How does Change Happen in China?

June 8, 2016

     By Duncan Green     

The honest answer is of course that I have no idea. Given China’s size, complexity, opacity and the language barrier changing chinacreated by being a non-mandarin speaker, a week of meetings and conversations can only leave a string of vague and often contradictory impressions. But here they are anyway:

Is China’s development complex or complicated? The standard account of China’s extraordinary transformation is of a triumph of Central Planning – in the late 1970s, a dominant Communist Party decided to go for it, initiated a market transformation and…. boom! That would fall under the ‘complicated’ label. But in a panel on How Change Happens, long time China watcher Richard Carey reckoned differently – he argued that it’s more accurate to see China as an entrepreneurial, evolutionary economy in which lots of random variations and local experiments emerge. To stick with evolutionary terminology, the genius of the government has been in then selecting and amplifying the fit variants such as the Township and Village Enterprises.

That fits with another recurring theme – the importance of pilots to test ideas on the ground, and in order to convince officials to adopt this or that approach. Whether inside or outside government, everyone talks about pilots all the time. That interest in evidence is reflected in the increasingly dense network of thinktanks and universities, many of them either run by, or closely connected to, the state. If you want to influence policy in China, you need to get your facts right, and link in with these conversations as deeply as possible.

China inequalityI was also struck by the importance of scandals and test cases in changing government policy. A visit to a migrant-run museum of migration showed that a 2003 scandal in which a migrant was beaten to death while in detention transformed the government approach – migrants’ lives remained hard, but the level of arbitrary abuse declined sharply. On gender-based violence, a number of influential legal test cases, including against professors accused of sexually harassing their students, led to major policy changes by both government and corporates.

International attention also helps. Women’s rights activists identify the impending 20th anniversary of the 1995 Beijing conference on women as the turning point in the passing of an Anti-Domestic Violence Law in 2015 even though the dogged persistence of Chinese women’s rights NGOs also played a big part (‘without NGOs there would be no national law, or it would have taken much longer’).

In a country of the size and power of China, change is primarily endogenous, the result of interactions between and within the state, citizens and private sector. The government, while hugely powerful, is not a monolith, and understanding the relationships between different ministries, tiers of government etc, is at the heart of any attempt to understand (let alone influence) how change happens. The improvements between the penultimate and final drafts of the new Overseas NGO Management law largely came about because of pressure from ministries such as health or education, who were concerned about its impact and enforceability. Concerns over China’s international reputation and exchanges with other governments and china pollutioninternational networks may also have helped, although we’ll never really know.

Whether in the case of the Anti-Domestic Violence or Overseas NGO laws, I was told, ‘most law in China is just principles. What matters is implementation, enabling regulations, judicial explanations, ministerial guidelines or province-level action.’ A lot of the hard graft of influencing takes place at this more technical, below-the-radar level, for example drafting guidelines or running pilots to show how laws can best be implemented. And as anywhere, building personal trust is essential ‘we take part in family occasions, eg attend funerals – friendship and relationships matter.’

‘Anything can be changed, even in China’ concludes one strikingly optimistic and experienced advocate, but it certainly isn’t easy. To stay afloat, NGOs need enormous reserves of political acumen, connections and stamina.