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Why law-based governance matters for reviving the Northeast

LI HAIPING | 2020-11-04 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

Qixing Farm in Heilongjing Province  Photo: XINHUA

As the birthplace of the country's industrial development around the 1950s, the Northeast region's success led to the much faster growth of China's national economy. To rejuvenate the region, China mapped out two rounds of policy reforms. In 2003, it focused on the economic approach of investment, industrial restructuring, and policies that bolstered development. In 2016, it reiterated the resolve to cement law-based governance. The State Council issued opinions on a new round of revitalization in Northeast China that aimed to stabilize and improve the regional economy. The concept of "a Northeast China based on rule of law" was proposed in the opinions, signaling a renewal and upgrade to China's "revive the northeast" strategy. Law-based governance in the Northeast is not only a part of the regional revitalization but also the bedrock and prerequisite.
All revitalization efforts should prioritize law-based governance. The approach can tap into development. Economic and social development focuses on the development of individuals, as individuals are the source of economic and social development. The free and inclusive individual development determines the fate of economic and social development. The report to the 19th CPC National Congress stated that "good laws are made to promote development and ensure good governance." People-centered and people's rights-centered mindsets are the fundamental elements of good laws and good governance. Law-based governance safeguards property rights, and when people feel safe, they feel confident, passionate, and free to create wealth. This form of governance shields freedom and equality, stimulating the imagination and individual potential. Also, it shelters order, making economic and social development sustainable. Law-based governance, through securing freedom, rights, and order, ultimately fosters the material prosperity of society and generates rapid growth and accumulation of individual wealth and social wealth.
Law-based governance can enhance local competition. The market economy allows free competition. This kind of competition exists not only between individuals and enterprises but also between local governments. It is particularly evident in the government-driven market economy system. Regional competition may appear to scramble for industry, technology, and talent, but actually, they are competing for systems and mechanisms. Northeast China is home to abundant natural resources, fertile black soil, extensive transportation networks, skilled industrial workers, as well as renowned colleges, universities, and research institutes. However, its soft conditions represented by law-based governance lag behind. This governance style signals a "stabilized normative expectation" which can build trust, diminish transaction costs, and create efficiency. Trust and efficiency are the basic engines for development, also for individuals, enterprises, local governments, and the country. Where there is law-based governance, there will be talent, capital, technology, and most of all, there will be prosperity. Local preferential policies on funds and talent are only attractive when they have a law-based governance.
Law-based governance is a sharp tool to break the shackles of development. The Northeast China Blue Book: Northeast China Development Report (2015) said that recently, local governments at all levels in Northeast China, have streamlined administration, delegated power, and optimized the business environment—targeting cumbersome administrative approval procedures and insufficient awareness for services. On the whole, however, the region’s reform system still fails to catch up with the economic transition process, and the transformation of government functions has yet to measure up to the requirements for developing a market economy. Many deep-seated contradictions in the government’s relationship with enterprises, the market, and society remain unsolved. The aforementioned problems fundamentally result from weak regulations, and the solutions must start with law-based governance.
Northeast China has followed the planned economy with remarkable loyalty. It was the first region to implement it and the last region to drop it. The thinking habits and behavioral patterns formed during this period have been internalized as a part of the regional culture. Although the planned economy system has fallen apart, its deep roots mean it is impossible to eradicate "planned culture" in the short term. The "planned culture" will explicitly or implicitly impact mindset and action concerning regulations, forming a special pattern of law-based governance featuring formalism. This pattern emphasizes legal attributes while ignoring the purposes and values of laws, creating the following phenomena.
One is legal formalism. Lon L. Fuller (1902-1978), legal philosopher, formulated principles of what he called "the inner morality of law"—principles requiring that laws be general, public, prospective, coherent, clear, stable, and practicable. Formalist rule of law admires formality which falls into the category of the inner morality of law while ignoring legal purposes and values. Under formalist rule of law, laws are no more than a set of working procedures. As long as the procedures are fulfilled, the rule of law is upheld.
The second is mechanistic legal interpretation. As an open system of signification, laws usually provide multiple interpretations and applications, making it possible for laws to proceed with the times and respond to social development. The formalist rule of law understands laws mechanically, neglecting to develop laws from the perspective of legal systems, purposes, and values. They are slow to tackle problems through laws in a creative way.
There is an overemphasis on power. Law is the normative expression of value. Value conflicts inevitably exist in the law and regulations. Neither legislators nor law enforcers can dodge value judgments and choices. The formalist rule of law adheres to power, intentionally or unintentionally prioritizing power in legal activities such as legislation and legal enforcement while placing rights in a secondary position. The principle of formative rule of law is to interpret and apply the law in a power-oriented approach, unless the law explicitly stipulates otherwise. The overemphasis on power is essentially the mindset and behavioral pattern of bureaucratic prioritization under the cover of law-based governance.
The formalist rule of law is not a complete rule of law or even law-based governance in the true sense. It is hard to adapt to this region's real needs for deeper reform and innovative development. It also makes it difficult to fully unleash its inherent potential or stimulate the economic and social development of Northeast China. To revitalize the region, we must further revitalize law-based governance, and upgrade the formalist rule of law to a substantive rule of law centered on people's rights.
Renewing the concept of law-based governance is necessary. Law-based governance would function as a driver for development, an advantage for local competition, and a solution to development restrictions. To construct law-based governance, the region must get rid of thinking and behavior patterns resulting from the planned economy. Legal understanding should increase, formulating local legislation, policies, and applicable laws through the lens of inclusive development for all people and the protection of free rights. In this way, law-based governance will foster and safeguard the revitalization of the Northeast.
The region needs to value the leadership of the "critical minority" of top cadres. The process of constructing law-based governance is a process of transition from the rule of man to the rule of law, in which the "critical minority" is decisive. Views and behaviors of cadres in Northeast China, especially top cadres, can provide an immense drive for and influence on the building of Northeast China based on law-based governance. The region should seize the "critical minority," take effective measures to improve cadres' attainment of law-based governance. Only in this way can they lead the majority and build a collective strength which advances regulatory development and regional revitalization.
The innovation of supportive legal measures also helps promote law-based governance. The revitalization of the Northeast is part of the national strategy for regional coordinated development, aiming to address unbalanced regional development. In the early stages of reform and opening up, the country, based on Deng Xiaoping's strategic thinking concerning the two overall situations about the development of China, allocated more resources such as legislative power to the southeast coastal areas. Now it is reasonable for the country to appropriately tilt the allocation of legislative power to the Northeast. To fuel the revitalization, it is worth trying to encourage the Northeast to innovate, and grant it special legislative power in traditional management fields such as rural issues (agriculture, rural areas, and rural people), and the reform of state-owned enterprises.
Li Haiping is a professor from the Department of Law at Jilin University.
Edited by MA YUHONG