How to build Chinese society?

By Zheng Yongnian
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, March 16, 2013
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A central goal for China's ongoing governmental reform is to build a "consolidated and stronger society." This will empower new social groups and aid existing levels of society to better participate in governmental affairs.

New social groups have been springing up throughout China, including major metropolitan centers such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangdong. These locally implemented pilot programs will provide useful information for future national-scale reforms.

Guangdong has been particularly effective in simplifying new registration procedures for local organizations, and provides them with venues, and sometimes even funds, to hold social functions.

From a political point of view, grassroots societies must first organize themselves before they can take more power. In this sense, the government needs to give space and assistance for the development of social organizations during the process of social empowerment.

Social empowerment does not simply mean giving power to society. As it takes time for the growth and development of social organizations or social forces, the government can play an active and significant role during this process, especially at their initial stages. This will allow grassroots organizations to flourish and, in the meanwhile, provide an opportunity for the government to develop strong relationships to these groups.

In many countries, social organizations are commonly in a tense and sometimes hostile relationship with their governments. China should avoid such developments.

Also important is the reform of China's pre-existing social organizations, such as the Communist Youth League, All-China Women's Federation and the All-China Federation of Trade Union.

Following the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, these social groups assisted the newly established government in mobilizing society to build a strong nation. However, they gradually become excessively affiliated to the government, and are often viewed as peripheral agencies of the government. In so doing, they tend to represent the ruling authorities' will, instead of the part of the society they were built upon.

Obviously these organizations need to reform and upgrade themselves into a bridge, or a balance force between the government and society. For example, in events such as a labor negotiation, the trade union should represent workers' interests when bargaining with senior management and in the meantime, pay attention to the negotiation's impact on society (a concern of the government).

Society also deserves a bigger say in government, and real empowerment means political representation and the end of top-down social management.

China has invested a great deal of effort in maintaining social stability, but regularly finds itself surrounded by problems. "Stability maintenance" often places the government into direct confrontation with its own people. Actually, China could, instead, take a more effective and humanized approach.

Three decades of Chinese reform and opening up has so far met with success. In the 1990s, the Communist Party of China (CPC) started to absorb social forces into its governing structure, and entrepreneurs from the private sector were allowed to join the Party and participate in political affairs. This is one of the highlights of China's reform drive.

Throughout the history of the international Communist movement, eradicating capitalism has long been its final goal. But CPC distinguished itself from other communist parties by accepting private entrepreneurs' membership applications. This decision embodies the CPC's inclusiveness and openness which has ensured its steady growth.

To empower grass-roots society, China can take a similar approach, giving new social organizations more political rights.

The public has for years criticized the Party and government officials for being disconnected from the public, resulting in poor governance. Worse still, many officials often remain indifferent.

The CPC's 82 million members should have been a good solution to prevent such situations from happening, since a large number of them live in grassroots areas and close to the general public.

Guangdong actually has set a good example in this regards. It has established a mechanism involving representatives from the Party, the local people's congress and the local political advisory body to regularly hear public suggestions. In addition, it founded a Policy Advisory Committee to hear what specialists and professionals say.

In the long run, influential social groups should be admitted into the NPC, China's top legislature, and CPPCC, the country's top political advisor, and formally function as independent sectors. That is to say, they need an official channel to participate in government.

Before this idea can turn into a reality, China needs to further its institutional reform to create conditions for the organization of social forces while exercising effective supervision over them. This is the only way for China to deepen its reform.

The author is a professor at the National University of Singapore and director of the university's East Asian Institute.

This article was first published in Chinese and translated by Chen Boyuan.

Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of

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