Can China Create a “Small Government, Big Society”?


The ushering in of China’s new President Xi Jinping later this year has caused a lot of discussion about what the future holds for China’s economic and political system. A string of recent issues have highlighted problems caused by corruption, rising inequity between cities and countryside, distrust of the government, and questions about how long 8-10% growth rates can continue. In 2011, in Wukan, Guangdong province, citizens revolted, kicking the local government out of town, over a disputed land deal. A high speed train crash caused by poor engineering highlighted questions about corrupt business practices and lapses in oversight in China’s infrastructure projects after the government appeared to be covering up the aftermath. In 2012, Chongqing Mayor Bo Xilai was exposed in a major corruption and murder scandal that embarrassed the government.

Since taking over as party secretary in November, Xi Jinping has indicated a willingness to confront corruption, banning the serving of liquor at army feasts and vowing to make anti-corruption measures a focus of his agenda.

Another program that could be equally important in reforming China is the “small government, big society” agenda that has already been at work for a number of years in various localities.

“Small government, big society” is an idea that calls for the size and scope of China’s government to be diminished while expanding the strength of China’s civil society to solve problems independent of the government. Like China’s first set of economic reforms, “Small Government, Big Society” is being pioneered in Guangdong province.

In 2011, the province eliminated jobs for life guarantees, known as the “iron rice bowl” (铁饭碗), for bureaucrats. The city of Shenzhen has eliminated one-third of its government offices and loosened regulatory rules, making it easier for NGOs to register to provide services. Shunde, a municipal district of Foshan city, has eliminated over 3,000 government programs since 2007, while undergoing an economic boom.

In Shenzhen, the efforts have been successful at fostering a larger civil society that can provide services to people who were previously neglected. A school set up by the Ciwei Philanthropy Institute educates 132 children of migrant workers who are denied entrance to the local public schools due to their status as migrants. Li Guangming, the founder of Ciwei, said he wasn’t able to start his organization until Shenzhen eliminated the rule requiring NGOs to be registered as government affiliates. By 2010, Shenzhen averaged 4.2 civil society organizations for every 1,000 people, twice as much as the national average.

According to a paper published by Amy Gadsden, Associate Dean for International Affairs at Penn Law School, in 2010 with the American Enterprise Institute, in 2010, there were 425,000 civil society organizations registered with the government, 1,000 or which engaged in issues that were “informed by an identifiable human-rights, social-justice, or civic-activist spirit.” There are still other groups that are not registered with the government as civil society organizations.

The government regulates civil society organizations because it is concerned that such organizations might erode its powerbase. Furthermore, some organizations engage in politically-sensitive areas. But the government is starting to see that civil society organizations can play an important role in providing services and building trust.

The prospects for reform look promising now, but in the late 1980’s when “small government, big society” was first tried in Hainan, the reformers were unsuccessful at cutting the government. In 1988, when Hainan became a province designated as a Special Economic Zone, a team was put together to establish a dynamic new kind of provincial government. In 1986, Liao Xun was a researcher at the Institute of Quantitative and Technical Economics in the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. That year, he wrote a paper called “Marx and Engel’s Thoughts on ‘Small Government’ and the Current Economic Reform.” Liao’s paper made a big impact in the Chinese political and academic circles, and Liao was brought on the Hainan reform team to implement “small government, big society” in Hainan.

Liao’s ambitious plan called for a scaling back of government to just four main functions: social services, economic development, economic regulation and coordination, and judicial and administrative functions that he classified as “guarantee.” Organizations such as schools, labor unions, trade associations, and law offices should have relative autonomy from the government. The government only has three legitimate roles: that of a soccer referee, administering the law and meting out justice, a traffic cop, controlling social stability and keeping infrastructure working well, and a firefighter, responding to emergencies. Liao Xun even referenced an aphorism that he attributed to Thomas Jefferson, “The government is best which governs the least.”

Under Liao’s leadership, the Hainan provincial government established just 26 government agencies at a time when most provinces had more than 60, and it cut the government staff by over 200 employees. Government-organized associations like the Communist Youth League and provincial Women’s Association were turned from government-run groups to privately-run groups.

Soon, however Hainan quickly ran into opposition from the leaders of various administrations. The “small government” program was reversed from 1990-92, and institutions that were previously privatized were put back into government control. By 1995, Hainan employed the ninth largest number of government workers per capita of the 31 provinces and municipalities in China.

