A shift towards social governance in China

Author: Yu Keping, Peking University

In recent years, a new institution has been established within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP): at the very beginning of each year, a senior workshop of leading officials at the ministerial or provincial level is held at the Central Party School.

At this workshop, the priorities of each year’s work are laid out. This year’s Central Party School workshop, held in February, focused on ‘social management innovation’ (社会管理创新). President Hu Jintao, general secretary of the CCP, delivered a keynote speech which indicates that ‘social management innovation’ has now been placed at the top of the CCP agenda.

What exactly is ‘social management’? It is difficult to find an English translation that accurately reflects the Chinese meaning of ‘social management’. It is one of many political terms that are difficult to define outside their Chinese context. Broadly speaking, social management means the government manages and regulates social affairs (社会事务), social organisations (社会组织) and social life (社会生活), with the guidance of law. The connotation of social management is so broad that it includes areas such as social justice, public security, social stability, social trust, the coordination of various social interests, food safety, emergency management, city management and community governance. In other words, social management encompasses all government dealings with society, excluding business management and administrative management. Social management in China, therefore, could be understood as social governance that distinguishes itself both from economic governance and state governance.

The term ‘social management’ first appeared in the Proposal to Restructure the State Council, adopted by the central government in 1998. According to this proposal, the basic functions of government include ‘macro-economic control, social management and public services’. After that, social management began to gain prominence in the agendas of both the party and government. ‘Social management’ was further elaborated on in the 16th and 17th party congresses. ‘Strengthening and innovating social management’ was a focus at the Fifth Plenary Session of the 17th Central Committee in 2010. According to the resolution of this session, ‘the general principle of social management is party leadership, government responsibility, social coordination and public participation. Relevant laws, institutions and capacities should be perfected and strengthened in order to be compatible with the demands of social management. Laws, regulations and policies need to be perfected, management and service functions of grassroots governments strengthened, the CCP’s organisational work at grassroots level improved, the functions of mass organisations and social organisations be fully exploited, and community autonomy and service functions enhanced.’ By following these actions, the CCP aims to improve social management and sharpen government capacity for delivering public services.

Why did China direct its focus of governance reform specifically towards social issues? At the very beginning of reform and opening up in the late 1970s, the major difficulties China faced included a backward economy, extreme poverty, administrative inefficiency and an ineffective legal system. Put differently, the major tasks at that time were to reform economic governance and state governance. After more than 30 years of reform and opening up, China has achieved rapid economic growth, accompanied by great improvements in people’s living standards, enhancement of administrative efficiency and the establishment of a basic legal system. With the establishment of the market economy and acceleration of industrialisation and urbanisation, the monolithic party-state governance model has become unsustainable — the functions of government have experienced tremendous change, social or civil organisations have rapidly emerged, the traditional working unit system (单位体制) has collapsed, the household registration system is under pressure to change, and the domestic migrant population is surging. Because of these changes, a lot of new social issues have emerged. Social stability has become a prominent problem and a crisis in social governance is ever more likely. Strengthening and perfecting social governance has become a pressing priority for the Chinese government.

In recent years, there have been some courageous institutional reforms in the social sphere, including the establishment and improvement of civil rights mechanisms, the protection and coordination of public interests, social safety, public security, social stability, public service, emergency management and grassroots governance, as well as social autonomy. The government has tried hard to broaden the scope and improve the quality of public service, establish a social security network as well as promote social autonomy. The ultimate purpose of social governance reform lies in mitigating the threat of social conflicts and safeguarding social order and stability.

A noticeable development in the recent social governance reform is that the Chinese government is attaching more importance to civil society. The CCP’s general principle for social management is ‘party leadership, government responsibility, social coordination and public participation’. A larger role for social organisations in social governance is an indispensable element of ‘social coordination and public participation’. By 2010, there were over 450,000 registered civil organisations and 250,000 community organisations, respectively, in China. If we take unregistered civil organisations into account also, the overall number would jump to over three million. The government has taken a cautious attitude towards civil organisations. More recently, however, top leaders have advocated the participation of social organisations in social management innovation. Top Chinese leaders even made it clear that social organisations would receive more support and encouragement from the government. In the recently adopted 12th Five-Year Plan on Social and Economic Development of China, ‘pushing the development of social organisations forward’ was given an unprecedented level of attention. These changes indicate that although the government has never made reference to the term ‘civil society’ in official documents, it now recognises its importance.

With continuing urbanisation, modernisation and democratisation, the Chinese government is certain to face more pressure in maintaining social stability. Social governance reform is a way for the government to release social pressures and maintain social stability. Success will largely rests on the growth of democracy and rule of law, increased civil engagement and social autonomy, and development of civil society.

Yu Keping is Professor and Director of the China Center for Comparative Politics & Economics (CCCPE), and also Professor and Director, Center for Chinese Government Innovations, Peking University.

This article was published in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Governing China’.