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    When China’s Fix-Everything Hotline Breaks Down

    The 12345 hotline promises a one-stop shop for government services, but its call centers are often staffed by private contractors with little power.

    One of the takeaways from China’s strict COVID-19 policy is that two emergency services hotlines aren’t always enough. As the police — “110” — and ambulance — “120” — hotlines struggle to keep pace during lengthy lockdowns, residents in cities from Shanghai to Xi’an have increasingly turned to a different number for assistance. Known as “12345,” it promises to connect urban residents to their local “government services hotline.” During the Shanghai lockdown, 12345 was a lifeline: the place citizens would turn for everything from policy clarifications to last-ditch calls for aid.

    It was also a target. As collective discontent with the city’s public services grew, residents took their frustrations out on 12345 operators — seen as symbols of the government — and the hotline was overwhelmed by a surge of angry calls.

    Given how closely associated the 12345 hotline is with lockdown measures in cities across China, it would likely surprise many of these angry callers to learn that the person answering their queries isn’t necessarily able to speak for the city government. In fact, despite the somewhat misleading name, many “government services hotline” operators don’t work for the city at all.

    The current 12345 hotline system is an outgrowth of the so-called mayor’s hotline initiatives that cropped up across China in the late 20th century. Beginning in the 1980s, as residential landlines became more common, large cities such as Shenyang, Chongqing, and Xi’an set up a range of hotlines to collect and address public complaints or suggestions, involving the masses in governance and hopefully improving the government’s public image.

    In 1999, the then-Ministry of Information Industry decided to replace the panoply of different numbers set up by local governments with the nationwide “12345” standard. Unlike the police or ambulance dispatch numbers, the 12345 hotline focused on non-emergencies; it was a channel through which citizens could raise non-urgent issues with their local government, get advice and assistance, or file complaints.

    In the course of my fieldwork at hotline call centers in two northern Chinese cities between 2015 and 2017, I found that operators generally see their role as a “bridge,” either answering questions or connecting residents with the government department they need to reach.

    The operators I interviewed did not see themselves as empowered to decide how or even if a problem could be resolved. In most cities, the 12345 hotline is managed either by the local Bureau for Letters and Visits or the Municipal Government Office. These offices do not have the ability to handle callers’ problems on their own. They can only send them on to the government departments under whose jurisdiction the problem falls.

    In many cases, the issues raised by callers exceed the jurisdiction of any of the administrative organs linked to the hotline. For instance, some residents call to complain about judicial rulings or even family disputes. As part of China’s push for “service-oriented governance,” operators are not allowed to bluntly rebuff these calls for assistance; instead, they must listen patiently and provide reassurance. This can be mentally and emotionally taxing. “Our role is to take flack on the government’s behalf,” one operator told me. “Many residents are just calling to vent their feelings. They know the government can’t do anything about their problems.” In my study, virtually all the operators I interviewed said they had been yelled at over the phone.

    Operators are also expected to do their part for “stability maintenance.” In one of the cities I visited, the 12345 hotline has a special taskforce responsible for dealing with calls that could potentially threaten the social order. “The first call I took after starting this job was from somebody threatening to kill themselves,” a veteran operator recalled. “They said their salary hadn’t been paid on time and that, unless the government intervened, they were going to throw themselves off a certain building. In the background, I could hear the subway voiceover announcing the names of different stations. The caller was headed in the direction of that building.”

    In the early days of the hotline initiative, 12345 operators could at least expect to enjoy the benefits of a civil service position in return for performing these tasks. In many cities, hotline workers were drawn from the ranks of officials within the Municipal Government Office or Bureau of Letters and Calls. But as cities increased their responsibilities, the job became too onerous for people already employed elsewhere in the government. Faced with the need to expand the scale and improve the quality of the service while keeping costs down, regional governments began to outsource the operations of their 12345 call centers.

    In the other city where I carried out my fieldwork, the 12345 hotline was initially staffed by government employees. In 2013, however, the city government signed an agreement with a local telecommunications company, under which the latter took over much of the day-to-day operations of the hotline.

    According to the former manager of the call center, there were two reasons for the city’s decision. The first was that officials wanted to expand the service’s scale. But the government didn’t have the necessary workforce — hotline staff have increased from fewer than 10 to over 30 since the handover — so they turned to a private company. The second reason was that contracting out certain government functions has become increasingly common in China in recent years, and contracting arrangements have the backing of officials in Beijing.

    This trend is not unique to China. The contracting of public services to private companies or social groups is a common pattern in neoliberal modes of governance.

    Originating in the West, contracting arrangements were first trialed in China as early as 1996. In 2000, the Ministry of Finance launched the Chinese Government Procurement website to serve as a platform for all levels of governments to post contract terms and interact with potential bidders. A look at that website suggests that contracting arrangements are most prevalent in the fields of eldercare, health care and municipal government services. Researchers have likewise found that local governments are increasingly reliant on contracting to deliver public goods and services ranging from education to infrastructure.

    Proponents of the contracting model argue that it improves the quality of public services while limiting the size of the government. One hotline manager with a decade of experience under his belt told me that trained operators recruited by telecommunications companies are indeed better at listening to and reassuring callers than busy civil servants. “Initially, when people in the Municipal Government Office were responsible for taking calls, the hotline was basically just there in theory, but not in practice,” he said. “Now, we have a contractual obligation to take at least 96% of all calls, and citizens can reach us after just a few rings. Operators must all also undergo training and communicate with residents according to a standardized protocol, which boils down to ‘let callers hear you smile.’”

    In this sense, contracting can provide callers with a more positive experience than the earlier in-house model. But the quality of government hotline services shouldn’t be judged solely on operators’ attitudes. The ultimate goal of most callers is to find a practical solution to their problems. As stated above, even in-house government hotlines are often only able to act as “bridges” to the relevant departments. Once these hotlines are contracted out, the link between operators and government organs only becomes more indirect.

    This can have an impact on how operators view their roles. The above-mentioned manager, himself an official, told me that operators recruited by contractors have different attitudes from previous employees. “In the past, some operators believed that they served and represented the government, but these new employees know that the private sector is paying their bills; they don’t identify much with the government.”

    These attitudes are become more prevalent even as city governments make their hotlines central to their public services schemes. Governments across China have encouraged residents to reach out and convey their needs and opinions via the hotline, fostering both a faith in government assistance and a psychological dependence on that assistance. In so doing, these neoliberal contracting arrangements have bolstered, rather than limited, the reach of the government in citizens’ lives.

    Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.

    (Header image: Varijanta/VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)