A 2011 panel meeting on social management in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua
During the past two years, “social management” (社会管理) has emerged as an important new concept under which China’s leadership hopes to deal with the growing tensions in Chinese society, reflected in recent years in an increasing number of “mass incidents.” As articulated by Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, social management involves such things as “developing, managing, and supervising” social organizations; building a “service-oriented” government; and establishing “social-stability risk and evaluation mechanisms.” By becoming more proactive and extending its leadership over civil society, the party aims to limit the risks associated with the social transformations attendant to economic development.
The emphasis on social management was reflected one year ago when the name of the party’s key body responsible for “maintaining stability” was changed to the Central Comprehensive Social Management Commission (from the Central Comprehensive Public Order Management Commission). This change has been accompanied by a gradual shift in the leaders and members of the commission and its subordinate bodies nationwide. Altogether, these moves appear to be asserting more direct party control over the mechanisms of social management, while broadening the range of associated interests from its traditional focus on law enforcement to include things like public services, crisis response, healthcare, education, social security, and mental health.
Although the language of social management encourages a more holistic, less repressive approach to preserving social stability and appears to place more emphasis on developing the capacity for civil-society development, skeptics worry that the effect of social management policies will not be the liberation of autonomous social forces but, rather, more effort to assert control over the processes of civil-society formation that are already underway. Some of these concerns can be seen in a recent article (translated below) by Gong Weibin, a professor at the National Academy of Governance, who identifies six misconceptions about social management among Chinese officials.
The article appeared in the October 15 edition of Study Times, a newspaper published under the auspices of the Central Party School. It is replete with the kind of jargon commonly seen in articles dealing with party policies and pronouncements, but behind all the buzzwords lies a genuine concern about striking a proper balance between government control and individual and group autonomy—as well as an implicit warning that if this balance is not struck properly, there could be serious consequences for the legitimacy of the political regime.
Six Errors in Contemporary Social Management
Gong Weibin, Study Times
October 15, 2012
At present, innovations in social management are being launched throughout [China] with great vigor, achieving positive results and accumulating a great deal of good experience and methods. However, there are some errors in understanding and practice.
Error One: A Rigid “Stability-Maintenance Perspective”
Our country is in a crucial period of its reform and development, a period in which there are both important development opportunities and obvious contradictions. It has become more important to correctly manage the relationship between reform, development, and stability. Therefore, “development is the number one task” and “stability is the number one responsibility” have become two important matters for local party committees and governments.
However, some people understand social stability in a one-sided way, thinking of it as everyone getting along, as songbirds in spring, without any “noise” and without social conflicts or contradictions. Guided by this type of thinking, [they] cannot tolerate the slightest expression of different opinions, unreasonably obstruct people’s [ability to make] ordinary appeals on behalf of their interests, and spare no expense to tightly guard against some “so-called abnormal behaviors.” In the name of “maintaining stability,” some will even go so far as to suppress different opinions and impose a patriarchal system in which their word is law.
The essence of social stability is political stability or, in other words, the stability of the political system. Stability of the political system depends upon the level of trust that the public has in the political system. Petitioning by the public is actually an expression of trust in the party and the government, not an attempt to create instability. Historical experience shows that social stability is relative. A harmonious and stable society is not totally without contradictions or conflict; rather, social contradictions and conflicts are kept within the bounds of what society is able to endure. It should be clear that society has the ability to endure a certain amount of social contradictions and conflict, as well as the ability to clear up such contradictions and conflicts on its own.
No society in the world can achieve stability that lasts forever. Social stability is realized dynamically by continually regulating [stakeholder] relations and [through the use of] “safety valve” mechanisms that continually release the discontent and grievances [pent up] in society. In the current stage of frequently erupting social contradictions, leading cadres at all levels must increase their awareness of hardship, risk, and responsibility. They must be neither aloof and indifferent nor too tense and must adopt a flexible, dynamic “stability-maintenance perspective” and increase the level of inclusiveness and tolerance in society.
