A Walk On The Great Wall: China’s Dream Weaver and His Reform Agenda

image 1

By: Matthew Wisla

If your job is tough, and whose isn’t, you can save yourself some time by not dreaming about a cushy life as a Chinese government official.  The working life of many officials in China is no picnic nowadays.  And it’s getting harder for more and more of them all the time.  Ongoing changes and new challenges are signs of the times as the recently installed president intensifies the trend of putting the cadre corps to the test by raising performance expectations while simultaneously changing the rules of the game.  You can almost hear the nostalgic cries, “Back in the day, oh, the living was easy!”

These changes are for the better.  Xi Jinping became President in 2012 and from the outset cut a confident, determined figure while embarking on a reform agenda.  His initiatives include anti-corruption campaigns that are meaningful, or at least significantly more so than in the past, and reducing government perks.  In the early days of economic reform and opening in the 1980’s and ‘90’s China’s top leader Deng Xiaoping all but invented materialism in China by saying, “To get rich is glorious.”  You don’t hear that much around Beijing these days particularly where the government is concerned.

Matt Wisla
Matt Wisla

Xi wants to break down longstanding barriers by calling on officials to work harder to live more like and to better understand the populace.  In the waning days of 2013, pictures of Xi standing in the lunch line at a neighborhood dumpling shop in Beijing sparked a storm of positive commentary on Chinese social media and in the press.   In a country where for centuries leaders spent their days almost exclusively behind walled compounds surrounded by eunuchs and an imperial court in the past era and an army of servants and lower level ministers more recently it was almost scandalous seeing Xi lunching with, well, anyone and everyone at the Qing Feng Dumpling Shop.

In the past, government officials of rank received lots of special treatment as part of the daily routine of going about their jobs.  During the run-up to the 2008 Beijing Olympics I participated in a meeting where an upper-level Chinese Olympic official would preside.  At slightly past the appointed meeting time the doors of the conference room opened and a fast moving scrum entered with the official striding confidently at the center encircled by handlers.  Several smiling assistants guided him towards the center seat while others exchanged a flurry of files and papers.  When he arrived at his place an eager underling opened a leather briefcase and carefully, but with a certain flourish, produced a thermos of tea.  Clearly, it wasn’t the everyday green tea the rest of us were being served.  This style of treatment still occurs but is less common now.

Hear Me Now

For centuries, the will of China was determined by its rulers, either emperors or Mao Zedong.   An authoritarian state charted China’s course, and the views of citizens played virtually no role in setting policy or making decisions even at the local village level.  Among the tremendous Chinese transformations witnessed in our lifetimes is the pluralization of interests and opinions in society and their impact on Party and government decision making.  Increases in the number of constituencies is one result of opening and reform in China.  While the pluralization of interests and opinions doesn’t extend to the formation of groups, organizations or political parties that could threaten the Communist Party – that freedom continues to be denied – nonetheless Chinese society today bristles with opinionated voices and interest groups.  Labor opposes management, peasants lash out at developers, people advocate for better food quality, healthcare and environmental controls.  When disputes arise it is the local government official who is often charged with resolving matters.  Rather than always ruling by fiat local officials now spend a significant amount of time resolving disputes and being responsive to the public in ways undreamed of even a generation ago.

Writing in Foreign Policy magazine recently, the academic and author David Lampton predicted that in the future “China’s leaders will find it progressively more challenging to govern.  They already are.  In December 2011, for example, The Guardian reported that Zheng Yanxiong, a local party secretary in Guangdong Province who had been confronted by peasants angry about seizures of their land, said in exasperation, ‘There’s only one group of people who really experience added hardships year after year.  Who are they?  Cadres, that’s who.  Me included.’”

Another significant change that’s giving Chinese officialdom nightmares stems from the scale and complexity of their assignments and in how performance is measured.  The old model for evaluating officials had a single metric: growth.  Increasing economic performance in your province or area of responsibility was almost all that mattered.  Add a new factory, get a gold star and maybe a promotion.  Virtually no one asked how the contracts were awarded or whether operations pollute water used by the city or farms downriver.  Today, issues like food safety and pollution are high on the Communist Party’s agenda forcing officials to increasingly balance growth with other priorities.  So now not only are there more issues to contend with, but managing endemic problems like air quality pose substantial challenges.

While many officials still abuse their power and China continues to lack many of the institutional checks and balances found in the West, there is wind in the sails of reform and many positive improvements have been made.

Will Xi Jinping and the reformers ultimately succeed with these initiatives along with the new agenda of fairly aggressive economic reforms passed at a recent Party planning meeting?  As is often the case in China, the key will be what happens next.  The central government will need to demonstrate great resolve and ingenuity if it’s to turn the new trends into collective realities, and for the new mindset for government officials to become the new normal.  Those aligned against change in society and the Party, such as anti-reform hardliners, those with conservative Maoist ideologies, and the state owned sector of the economy along with the economic elite who have benefited greatly under the current system, will continue to need to be addressed.

We’re Listening

With many of the toughest battles with entrenched interests and anti-reformers still ahead the final outcome remains decidedly uncertain, but one new force for positive change has emerged.  Former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman identified it in about 2011 as the “creative class” and the demographic has been growing in size and influence.  They are the small business owners, entrepreneurs, modern minded academics and college educated workers who like the trajectory that reform and opening set for China and want to see more progress, much more.

Measuring the growth of the creative class requires a big yardstick.  In the 1977-78 academic year the population of university students numbered about 400,000.  In 2010, it was estimated at 6.6 million.  Many people assume that state owned enterprises and the state sector of the economy is the dominant economic force in China.  But that’s a misnomer.  For example, in 1978 total industrial input controlled by the state sector was 78%, but by 2009 it had shrunk to 11% even though industrial output overall had grown tremendously in that time.  Today, the private sector continues to expand, while the state maintains a grip on key segments such as finance and energy, as well as, like most countries, defense.

Because the creative class generate ideas and invent things they want intellectual property rights and the rule of law strengthened.  They know more about the world than any previous generation in China and want more best practices and world class standards adopted.  They tend to care about popular trends, the arts and fashion.

The creative class has the government’s attention.  Their voices permeate traditional and social media, and their views are carefully tracked in the many opinion polls conducted by the government for its own use in deliberations and decision making.  As a result, the creative class has the power to deliver its message to China’s rulers making them a notable force that intensifies the pressure for reform.

Early in his presidency, Xi Jinping set out the idea of the “Chinese dream” as a national aspiration towards completing China’s rejuvenation.  Since then he has displayed a confidence and self-assured vision that appears in sync with the times and popular sentiments in modern China.  While government officials may dream of a simpler time, significant global economic development and stability rest on Xi’s reform agenda and its ability to continue moving China forward.

Matthew Wisla recently returned from nine years in China helping American companies succeed in one of the world’s most demanding and challenging markets. He co-founded the Marketing, Advertising and Public Relations Forum for the American Chamber of Commerce in Beijing and later served as the organization’s Vice President of Communications. Previously he worked in the US and Beijing for the leading global communications consultancy Fleishman-Hillard. His expertise includes brand building and managing corporate reputations, as well as issues and crisis management and policy communications (www.matwisla.com).

Email: matt.wisla@yahoo.com