The Chinese state is changing how its lowest rungs in the bureaucratic hierarchy fit into the country’s political system.
A new document released Sunday by the Communist Party’s Central Committee as well as the State Council, China’s Cabinet, vows to strengthen the authority of rural townships and urban subdistricts and place them under more direct leadership of the party.
Townships and subdistricts respectively oversee village and neighborhood committees, which are formally autonomous and not part of the state. The document aims to achieve better decision-making and governance at these lowest levels of the Chinese political system.
The changes could help townships and subdistricts become more than just “dispatch agencies” that relay orders from upper levels to the grassroots. Instead, they will become a more powerful node of China’s bureaucratic hierarchy, experts told Sixth Tone.
“Fragmented authority (at the lower level) has resulted in weak governance,” said Shen Duanfeng, a professor of village self-governance and rural reconstruction at the School of Marxism at Jiangnan University, in eastern China’s Jiangsu province. “The issue has proved abundant during the time of pandemic prevention and control.”
Across the country, village and neighborhood committees have played crucial roles controlling various COVID-19 outbreaks, both by enforcing lockdowns and by delivering public services while residents were forced to stay indoors. Their efforts were sometimes controversial, such as when, in Wuhan, committee workers transported meat using garbage trucks.
Sunday’s document says the Chinese state should learn from its experience during the pandemic to “repair shortcomings in (pandemic) prevention and control at the community level.”
The new directive also signals a shift for China’s grassroots governance away from encouraged — if often theoretical — autonomy toward greater direct management by the state.
“This document means the more than a decade spent exploring Chinese-style autonomy for village governance as well as urban owner committees and neighborhoods has been declared if not failed, then at least ended,” said Zhou Wang, associate professor at Nankai University's Zhou Enlai School of Government, in the northern municipality Tianjin. “In the next few years, the party will fully take over the governance systems of both the rural and urban grassroots.”
“This sort of governance system is efficient in getting things done,” Zhou told Sixth Tone. “But expenditures may also be higher over time.”
At the same time, the document says cooperation with these formally non-state groups should be improved. The implementation of the changes proposed in this document will therefore vary from place to place, according to Chen Jiajian, professor of sociology at Nanjing University in eastern China.
“There are enormous local differences in how the grassroots are managed,” Chen said.
Contributions: Nie Yiming; editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.
(Header image: An administrative enforcement official inspects a store in Beijing, June 1, 2020. Guo Junfeng/People Visual)