Error Two: One-Sidedly Emphasizing Government Control
Traditional ideas, habits, and methods persist in current social management, and in many places social management means only an emphasis on efforts at government control. Rather than positively focusing on bringing [problems] under control at their source, there is a negative focus on remaining on guard and asserting control when trouble breaks out. The emphasis is not on improving people’s livelihoods, improving methods of service, and raising the quality and standards of service. [Leaders] aren’t looking to safeguard the public’s lawful rights and interests or making efforts to unblock channels for expressing demands and expanding citizens’ orderly participation in politics. Rather, [they] focus on protecting themselves to the death and surrounding, pursuing, and intercepting [citizens]. [They] aren’t looking at transforming government functions and ways of governing, at fully utilizing the power of people and markets, or at realizing a cooperative management in the common interest; rather, [they] are used to taking complete charge and putting on a one-man show.
Modern social management should entail diverse participation and shared control. Government should properly carry out its responsibilities of social management and public service; it can neither be absent nor substandard, nor can it be in the wrong place or exceed its bounds. At the same time, all social forces should be fully mobilized to jointly participate in social management through the promotion of neighborhood self-management and corporate responsibility for social management and the realization of new models for [achieving] a good interaction between government administrative control and social self-adjustment and residents’ self-management, organic integration between neighborhood management and workplace management, comprehensive involvement of a variety of methods, integration between management and service, and the orderly and vital integration of diverse control with joint establishment and enjoyment.
Error Three: Unwillingness to Develop Social Organizations
It has been repeatedly shown that social organizations [contribute] positive functions and important impacts in the development of modern society. Since the 16th Party Congress, social organizations have undergone definite development, and, as of year-end 2011, there were more than 450,000 social organizations of various types nationwide playing positive roles in [activities] such as providing public services, dealing with unemployment, protecting people’s legitimate rights and interests, and coordinating social relationships.
However, the present number of social organizations and their [combined] scale is extremely unsuited to the needs of a large nation with a population of more than 1.3 billion. Social organizations are developing at a slow pace, and some are not thriving and have imperfect internal control structures and poor management and service capacities. The status of some social organizations is not clear, with [these organizations] becoming “alternative governments” that, overly relying on government budgetary support, have a weak capacity to develop on their own. There are also some social organizations that deviate from their missions and seek profit.
There are a variety of reasons for this: there are problems of understanding as well as problems with institutional policies and law, and problems with the quality and capacity of those engaging in the work. At the root [of the problem] are some leaders who have a mistaken understanding of social organizations. Although the great majority of leading cadres say that they attach importance to the development of and role played by social organizations, deep down many still carry profound concerns that social organizations will, if they grow big and strong, become the opponents of the party and government and, if they’re not [managed properly], will turn into rivals that will vie for public [support]. [These cadres] set up obstacles to the development of social organizations. [But] faced with the increasing diversity of social groups and interest structures, the party and government cannot run everything and need to provide public services and social management through social organizations. Thus, with the exception of a need to exert more control over a small number of social organizations of special types, [leading cadres] ought to loosen entry conditions for economic, public interest, charitable, and neighborhood social organizations; improve relevant laws; increase the degree of government support; and promote and standardize the rapid, healthy development of social organizations. Social management is about both “managing society” and “having society manage.” A variety of actors are needed, including social organizations, to realize the self-management of “society.”
Error Four: Stressing Stability, Ignoring Rights
For a relatively long time in the past, people commonly thought of social management as social control and of maintaining social stability as managing, controlling, suppressing, and fining; restricting people’s freedom; and placing prohibitions on this and that. Guided by this negative view of maintaining stability, some cadres frequently focus on asserting control after an incident in order to avoid getting in trouble, and pay less attention to pre-incident prevention and controlling [problems] at their source. This kind of thinking and way of doing things still persists in some locations. What [adherents to these beliefs] don’t realize is that, as a result of the opening and progress of society, protecting the lawful rights and interests of the public is at the root of realizing long-term peace and stability in society.
