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.”