By Dragan Pavlicevic.

“While Xi Jinping’s earlier tenure in Zhejiang Province may lead people to see him as a liberal, whether he is ready to introduce political reform once in the country’s top office is far from clear. In fact, in Zhejiang, where many local government innovations are taking place to allow more citizen participation in politics, the public demand for political reform appears to be quite lukewarm.”

Some observers are putting their faith in Xi Jinping as someone who would likely push forward political reforms after becoming China’s top leader at the forthcoming Party Congress. In this regard, much has been read into his tenure as the party secretary of Zhejiang Province, where I am currently conducting field research.

During his five years in office here, several localities have implemented some forms of political reforms, opening space for higher degree of popular participation in decision-making and improving extra-party supervisory mechanisms. He has reportedly endorsed and praised these experiments.

But whether Xi is willing to push forward political reform at the national level is far from clear. More importantly, paying attention only to the “supply” side of equation – that is, the preferences of top leader(s) regarding political (and any other kind of) reform – could be misleading.

The “demand” side – the public opinion – needs to be seriously taken into account as well.

The growing mood and the intensity of popular protests may be taken as signaling a widespread sense of dissatisfaction with the ruling party, and demanding a rapid opening for citizens fuller participation in politics.

Such moods can also easily be detected in casual conversations with many Chinese, amongst whom are the online masses of so-called “netizens” as well as those in university classrooms. The numbers are clearly growing stronger, according to my own experience and observation.

But, it is still very important to ask the question how strong is the demand for reform on the ground? In this regard, a recent and yet unpublished study assessing the state of local-level governance in Zhejiang may be instructive.

Citizen surveys conducted for this study suggest that political participation has still not gained paramount importance for the majority of Chinese.

The highest citizen satisfaction scores were awarded to those local governments that have focused on addressing issues such as those related to migration, urbanization of rural areas, transparent mechanisms for land expropriation etc., while the lowest went to governments that are known for a lack of initiatives related to improvements in delivery of public goods and services in their portfolio.

Interestingly, localities that have been known for advancing experiments in participatory politics mostly hovered in the middle of the rankings. Generally, scores on indicators measuring the scope and strength of state-society interaction did not have a significant impact on the citizens’ overall evaluation of the quality of a local government.

In that light, the new leadership may not feel enough pressure to push forward political reform. In the short run, it may be more reasonable to expect further measures aiming to address the gap between rich and poor, city and countryside, eastern and western China, new initiatives to tackle corruption and improving the party’s image as well as having a strong focus on managing the economy. Significant political reform steps may not be forthcoming presently.

Dragan Pavlicevic is a PhD candidate at the School of Contempoary Chinese Studies.

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors

Comments

  1. Very interesting observations, Dragan. It reminds me of the dimly remembered “political participation” and “political efficacy” literature of my long-ago graduate days. It also underscores the need for much greater clarity in defining what we (and various other actors) mean by “political reform.” My guess is that the Chinese laobaixing are, in general, just as politically apathetic as people in most countries about many issues, and that “representation” is probably not high on their list of desires. Clean and effective government that addresses the real problems of average people are probably much more important to them than some abstract notion of participation. Having just suffered through months of the seemingly interminable debates and campaigning for the US presidency–now blessfully settled, I hope–I think the same could be said about the US. People here are yearning for someone to have answers to their daily problems and to harness the power of government to address them (whether by action or inaction). Perhaps this dynamic is one reason Bo Xilai was seen as such a threat to the system. He at least posed as a “populist” who had programs to address such issues as housing, rural-urban immigration, and jobs, issues the establishment seems to be powerless to deal with. So: what kinds of “political reform” should we expect–and more importantly, do the Chinese people hope for–from a Xi administration? I suspect they don’t really lie along the line of personal political efficacy and participation, but along the line of more effective governance to address their day-to-day problems, including corruption, income, housing prices, etc. It won’t look much like “progress” to those outsiders looking for greater “democracy,” but it would be a highly popular direction for reform among Chinese. Best, Chris

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