The prerequisite and basis for maintaining stability is protecting rights. First, [we] must respect and protect the public’s rights to information, to participation, to expression, and to [government] oversight. [We must] actively open up mechanisms for public opinion, widen channels for the expression of public demands, and allow mass organizations like the [All-China Federation of Trade] Unions, the Communist Youth League, and the All-China Women’s Federation as well as all types of social organizations to fulfill their function of safeguarding the rights and interests of the broader public. The protection and realization of the lawful rights and interests of the masses is an important means of ensuring social harmony and stability, stimulating social vitality, and promoting social development and progress.
Error Five: Stressing Livelihood, Ignoring Democracy
Since the 17th Party Congress, the pace of social construction has sped up across the country with an emphasis on improving people’s livelihoods. Issues like employment, education, healthcare, housing, and social security have all received unprecedented attention. The mission to improve people’s livelihoods has seen rapid progress and development, and the standard and quality of people’s basic needs have seen relatively large improvements.
However, in the course of improving people’s livelihoods, there have arisen a series of social problems and contradictions associated with livelihood issues. Looking at the reasons, the principal [cause] is that there has not been sufficient attention to the opinions of the public, and what the government has done on behalf of people’s livelihoods has not necessarily met public need. Livelihood policies themselves cannot resolve questions of how to engender more scientific and rational decision-making on livelihood issues, and how to allow livelihood policies to gain the understanding and support of vast majorities of the stakeholding public.
Although some places have made great efforts and large investments [to improve] people’s livelihoods, the results have not been apparent, public discontent has not abated, and some contradictions and disputes have even arisen during the roll out of livelihood projects. The root cause [of all of this] is that they discuss livelihood without mentioning democracy. On the other hand, some local leaders have integrated democracy and livelihood and used democracy to promote people’s livelihoods. At the same time that they strengthen grassroots party organization, they conscientiously develop self-governance by village and urban residents; follow through on village (urban) residents’ rights to democratic elections, democratic decision-making, democratic management, and democratic oversight; allow the public to participate in discussions of livelihood issues; and mobilize the public to offer advice and make suggestions.
Public participation in the enactment of policies concerning livelihood issues enables the gathering of public knowledge and the optimization of the decision-making process. It is also a way of ensuring that policies concerning livelihood issues are understood and supported by the public. Public participation in the decision-making process enables people to understand matters in a complete and correct way and to understand the various considerations behind decisions and the difficulties faced by decision-makers.
Once they understand the difficulties that decision-makers face, the public will also understand when some things cannot be done all at once. The integration of democracy and livelihood avoids the embarrassing situation in which leading cadres make decisions on behalf of the people and, despite their best intentions to do the right thing, do not get the understanding and approval of the public. As the structure of societal needs changes, the democratic consciousness of the masses will increasingly grow stronger. Therefore, democracy is an important safeguard of improving people’s livelihoods and is an important measure for promoting social management.
Error Six: Abusing Grid Management
Grid management is a new management method adopted in recent years by cities across the country in which urban communities are divided into several management grid units according to a certain standard. After clarifying the scope of management and the responsibilities of [social management] personnel, information is proactively gathered about people, events, and things [in order] to build a database of urban components and events. [This database] forms [the basis of] an urban management work platform through which relevant departments and work units can proactively uncover problems in a timely manner, respond quickly, and resolve problems in a timely manner. [All of this represents] the informatization and refinement of urban management and is a kind of innovation in social-management service.
The idea of grid management has spread rapidly, and methods of grid management have been promoted rapidly, so that now party and government departments in many cities are exploring grid management. However, if within one city various agencies like those responsible for politico-legal work, public security, civil affairs, social security, family planning, and city management and law enforcement each pursue grid management separately and for their own purposes such that information cannot be shared effectively, it can potentially result in duplicated investment and wasted resources. In the name of grid management, some cities divide communities or buildings into grid units of five or 10 households, appointing a “grid captain” and setting up [a system of] collective responsibility. This way of doing things either tends towards the formalistic, producing no real effects, or it results in excessive control that infringes on personal space. Attention needs to be paid to these problems in the course of establishing and managing grids. Good things need to be done well.