Putting the Plan into Action How China's Leaders Steer a Massive Nation


Part 3: In China, Experimentation Is the Norm

Chinese policies always follow the same pattern: First ideas are considered and then they are simply tried out. The government has turned the concept of the experiment into the norm. It uses small, local testing laboratories to try out a pilot project, but only once a proposed reform has been shown to be successful and applicable in multiple locations does the government venture to implement it more broadly. This stands in contrast to the Western concept of the constitutional state, in which the law comes before implementation.

The Chinese version has its advantages. For instance, it makes it easier to assess the consequences of innovations. A successful real-life test also helps convince opponents to support a reform. Flexibility is assured through the development of competing models. Sinologist Sebastian Heilmann has called China a "learning authoritarian system."

The establishment of special economic zones in the 1980s was already part of this model. There were pilot projects in healthcare, pension reform and the system of registration. Everything was tested, from road tolls to smoking bans to travel requirements for Taiwan.

Small Signs of Goodwill

The government even experiments at the local level with those elements of good governance it would normally refuse to accept: transparency and giving citizens a say. The towns of Wenling and Baimiao became famous for publishing their budgets and listing their expenditures in detail. This prompted the state-controlled newspaper China Daily to print an article under the headline: "Transparent Budget, Happy People." It concluded that publishing budgets leads to fewer people complaining about the squandering of taxpayer money and puts an end to the private abuse of public funds.

These are small signals of good will that the authoritarian regime is sending to its people. One milestone was an environmental law which requires the solicitation of public input. The people are even asked to comment, via email, on the five-year plan.

China's leaders sense that they can no longer simply govern as they see fit, and they are feeling new pressures. China now sees up to 180,000 so-called mass incidents a year. The people are becoming adept at staging sit-ins and blocking streets to champion their interests. What was once a matter for the very few now triggers nationwide solidarity activities. The Internet has become established as a marketplace for opinions and innovations. For instance, the rumors about a coup in Beijing only gained as much traction as they did because China's leaders generally act behind a cloak of secrecy, so that without freedom of the press the people can do nothing but speculate. What is happening on the web is direct participation, as short-lived as it is intense, a forced instead of tolerated participation in politics.

Officials in Lanzhou have also felt the effects of local residents' fury. When they tried to stage a run through the city on New Year's Day 2012, artist Ma Qizhi protested online. "Refuse to be a filter made of human flesh!" he wrote on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website. He meant that the people of Lanzhou shouldn't offer themselves up to be sucking the city's polluted air into their lungs.

The protest wave surged through the Internet for only a few days, but more than 10,000 discussed their opinions of Lanzhou's plans on Sina Weibo. "The decision-makers must have swallowed some kind of pill if they think that children should run under such conditions," noted one person. Another wrote: "In China, the leaders are more interested in saving face than in their underwear, which is why they will not take back their instructions."

Even the state-owned news agency reported favorably on the resistance, and the local sports agency announced that it would take the suggestions of the environmental agency into account in the future.

Ma knew that he had succeeded in teaching the people a lesson. "The sad thing is when citizens don't say what they want to say. Taxpayers support this group of people, which is why they should perform their duties well."

The People Will Hold Government Accountable

The Chinese government has to get used to the idea that its people will be holding it accountable. The country is still filled with confidence. Chinese society has been shaped by the experience that everything was improving for everyone. This combination of economic growth and patriotism lends legitimacy to the regime, turning the people into a society of consumers and patriots.

But farmers, unemployed university graduates and the people in western China also want their share of success. President Hu Jintao himself has identified corruption, the opposite of good governance, as one of the greatest threats to party dominance. In the 2011 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index, China was ranked 75th out of 183 countries. Beijing punishes people, even with the death penalty, but by pointing to the individual it seeks to divert attention away from the failings of the system.

Some are simply refusing to accept the deal that the Chinese government offers its citizens: We'll stay out of your private life if you stay out of politics on a large scale. Chinese civil rights activists are going to prison for values that most in the West take for granted. But some in the West also forget that voting rights, an independent judiciary and a democratic constitutional state are never only a means to an end, and never exist only to furnish results. Instead, they are values in their own right. Most Chinese are still satisfied with results, but they have to be good. A minority in China, however, wants more. Those are the people who are locked up for their opinions.

No government that does this can call itself a good government -- even if it delivers good results.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan


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