As Shanghai prepared to enter what was supposed to be a short, targeted lockdown in late March, local officials had reason to feel confident. Over the last decade, the city has heavily invested in modernizing its urban governance structures, reforming its subdistrict systems, strengthening neighborhood committees, and setting up citizen services platforms to identify and respond to problems as they emerge. The city’s ultimate goal — the creation of a diverse network of governing bodies and mechanisms as part of a transition from a government-dominated society to a “small government-big society” model — seemed within reach.
Nearly two months later, the lockdown has revealed cracks in that dream. Residents have clashed with ineffective neighborhood committees; community workers are suffering from heavy workloads and a lack of support; and the city’s hotlines have struggled to respond to a deluge of calls. For all the very real progress made in recent years, the current state of grassroots governance in Shanghai suggests the city is still far from meeting its goals, to say nothing of the needs of its residents.
Shanghai’s urban governance reforms date back to 2014, when the city made grassroots governance a major research priority. The following year, the city published what came to be known as the “1+6” documents, which sought to strengthen the provision of government services by devolving more power to grassroots organizations at the subdistrict and town level. (The “1” refers to a list of governance recommendations published by the municipal Communist Party committee and the city government; the “6” are six supporting documents outlining reforms to subdistrict governance, village and neighborhood committees, grid management systems, the participation of social forces in urban governance, and the role of community workers.)
Prior to the pandemic, these reforms were showing real results. They were also generally popular among the public, especially new, single-window service centers and the 24-hour “12345” public service hotline, which cut down on red tape and gave individuals and enterprises a means of communicating issues to officials. From about 2017, the Shanghai municipal government doubled down on these initiatives, calling on bureaucrats to cultivate a “service provider spirit” and further streamlining official work.
I conducted a survey last year that found satisfaction with the organization of public services had increased by 50% since 2015. Yet these successes masked very real challenges faced by the grassroots bodies now expected to shoulder the burdens of urban governance, challenges that have been exacerbated by the ongoing pandemic.
To start, inertia at the grassroots level and longstanding official preferences for administrative, bureaucratic approaches to governance have slowed the pace of reform. Many officials prefer a traditional, top-down approach to governance and are wary of democratic consultation. As early as 1998, the city’s Wuliqiao subdistrict piloted the now national “three-meeting system,” which sought to include the public in meetings related to decision-making, conflict mediation, and governance evaluation. Yet, most of the grassroots organizations included in the 1+6 reforms still function like quasi-official subcontractors: They undertake administrative tasks assigned by bureaucrats at the subdistrict level, but they lack the initiative to respond to public concerns or make independent decisions.
This can be seen in the uneven performance of neighborhood committees during the lockdown. Although theoretically autonomous organizations, neighborhood committees generally play an invisible role in most residents’ lives. The exception is when they are mobilized by the government to carry out directives, provide services, or, in the case of the lockdown, enforce often harsh “closed management” rules meant to halt the spread of infection.
As a result, residents naturally see neighborhood committees as part of the government. Few recognize the committees as a potential source of support or defender of their rights.
Compounding the problem, the bureaucratic focus on “advanced” governance and scientific work mechanisms has sometimes obscured the importance of human interaction and community building. Since the lockdown started, residents’ perception of their neighborhood committees as either bureaucratic tools or allies has played a significant role in determining communities’ willingness to cooperate with the city’s enforcement measures. Some committee leaders have lived or worked in their neighborhoods for many years. They not only understand the local situation, but also have good personal relationships with residents, making it much easier for them to communicate with and mobilize their communities. Leaders without these ties have had a much tougher time.
The more technical governance models favored by many bureaucrats have also had their weaknesses exposed by the lockdown. As mentioned above, many bureaucrats are uncomfortable with the devolution of power and elevated resources afforded to the grassroots. They feel the same way about digital governance tools. Shanghai has spent heavily on the creation of big data centers and a unified online city management network. This was supposed to improve digital governance and give officials the ability to make decisions based on emerging data trends. But access to this data is controlled by the traditional administrative hierarchy, meaning many grassroots organizations can’t access the data they need, or even update or modify it in real time to reflect changing local conditions.
Underlying these problems is a fundamental contradiction between the notion of grassroots governance as a closed system, in which local resources are used to manage local matters without broader coordination, and the city’s increasingly diffuse social governance model.
The grassroots are not trivial. They are the foundation of public governance. Effective grassroots governance not only requires top-down guidance, but also bottom-up engagement and horizontal collaboration. If Shanghai accepts this and consistenctly practices it in everyday governance, then perhaps the city won’t be thrown into confusion the next time a crisis hits.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Wu Haiyun and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.
(Header image: A party member volunteer keeps the order of Covid tests in Yangpu District, Shanghai, May 20, 2022. IC)