> topics > Sociology

Grid-based management: Chinese social governance solution

GUO XINHUA and ZHU TAO | 2020-12-24 | Hits:
(Chinese Social Sciences Today)

A grid worker doing a survey in a residential area in Wuxi, Jiangsu Province. Photo: WUXI CHANG'AN NET

China has handed in a splendid answer sheet for the big test called COVID-19. What is China's experience? Three things: the leadership of the Communist Party of China, a full-fledged health care system and emergency system, and a grid-based management model. 
The first two have been thoroughly discussed by academia, whereas the important roles that social governance models with Chinese characteristics played during pandemic prevention and control have not yet been adequately studied. To modernize the national governance system and governance capacity, it is of great importance to fully comprehend grid-based management.
Inheritance and innovation
The core philosophy of grid-based management can be traced back for a long time. Essentially, China's current governance mode is based on the country's original administrative division. By adopting information technologies to divide communities into "grids", or units, China is able to better integrate social resources, disseminate information, and implement social governance measures. As such, each individual is knit into the social governance system, instead of drifting outside. This idea of dividing a country into different communities to achieve effective governance, dates back to the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period (770 – 221 BCE). Building upon experiences from ancient societies to the founding of the PRC, and then to the reform and opening up, a grid-based management system with Chinese characteristics has finally come into being. It has been a long path of inheritance and innovation. 
Grid-based management facilitates self-governance at the primary level. This effective governance method has been applied to social governance in various eras throughout Chinese history. In the Qin and Han dynasties (221 BCE – 220 CE), the "system of prefectures and counties" was implemented. The country was divided into two administrative divisions - counties and prefectures - and run by local governments. 
Below the county-level, each village was governed based on a rural governance regime, which is described by scholars in the following statement: "imperial power did not sink into the levels below the counties; all was self-governed inside a county." At the time, a traditional village was like a small grid, and each grid was rooted in consanguinity. Based on consanguinity, kinship networks, and lineage, a governance system run by elders and local gentry gradually took shape, which sociologist Fei Xiaotong called "rule by elders." What's more, since Chinese people were attached to their hometowns, geographic mobility was small, thus making villages stable and governance relatively easy. In a way, the system of prefectures and counties combined with a "rule by elders" method in villages both exemplify the philosophy of grid-based management. With consanguinity at its core, they constituted an early model of grid-based governance systems in traditional Chinese societies. 
After the founding of the PRC, the administrative power of both cities and urban areas was enhanced. Some scholars named this social phenomenon the "totalist society," meaning that a country integrates the economy and social resources, while the centers of politics, economy, and ideology remain highly overlapped. In addition, in cities and villages, different forms of intermediary organizations were adopted to achieve integration. 
In rural areas, although little had changed in the geographical borders among villages, villages themselves were fundamentally different from before. Consanguinity no longer constituted the foundation of social relationships among villagers. Instead, three levels of organizations offered people a sense of belonging: production teams, production brigades, and people's communes. Villagers were divided into smaller units of governance. 
In cities, a governance system which centered on "work unit systems" gradually took shape. It was a new type of grid-based management on the basis of business relationships, and was combined with geographic relationships. When comparing with the system of prefectures and counties with "rule by elders" in ancient times, after the founding of the PRC, society became more finely divided. At this stage, "grids" in rural areas became production teams, whereas those in cities were work units. 
Though not named "grid-based governance" at the time, the two measures above were, in essence, an innovative inheritance of grid-based governance. These measures greatly contributed to the improvement of social order since the founding of the PRC. Since the late 20th century, social governance has become more difficult, when household responsibility systems and work unit systems were dismantled. The population's mobility increased dramatically, while the reproduction of social spaces, especially urban spatial relationships, became complex and unstable. In this context, and thanks to booming information technology, a new generation of grid-based management was born. For the second time in history, the age-old governance philosophy was inherited and innovated.
In 2004, the administrative department in Dongcheng District, Beijing, created an urban governance system which divided the city into "grids" each taking up about 10,000 square meters. To make this system work, a dozen technologies were adopted, including IT, geocoding, and grid mapping. From then on, other places in China also began to follow suit. As it gradually expanded across China's grassroots networks,  grid-based management system improved with each passing day. 
What makes the governance system so effective? Based on the results of our actual research and surveys, we believe the core contents of a grid-based management system can be boiled down to three mechanisms: positioning, resource integration, and feedback platforms. 
