and officials here want to keep it that way, because they clearly believe that they know their byways better than Beijing. Dealing with fewer bike-share firms would make matters easier for local authorities.

And yet no one can know how this is all going to turn out on the ground here. Nanjing’s efforts may turn out to be a model for other local governments in addressing the bike-sharing challenge--or that even its novel attempts to preempt problems could end up to be too little too late. It’s an exaggeration at this point to say that how Nanjing goes in the bike-sharing problem, so goes the nation. But maybe not much of one soon.

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