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Mondernizing national governance in China

By Huo Wenqi | 2014-12-05 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Wang Shaoguang


Wang Shaoguang received a doctorate in Political Science at Cornell University in 1990. He currently serves as professor and director of the Department of Government and Public Administration, and director of the University Service Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, chair professor of the Cheung Kong Scholars Program of the School of Public Policy and Management at Tsinghua University, editor-in-chief of The China Review and part-time professor at Chongqing University.


Since the dawn of class society, national governance has been one of the most significant political phenomena. The system of national governance and the capacity to govern, which are interdependent, reflect the development level of the state as well as its performance. So in order to better understand what kinds of challenges contemporary China faces as it endeavors to modernize national governance, we sat down with Wang Shaoguang.


CSST: What is the current situation as China looks to modernize national governance?


Wang Shaoguang: Before the reform and opening up, mobility was very low in Chinese society. Not only the mobility from rural areas to urban areas but also mobility between cities was rare. An individual might have worked in a certain place for his or her whole life and several generations of the same family may have lived in the same community.


Spatial population mobility was low and so was social mobility at the occupational and administrative levels. But now, even in rural areas, the flux of population is huge. Enterprises that were formerly owned by the state lacked the pressure to make profits, and made a relatively greater emphasis on safety. But today, a third party is needed to ensure safety.


CSST: The development of the Chinese economy has stunned the world with the speed of its progress, offering tangible evidence showing the fruits of reforms to national governance. But many problems have emerged in terms of social relations and livelihood. Some fail to grasp the complicated nature of governing a state and tend to attribute all problems to the system itself. What do you think?


Wang Shaoguang: To a great extent, this perspective is intellectually lazy. The solution to institutional issues, some say, is to overturn the existing political system and set up a system with competitive multiparty elections. This is the form of government in the West and in most cases, it can lead to determinism within regimes.


In fact, similar social issues exist under any institution. Gutter oil is a phenomenon that first emerged in Japan, and corruption exists in the Philippines, India and many other countries. Food safety problems are the result of a lack of a proper supervision mechanism, so the supervision mechanism needs to be improved. Corruption may be a matter of accounting and budgeting, so these systems need to be enhanced.


Drawing upon the analogy used by Pan Wei, a professor at Peking University, if problems existed in the Forbidden City, then it is a problem of management, and could it be said that only by pulling down the Forbidden City can solve the problem? This way of thinking —“pull down the Forbidden City to set up the White House” —is wrong. As we examine problems that arise in the transitional period or other emerging problems, we should analyze each on a case-by-case basis and not simply recognize them as systemic problems.


There is not necessarily a correlation between institutional and social problems. The belief in the necessity of making a new start is naive. Under the systems of the United States and Europe, many problems have existed over the years, but they didn’t overturn their own systems.


When we carry out the modernization of national governance, we must insist on the right orientation. The fundamental outlook is to improve and develop the socialist system with Chinese characteristics, and the fundamental goal is to uphold and develop socialism with Chinese characteristics.


We cannot follow the pattern of Western capitalist countries nor can we move to the traditional models for socialism. We should use China’s situations, real development levels of productivity, and the reality of social development as a starting point to constantly improve development. China’s national governance must insist on the leadership of the CPC, which is the most fundamental characteristic and principle.


CSST: Given the circumstances, how would you define the institutional advantages of the path we pursue?


Wang Shaoguang: The greatest advantage of China’s systems is their ability to solve China’s issues. It may sound meaningless, but that is their greatest significance. This mechanism is the product of years of interactions among systems, and it suited to China’s national environment.


China has a vast territory, a large population and complicated issues. Perhaps there are problems in our systems, but the system is a fairly appropriate way to solve China’s problems at present. Now, some people proposed that we should introduce European and American governance patterns, while others have pointed out that we should look to traditional Confucianism to govern the state. Neither of these options is realistic nor are they capable of addressing the needs of China’s national situation.


CSST: You have mentioned the form of government in the West, so what do you think about China’s ways of thinking? What are the similarities and differences between them?


Wang Shaoguang: The forms of national government in China and the West are not the same. The form of government in the West refers to the political system. From Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece to Cicero, then to modern times, it has endured for more than 2,000 years, and it still remains connected with the past.


Western thinkers always attempt to start with a form of government that seeks to establish an ideal political order. For instance, they always think about whether or not democracy can promote the development of economy or keep corruption within limits.


But Chinese never think in this way, and we have our own analytical method, which is the way of governance. The way of governance refers to ways of governing a state and managing political affairs. Approximately a century ago, modern thinker and politician Liang Qichao (1873-1929) was the first to introduce form of government as a theoretical concept to China. Around 1897, Liang Qichao began to learn the concept of form of government and quickly applied it to political analysis. But later he found out that it was not feasible in China to utilize the form of government to address the existing realities, so he began to pursue the way of governance for an answer.


In the article The Dao of Heaven, Zhuangzi differentiated “the way of governing a state” from “the method of governing a state.” In short, I refer to them as the “governance way” and “governance method,” respectively, and jointly as “the way of governance.” The way of governance refers to the concept of governing a state, which is the highest goal of a political system.


Governance method refers to patterns of governing a state, including the form of government. The Chinese doctrines of Confucianism, Taoism, Mohism and Legalism all talked about governance method but had different opinions on it. None of them regarded the form of government as the heart of the matter.


CSST: At present, what influence does the way of governance have on China’s modernization of national governance?


Wang Shaoguang: The way of governance aims for the smooth operation of the political system. Therefore, we should think clearly about what the ultimate aim of governing a state is, and what correlation exists between other issues relevant to the ultimate aim. These are both significant problems that China should make a top priority.


Meanwhile, we should concern ourselves with governance ways and method. It doesn’t mean that how to improve the form of government is unimportant, but more realistic problems about institutional improvement need to be settled. Improving and strengthening institutions is the key to achieving the modernization of national governance.


The Chinese version appeared in Chinese Social Sciences Today, No. 665, Nov. 5, 2014

The Chinese link: http://sscp.cssn.cn/xkpd/xhgc/201411/t20141105_1390411.html


                                              Translated by Zhang Mengying

                                              Revised by Justin Ward