The positioning mechanism means to accurately position social governance subjects using IT, such as the Five-hundred-meter Aperture Spherical Radio Telescope project and cloud computing centers. Once communities are accurately divided into "grids," the positioning mechanism is then able to pinpoint community residents, grid workers, government at the primary level, and decision-making sections. 
During the COVID-19 outbreak, this positioning mechanism was applied to the epidemiological tracing of infected persons, whose movements and close contacts could both be precisely tracked. This mechanism enabled the authorities to acquire reliable information needed for pandemic prevention and control. 
The positioning mechanism is also applied to everyday governance. Each urban grid is equipped with grid workers, who would go around and inspect neighborhoods. Each one of them would establish a stable relationship with the residents in their jurisdiction. Should a dispute occur among the residents, the grid workers in charge would arrive quickly to ensure that the conflicts are solved on the spot, instead of reporting to higher authorities. 
The mechanism of resource integration functions by pooling resources from governing subjects such as governments and social organizations, in a bid to solve the issues inside a community in a targeted and efficient manner. To be specific, centers for comprehensive governance have been set up in many rural and urban areas, including villages. These institutions can be compared to "tentacles," with which governments collect various information channels to address problems as they arise. Meanwhile, the governments would report the information and situations to the higher authorities. It is a grid-based management mode consisting of the following steps: identify and solve issues; report to chief grid workers; report to comprehensive governance centers; report to governmental service sectors and social organizations.
For example, Shangrao, Jiangxi Province developed an app for its citizens, which makes it easier for grid workers to respond to residents' requests, while allowing residents to report issues more easily. The platform is also embedded in various service platforms provided by comprehensive governance centers, including a platform of volunteers working in an online psychological counseling room. The clear layout of the software allows grid workers to quickly determine the nature of the reported events, and better discover potential problems inside the community. This also helps them better identify the resources needed to solve each problem in accordance to its nature, before they apply for resources through strategic centers such as government offices. By breaking the barriers between different administrative departments, this mechanism makes it possible for problems to be identified and solved in a targeted way. As a result, governance vacuums have been greatly reduced. 
Lastly, feedback platforms have been established to encourage residents to reflect upon problems within their communities. The platform also allows users to track the resolution process for their submissions, and later, rate their satisfaction with the service they received. This mechanism is able to engage more residents in the governance of their own communities. Since the ratings affect the performance appraisal of different government sectors and grids, this raises the quality of social governance and further improves its system. 
Together, the three mechanisms form a closed loop, in which all issues within a community are jointly identified and addressed by all parties. Governments no longer need to take on all tasks, but function as providers of resources and services. The mechanisms not only suit modern society, but also help to engage the public in governance of society. 
Room for improvement
By adopting the three core mechanisms, many places have gained great results in grid-based management, especially during their fight against the virus. During field research, we've also noticed a few problems that may occur while implementing the governance mode. Two typical issues stood out: formalism and over-reliance on technologies. Formalism occurred when some local governments were required to carry out grid management, which has become a part of their political performance appraisal. Overreliance on technologies might lead to technological alienation. 
One way to reduce formalism is to adjust measures according to the local conditions, and avoid a one-size-fits-all approach. Cities and villages across China can be immensely different from one to another. Conditions differ as different places implement these governance modes. 
This is particularly true when it comes to the differences between rural and urban communities. First, rural areas lack essential infrastructure to implement a grid-based management system. Forcing it into place would result in a heavy fiscal burden for local governments. Secondly, a rural community is mostly an "acquaintance society", or a cohesive community in which villagers share a strong sense of identity with their neighborhoods. 
Therefore, we have to take into account the objective material basis and the community structure of a village when implementing grid-based management. This also applies to different communities in urban areas. We must also identify distinctions among different districts. Forcing local governments to abide by rigid standards will simply backfire. 
Over-reliance on technologies may lead to technological alienation. As China shifts from a "totalist society" to technological governance, IT has played an essential role in promoting grid-based management. As Herbert Marcuse said in his book, One-Dimensional Man, "Technology would become subject to the free play of faculties in the struggle for the pacification of nature and of society". The theory of technological alienation also applies to the possible risks inherent in embedding technologies within grid-based management. It is therefore essential to stick to a people-oriented approach when adopting new technologies, and remain aware of technology's potential effects.
Guo Xinghua and Zhu Tao are from the Center for Sociology Theory and Methods at Renmin University of China.
Edited by WENG RONG