Hu's legacy: Social governance

Updated: 2012-11-21 08:10

By G. Venkat Raman (China Daily)

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The just-concluded 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is the appropriate occasion to understand and appreciate the contribution of Hu Jintao, former CPC general secretary, to social governance, especially his contribution in the context of "governance and social transformation" in developing societies in the wake of globalization.

To begin with, one has to appreciate that China, as a developing society, has been a late arrival as far as the focus on social governance is concerned. Social scientists have been attracted by studies related to economic development and social transformation under the rubric of "governance" since the 1980s and 1990s.

In fact, it was the Management of Social Transformation program of UNESCO, launched in 1994, which first promoted a "culture of evidence-based policymaking". According to this new analytic framework, the principal goal of development cannot only be economic growth and modernization, for uneven growth and social polarization could actually increase the disadvantages and marginalization of significant groups.

Closely related to the concept of social transformation is that of "governance". Jan Kooiman's distinction between "government" and "governance" goes a long way in a nuanced understanding of these concepts. Whereas government is the concrete form of state, governance involves a wider set of actors ranging from elected representatives to various non-elected non-state actors like trade and commercial associations, civil associations, and interest and pressure groups.

In the 1990s and 2000s, there was growth and indigenization of the new disciplines of public administration and public management, and coupled with growth of the market economy, "governance" came to be understood as not mere control over the population but about being "service provider".

Thus China didn't need public administration. Instead, it needed public management, which meant extending the scope of government from the administrative apparatus to the entire public sector. This in turn meant that in China the government continue to play a vital role. But non-governmental organizations were given a role to play as well, albeit, a supplementary one.

The emphasis on social governance under Hu and the recent focus on social management have to be appreciated in the above context. Hu realized that a GDP-obsessed growth model was not going to help China's quest for a more egalitarian social transformation in the long run and, therefore, he gave a decisively new direction to governance in accordance with his policy of keeping people first (yiren weiben) and by making the Party exercise its power for the people (quan wei min suo yong), use its passion for the people (qing wei min suo xi) and seek benefits for the people (li wei min suo mou).

The emphasis on social governance has led to calls for balancing government control (zhengfu tiaokong) with social autonomy (shehui zizhi) with the aim of building a strong government (qiang zhengfu) and strong society (qiang shehui).

To concretize the objective of focusing on social governance, Hu took a more "populist" approach to governance by highlighting the need for Scientific Outlook on Development, introduced to the public as a concept of "comprehensive, coordinated and sustainable development".

The scientific nature was also reflected in harmonization of the five coordinates (wuge tongchou): overall co-ordination of urban and rural areas; inter-regional development; economic and social development; harmonious development; and domestic development and opening-up. As part of balancing the rural-urban disparities, a host of measures were taken to realize the construction of a new socialist countryside and embark on the policy under which industry supports agriculture (gongye fanbu nongye) and urban areas support rural areas (chengshi zhichi nongcun).

This orientation to governance led the CPC to re-engineer its policy disposition to fulfill social expectations - for example, not allowing the trend of growing disparities to go unheeded but actively arranging for redistribution of wealth in the long run. Under Hu, the message was clear that the CPC would shift the dynamics of policy discourse and elevate "economic pragmatism" to "social governance" based on quality, rather than quantity, of growth.

Probably this prompted a re-interpretation of the important thought of the Three Represents by "establishing a Party that is devoted to public interests and governing for the people" (li dang wei gong, zhi zheng wei min).

Hu, in the concluding address to the delegates to the 18th Party Congress, said: "Ahead of us are unprecedented opportunities for development as well as risks and challenges unknown before."

So what are the challenges facing the fifth generation Chinese leadership? The challenges can be broadly divided into economic and structurally inherent political factors.

Under the economic factors, the new leadership has to contend with the slowing down of economic growth, which would cause a decline in government revenues and make problem solving more difficult. This would be exacerbated by the focus on "quality" of growth, meaning cleaner environmental technology, promoting innovation, addressing socio-economic inequalities and better social governance practices.

As far as political factors are concerned, the five-tiered governance structure comprising the central, provincial, county, township, and village administrations have seen doctoring of information in the middle levels, leading to the blunting the of well-intentioned policies of the central authorities.

The "Party regulates cadres" system has led to a hierarchical structure which gives leaders at one level wide-ranging powers over subordinates, resulting in cadres owing allegiance to their immediate superiors and not the people and the central leadership. This seems to clash at certain points with the principle of "intra-party democracy". When one looks at this problem from the perspective of cadre evaluation, it becomes all the more serious because cadres today are judged not only on the basis of economic performance and social stability, but also on basis of a third set of factors related to social governance.

Last but not least is the issue of corruption. For instance, some rural officials use personal discretion in the use of public funds by trying to please higher officials and business contacts, building new village government office buildings or increasing their payroll rather than financing new roads or sanitation services in villages.

In short, the opportunity Hu spoke about is to show to the rest of the world that the Chinese people and the country's leadership have the genius to create a new growth model and ensure that development is based on improved quality of economic development and social governance.

The author is an assistant professor at Indian Institute of Management, Kozhikode, India.

(China Daily 11/21/2012 page9)