Chi Fulin, who was in the effort to reform Hainan, said the appetite for reform is stronger now after years of economic development. “At that time, now one applauded us,” he told the magazine Southern Window, for an article published in October 2012. “It wasn’t like it is today where the citizens are conscious of their role as taxpayers, and there is a consciousness about the protection of individual property rights. This should increase the public’s demands for low levels of government spending and an efficient government with controls and restrictions on its expansion.”

The administration in charge of reforming Shunde says they are determined to avoid Hainan’s fate. “The direction Shunde is taking towards shifting functions to the society is straight forward and unyielding,” Min Leping said to Southern Window. “Society at all levels has no reason to doubt the government’s sincerity.”

In November 2009, the Shunde government cut down it’s number of departments from 41 to 16 in a three day span after making the announcement just hours before implementation was set to begin. “If you publicly solicit opinion, you could go half a year without taking any action, because every department will say they are very important and cannot be simplified,” Xu Yaotong, the head of the Shunde reform committee and the former head of the Political Science department at China Academy of Governence, told Southern Window. Officials are now looking at ways to build a stronger system of law and order to protect their reforms.

But cutting the government might be the easy part. Fostering a “big society” and protecting it from government overreach will likely prove harder for a country like China, with a long history of having a strong central government. A key to Liao’s theory is that the government must not simply cut its functions. It must cut the functions provided by the government while making room for those services to be provided in the private and not-for-profit sector. As Liao sees it, a country is the sum of its government and its civil society.

“If you want to reduce organs, you must disperse power and reduce government functions. If you want to reduce government functions, you must expand the functions of society,” Liao wrote in one of his essays.

If the economy develops much faster than civil society, then a country will have “one long leg and one short leg,” and the country will topple into the kind of political chaos that happened in Wukan. Because the rural economy is developing much more slowly than the city economy, migrant workers are flooding into cities and putting stress on an underdeveloped civil society. These unresolved social issues could boil over and destabilize the Communist Party’s base of support.

But building a strong civil society in a country with no history of strong civil societies and unease from the government is a difficult task. There is a weak NGO community in China, burdened by heavy government regulation. NGOs in most provinces still have to find a government sponsor before they can legally register, forcing some NGOs to operate unregistered, and NGOs that address issues that can be seen as too “human rights”-oriented face the threat of government harassment. Even in Guangdong, where big society reforms are underway, eight migrant worker-advocacy groups were evicted last year after their landlords were reportedly pressured by the government.

Furthermore, China does not have a strong history of civil society of the kind described by Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. The non-profit sector in China is plagued by scandal. Charitable donations plunged by 80 percent in China in mid-2011 after a number of charities were accused of corruption. The Chinese Red Cross was accused of misspending funds intended for the Sichuan earthquake recovery, and the Henan Soong Ching Ling Foundation was exposed using donations to make loans to property developers. The 2010 World Giving Index survey, commissioned by the Charities Aid foundation, reported that only 11% of Chinese donate to charity, the 16th lowest of the 153 nations surveyed.

How does a big society come about in a country with no history of big society? If you let go of government functions when there is no civil society in place to take up the slack, wouldn’t that just cause the functions to be neglected? The key, academics say, is to “raise” a civil society. Xu Yaotong compared raising a civil society to raising a child. If you never let a child take care of itself, it will never grow up. If you don’t take care of the child and protect it, the child will be on its own. So you need to strike a balance. Government can’t let go of all of its functions at once. It should cut programs in steps, ensuring that the society can take on new roles as a challenge while not being overwhelmed.

Some public intellectuals, however, are skeptical that the government can give society the room it needs to grow. Sun Xingjie, a policy researcher and essay writer for multiple publications, said in an interview, “What I want to emphasize is that China’s society itself has to be built. The problem China is facing isn’t whether society is big or small; it is the problem of building the society itself. With the government interfering, society’s development is very poor.”

“A boundary between government and society is important. That is what gives society the opportunity to organize itself. If the government interferes, society doesn’t have any space to develop.”

  1. So then he’s like Obama of China? Hope and change? That all ends in more of the same, but worse?

    1. More than 20,000 Hong Kongers have signed a petition asking U.S. President Barack Obama to intervene in Hong Kong where the Chinese mainlanders are buying up the place, like how the Hong Kongers are buying up the homes in the US.

      King Obama will change China and make it like the USA in 4 years.

      So funny, LOL that Obuma is like a western god or something like the monkey king.

      1. hey monkey king is pretty awesome. I would like to make thousands of mini-me’s to help me do my work as well.

