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April 1, 2024

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A proactive governance style adapted to a village of strangers in modern times

A few years ago, I wrote an article extolling the virtues of a traditional Chinese village. A colleague, thinking otherwise, confronted me with the article, and demanded: If you find the village so charming, why don’t you return to it?

The answer to that question would be a long one, but like the river that could not be crossed twice, the village enshrined in my memory is not nearly the same as the one that I could have possibly returned to today.

Although I was born and brought up in a garrison in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, I and my three other siblings were evacuated to our laojia (native home) in Lianyungang, Jiangsu Province, and billeted with my aunts or uncles in a number of different villages during 1979-1980, as a result of tensions in international relations.

Thus I got to stay at my maternal uncle for a couple of years, in a village where everyone knew everyone, and would always greet each other as if they were members of one extended family.

I was lucky for my uncle’s village was economically well off, and my uncle, as a brother of five sisters, held undisputed sway and authority as an arbitrator when occasional domestic quarrels in his sisters’ families were in need of adjudication. The vestige of his authority could be still felt today in the term laoniangjiu, literally meaning “maternal uncle,” a term also associated with a popular TV show in Shanghai dedicated to resolving domestic conflicts.

I was briefly educated at the village primary school, which was chronically understaffed, and the beneficiaries of the education were more venerated for their diving feats in a nearby pond favored by water buffaloes.

Now I come to think of it, we were probably the first “left-behind” children in recent history and, luckily, our orphan-like status earned us charity and generosity from my relatives. In the long summer holiday, I remember going from one village to the next with my cousins, where I never needed to worry about my meals nor lodgings.

When I revisited the village decades later, gone were the school, ponds, buffaloes and thatched cottages. Even the authority vested in my uncle began to be questioned long before his death a couple of years ago.

In a telephone conversation a few days ago, my sister, who chose to stay in a village after her retirement, mentioned, casually, that the grown-up grandchildren of her neighbor no longer cared to acknowledge her when they meet, even though they had known her so well when they were younger.

“They just hung their heads a little bit, and the encounter was over,” she said.

What a contrast to the village where I marveled at the villagers’ facility in addressing each other, in spite of their lack of formal education.

This seemingly trifling circumstance sufficed to encapsulate the transformations Chinese villages are undergoing, with important ramifications for grassroots governance.

As Lu Dewen, a professor at Wuhan University, argues in his new book, “Proactive Governance: Frugal and Efficient Rural Governance Modernization,” the new genre of governance must be predicated on a sobering realization: Chinese villages have ceased to be the villages of acquaintances they once were.

“To be specific, during the first 30 years after the founding of the republic, the state had refrained from tinkering with grassroots social structures, thus allowing the acquaintances society to continue ... and a new governance mode based similarly on li (manners),” writes Lu. Li defies easy translation, but could be broadly understood in terms of propriety, ceremony, honesty, and a sense of shame so stressed in traditional values.

Thus, in spite of all the hype and clamor of social changes, village cadres since 1949, nurtured in light of the collective principle, were morally demanding in that they needed to meet basic requirements for li-based governance. This approach entailed straightforward governance tailored to local conditions, flexible and adaptable.

It’s a low-costing governance mode akin to the erstwhile patriarchy society centered on Confucian tenets, though the new cadres were told to embrace the credo of collectivism.

Thus traditional village governance, according to Lu, was essentially about wuwei erzhi, governing by non-interference, and minimal governmental organization or regulation. This minimalist yet highly efficient style of governance testified to the resilience and vigor of traditional philosophy and methods.

As observed by Lu, “traditionally subcounty governance used to be entrusted to quasi-officials locally appointed who earn no salary and whose routine daily work led to virtually no official red tape.”

Rather than wholly beholden to legal systems, this unofficial exercise of pro forma rights, protected in light of local customs and conventions, stressed efficacy and de facto justice.

The fast, perennial exodus of people, wealth and objects in the rural area have led to a paradigm shift. While the basic principles of governance still hold good, Lu advocates a “proactive approach” in the modern context, particularly in a strangers village where information may be more challenging to obtain.

In the case of the aforementioned neighbor youths who no longer care to address properly the elder generations, it is deplorable, but they have grown up in the absence of their parents, who are making a livelihood outside the county. This means their children have to grow up without parental mentoring in terms of how to properly address the elders.

The absence of the prime-age labor, or parents, could lead to more serious consequences.

The recent tragic murder and then burial of a fellow classmate in Handan, Hebei Province, for instance, all involved left-behind children.

When the old governance has lost its soil, with the fraying of the social fabric, a new, proactive governance means familiarity with the circumstances of the left-behind children, and intervention when necessary.

Here it is tempting to propose formal, technology-based governance.

Increasingly as rural governance becomes salient objectives and part and parcel of national governance, scholars and administrators alike would envision a new governance regime aided by cutting-edge technology, systems and regulations, so that the tentacles of these mechanisms will reach the deepest recesses of the rural society.

Lu’s findings, based on his extensive field study for many years, strike a cautionary note.

As Lu warns, “some seemingly innovative practice, by adding the grassroots burden and violating the principle of frugality, is unsustainable for being too costly even if it happens to be effective.”

Lu concludes that, rather than relegating the traditional, humanistic governance approach to the dustbin, we have good reasons to revisit and resuscitate the old tradition, in the modern context. He further devotes a whole chapter to the Fengqiao experience in Zhuji, Zhejiang Province.

By coincidence, last summer I conducted a week-long field study trip in Fengqiao known for its grassroots governance philosophy, prioritizing mediation in preventing minor disputes from escalating into serious conflicts.

In one article “Fengqiao Experience: Lighting up the path for private entrepreneurship” (August 9, 2023), I explained how local conflicts are resolved through mediation, rather than simply throwing the books. As a matter of fact, Lao Yang fully testified to the worth of “proactive governance,” as evidenced in his painstaking effort in implementing the “going to the masses” tenet.

The success in Fengqiao proved its viability in the modern context, in a region known throughout the country for its thriving private entrepreneurship.

Significantly, Fengqiao has also accumulated significant expertise in how to reform juvenile delinquents, by reaching into their hearts, rather than simplistically clamoring for harsher punishment.


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