Regional Excellence - Regional Governance: Chinese Style

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Regional Governance:  Chinese Style

 by Bill Dodge
December 7, 2011

            I have spent the last six weeks exploring the state of regional governance in the People’s Republic of China, Tibet, and Kingdom of Thailand.  None of them deal with regional governance perfectly, but all offer lessons for making regional governance effective at home.  This column shares some thoughts on China, the next on Tibet and Thailand.

            China’s change is especially dramatic, especially for someone who was last there just after the Cultural Revolution to help restore graduate schools of business and public administration. 

Even though China displays painful characteristics of unfettered capitalism, the results are impressive. Ancient cities of neighborhood mazes converted into 21st century metropoli of high rise corridors.  Development sites in Beijing and Shanghai filled with dozens of tall cranes.  New cities housing hundreds of thousands, often located in depressed regions.  Stores packed with shoppers, especially buying products with English names, such as Happiness toilet paper.

 Jobs have been created for hundreds of millions of workers.  Infrastructure projects are overwhelming;  world class museums in major cities, and endless transportation projects, often lined with well-manicured landscaping.  A dozen transit lines already in operation in Shanghai, another half dozen under construction.  And Maglev that takes you partway to the international airport at up to 430 kilometers/hour.
            Not all is positive, however.   The historic communist safety net that guaranteed jobs, rice, health care, and pensions has been torn apart.  Great advances have been made in educating students and providing good jobs, as is evidenced in the rows of towering condos in major cities.  In rural areas, however, the “barefoot doctor” clinics have been abolished, requiring everyone to purchase health care, and schools are woefully underfunded. 

Environmental challenges are legend, making it difficult to breathe in cities and even the rural spaces in between.  The only safe water is bottled.  Most of the children of the estimated 250 million migrant workers are raised back home by extended families.  Their parents only see them over Chinese New Year.

            China’s government is organized to drive this change.

 The national government designated the four major urban regions  --  Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin  --  as provinces (somewhat like our states).  It also designated another 283 urban regions as prefecture-level cities (a level of governance between the provinces and the local governments  --  counties, towns and villages  --  which together number in the hundreds of thousands).  Ultimate authority is held by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and National People’s Congress, which have few reservations about meddling at all government levels.

The national government also owns all the land.  Development is on leased property;  a condo owner, for example, might receive a lease for 75 years.  Any property is potentially available for development or redevelopment, facilitating building large scale housing, commercial, and industrial projects and connecting them with equally large scale transportation systems.  As a result, new development takes on a monumental scale, often only brought down to a human scale by the still-saved historic neighborhoods in some cities.

If regional governance is the capacity to engage the public in planning and taking actions for shaping a region’s future, then China is impressive on the last two of these characteristics.   Witness the broad array of bold projects in planning and under construction in the Shanghai region, as presented in the state-of-the art Shanghai Urban Planning Exhibition Center.

Public participation is unimpressive.  Witness the millions that were relocated, with often limited involvement, by the construction of the Three Georges Dam.  However, social networking is beginning to have an impact on government action.  Over 800,000 people tweeted criticisms of the government the day after a school bus built for a few and packed with dozens was destroyed in a fatal crash.  Even though they now have the capacity to give local stories national exposure, many Chinese, especially those who have benefited from the actions of the Central Committee, are increasingly concerned that they have little influence over its future actions.  Some contemplate emigration to other countries, especially the United States.

What can we learn about regional governance from China?  We have an impressive history of planning the future of our regions, but are we pursing the types of bold actions commonplace in China?  We have a less impressive history of empowering regional organizations to secure the public approvals and resources required to take bold actions in a timely manner.  Lacking an all-powerful national government, how do we engage all levels of government in creating effective regional governance? We have an impressive history of public participation, but we appear to be so divided into warring satrapies that we are unable to consider much less take bold actions.  How do we resurrect the civil discourse required to build support for financing and implementing the bold actions that will keep us competitive in the future?

            Only impressions of a short-term traveler overseas, and a battered regionalist at home, but food for thought for future columns.

Bill Dodge is looking for a few good regions that are interested in designing regional charters to strengthen their capacity to address tough common challenges.  He is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and is writing a new book on regional charters.