  2. Beware of the “American Enterprise Institute” as it is merely a propaganda entity. It consistently lies, yes lies, to the US congress and the US people and it consistently favors empowering capital and disempowering labor. It opposes consumer protection and worker protection. It feigns enthusiasm for individual rights but it favors subsidies for corporations. And remember that corporations, limited liability corporations, are subsidized by having their liability limited. The entities that fund the American Enterprise Institute have a miserable record when it comes to their “identifiable human-rights, social-justice, or civic-activist spirit.” And it has been a cheerleader for all US wars since the AEI was founded.

    1. >makes lefties mad over civil rights and “social justice”

      Sounds like a good organization.

      Americans would have my full support if they executed every single one of their liberals before that shit spreads to better civilizations.

      1. You don’t travel much do you lol. USA is way more conservative as a whole than all of the other developed countries. Just look at how many developed counties have universal health care, and has tough national gun control laws, things that US liberals and progressives can’t accomplished. Even the neighbor Canada has universal healthcare system that way more liberal than even the public option that was struck down in US.

        As for gun control even Israel and S. Korea ban guns, two countries that have real tyranny breathing down their nation. I was just at S. Korea when the crazy up north basically declare war, and even then S. Koreans were asking me why Americans feel they need guns to feel safe.

  3. High poverty rates

    Linked to inequality is Canada’s high poverty rate, which ranks among the worst of the 17 countries the report looks at.

    Canada’s child poverty rate is 15.1 per cent, up from 12.8 per cent in the mid-1990s, earning a ‘C’ ranking – only the U.S. ranked lower. Working-age poverty was 11.1 per cent, up from 9.4 per cent in the late 1990s – the ‘D’ ranking Canada received was the same as the U.S. and Japan.

    The Conference Board calls Canada’s rate of child poverty “unacceptable,”

    So China is not that bad but needs to do better.

    Shut them Chinese western worshippers up and move on.

  4. The parallel trade…………….. according to more than 20,000 people who have signed a petition asking U.S. President Barack Obama to intervene. The petition, started last Tuesday on Obama’s “We the People” website, was a new tactic for parents in Hong Kong who have been pressuring their own government to take some action.

    The petition asking for Obama’s help says the Hong Kong government is framing the matter as an issue of free trade and is neglecting to enforce existing smuggling laws.

    A columnist in the paper, Albert Cheung, pointed out mainlanders aren’t the only ones involved in parallel trading; locals are also doing it. Cheung said parallel trading is an important economic activity, and that Hong Kong thrives on free trade and an open economy. Straying from that would “risk making Hong Kong an international laughing stock,” he wrote.

    Hong Kong wants more govt and more govt from the USA and shit from Obuma.

  5. Action star Jackie Chan, 2012 Nobel literature laureate Mo Yan , and other prominent Chinese cultural figures have been appointed to a top political advisory body by the Chinese government.

    According to Chinese media, government officials have unveiled a fresh list of national-level delegates named to the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, an advisory group that meets at the same time as the National People’s Congress in March.

    Speaking about the global financial crisis to a Chinese TV station earlier this month, he described the U.S. as the world’s “most corrupt country” and said China had long been bullied by international powers.

    In December, he angered residents of Hong Kong when he told a mainland Chinese media outlet that the city’s government should place limits on protests. His statements were in response to street demonstrations against mainland intrusion into the affairs of Hong Kong.

    China needs more Chinese like JC and Mo.

    And me too.

  6. Seriously, is Jackie Chan even a real HKer? Why sell out your own people to the mainlanders. Most HK people I know dislike people from the mainland. I am from the mainland and even I think it is disgraceful that mainlanders are buying up all the real estate all over the place, not just in HK but in Australia, U.S., & Canada, they are driving up the real estate prices and making it hard for the locals to own their own property. The worst thing is that a lot of the mainlanders are buying it up with government money. Just recently, some government officials sold their property in Beijing to avoid corruption charges and took that money to buy property in the U.S.. The government money should go to putting people to work, not buying up real estate, enriching corrupt government officials.The Chinese should not ignore their own problems just because other countries, e.g., the U.S., have theirs.

    1. FYI, the Hong Kongers invented that, real estate buying to riches.

      Chinese mainlanders are just getting in on it now, late.

      And you are the same, so what are you gonna do about it?

  7. it just means a little more sorry to some unlucky and not powerful enough xx
    and bored with affairs about the wonderful pooh by stupid Britain and hypocritical CPC

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