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A Novel Approach to Public Anxiety in China: Nip It In the Bud|
By Russell Leigh Moses
How should the Communist Party handle growing disquiet in Chinese society?
This question is troubling Chinese policy-makers recently, especially with outrage and discontent stemming from everything from persistent pollution in the nation’s capital and how to measure it to the death of a 10 year-old girl in Xian, struck by a speeding construction truck.
Concerns about public anxiety had already prompted the leadership to look at restlessness earlier this year through the idea of “social management,” which has come to mean different things for different political factions. Leftists have looked to cultural reform or engineering “the moral maturity of each citizen” to stave off rebellion. On the other end of the political spectrum, small-government advocates have hoped for a supervisory role for the public that would lend legitimacy to the Party.
For a while, the debate looked to be gridlocked. But now an alternative for promoting social harmony is being tried in Ningbo, in Zhejiang province. Its approach is far more sophisticated than some might expect: That social discontent might be best managed, not by tightening or loosening the reigns of control, but by cadres going out to talk to people directly about grievances they have filed.
The Ningbo prototype focuses on setting up listening offices for cadres to read petitions, and to hear cases and complaints about anything from waste water discharges to the conditions of replacement housing. Officials at different levels of government are tasked to follow claims of distress from the outset, and to visit the people or local communities that file complaints. Dispute mediation centers, as well as administrative service offices, are staffed to prevent small problems from escalating into social confrontations with Party and government officials.
“Going to the grass roots” and “engaging in research to find out that true conditions”—two major precepts of social stability as advanced by Hu Jintao—are applied here through dialogue, instead of denial or cracking down.
Ningbo’s experiment bypasses arguments about ideology, or where injustice comes from, or whether a new concept of neighborhood is necessary. Instead, “deep-seated contradictions” are simply seen as gaining in strength, and if unaddressed, will impede future economic and social progress. The approach assumes that even the sort of local affluence enjoyed in Ningbo, a coastal city grown wealthy on textile and electronics exports, creates social challenges that are better addressed by a new system of interaction between cadres and the masses.
The Ningbo strategy passed a major test this past week when an advocate of harmony-through-hardline politics, Politburo member and security czar Zhou Yongkang, sounded impressed by a fact-finding visit there. According to an account of his visit by the state-run Xinhua news agency, Zhou said that the pilot project had “unique advantages”—heady stuff from someone better known for addressing social ills through the security forces, instead of through public services.
Zhou is not alone in signaling satisfaction with a softer approach. On Sunday, the Party’s main media outlet, the People’s Daily, highlighted a new policy implemented in the city of Zhenjiang in nearby Jiangsu province of not deleting posts critical of the government but instead using them as a means of gauging public perceptions of shortcomings by officials. “We can’t dodge problems,”the paper quoted Bao Jianguo, director of the city’s Internet Information Office, as saying. “If the problems raised by Internet users really exist, then relevant departments must solve them quickly.”
Such experiments in cities around Shanghai may be a prototype for what former Shanghai Party chief Xi Jingping is planning next year, assuming he succeeds Hu Jintao as China’s president.
Whether these attempts represent a model or just a moment will depend on precisely that sort of political backing from the top. In the midst of a leadership transition, that’s not easy to sustain. After all, we’ve seen these sorts of efforts to be bold and different before, and they usually get filed away or fade away on their own, unrepeated and left to molder. Ningbo might turn out to be one of those experiments that never get quite enough political support to be tried in other places.
But one matter is certain: Some in the Party hierarchy are as nervous about China’s future as the society they’re struggling to govern—and at least a few of them are not waiting for the formal leadership changeover next year to do something about it.