Tag Archives: Government

At Hangzhou’s International Fireworks Festival, More Than Pyrotechnics on Display

Last night here in Hangzhou, the city government put on its annual International Fireworks Festival. So far, the number of reported burn injuries has topped out around 100. (Warning: this post is a rant.)

As a kick-off to the city’s month-long West Lake Expo, the Fireworks Festival isn’t exactly world famous, or much of a draw for people across China, but it is a big deal here in Hangzhou. Set against an evening backdrop of the West Lake’s surrounding hills, the annual pyrotechnic extravaganza brings thousands of people into the packed streets of downtown, all hoping to find a good vantage point for the show.

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Sent to the Countryside for Re-education: a field trip to Huaxicun, China’s wealthiest village

This past weekend, I went with other College of Public Administration grad students on a field trip of sorts.  Our destination was Huaxi village, located in Jiangsu Province near the south bank of the Yangtze River.  Huaxi village is famous throughout China, and the world, for one thing: this little peasant commune is filthy stinkin’ rich. Just a couple of buildings in rural Huaxi VillageObservation deck of "New Village in the Sky"

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From the IHT Latitudes Blog: “Beijing Spirit” by Eric Abrahamsen

Back in November, I wrote about a new effort by the Communist Party in Hangzhou to foster “civic community.”  At the time, they were just getting started, and their first step was to hold a brainstorming session with a bunch of foreigners.  At a secure, off-limits state-owned resort, we discussed how to build community. In a sign of how helpful that meeting was, the new community-building campaign is on:  around town, the phrase “Our Hangzhou” has found its way onto the usual propaganda banners.  Glad to have helped (I think) with that one.

As with many such campaigns in China, once you see it in one place, you see it everywhere. This is usually because local governments are all really just responding to new tasking from Party Central.  With everyone scrambling to come up with the best implementation, sometimes you get a little variety, and other times you get convergence.  This past year, the mix of phrases that different local governments were using to exhort their people to “act civilized” was a case in point.

For this new “civic community” campaign, it appears that Beijing has now set the gold standard.  Not surprising.  Up in the capital, I don’t think they invite amateurs to their focus groups.  When it comes to community-building, they go with professionals.

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by | March 2, 2012 · 10:23 am

At secure state-owned resort, Party officials behind closed doors wonder: how do we get citizens engaged?

West Lake State Guesthouse, the "Camp David" of Hangzhou

On Tuesday this past week, the offices of the Communist Party secretaries for Hangzhou City and Zhejiang Province hosted a forum.  The introductory materials included lots of references to the 基层社区 “grass-roots community”, and posed numerous questions about how to achieve this goal: 促进社会公共沟通参与,发挥人民群众参与社会管理的基础作用 – Advance society’s public communication and participation, and deploy the essential function of the masses in participating in social management. The forum was titled, “From I to WE: ‘WE make life better.’”

So, in order to advance public communication and participation, a closed-door meeting was held at the West Lake State Guesthouse, with the usual guard force of PLA soldiers on hand to prevent unauthorized access.

But they let me in, because I was invited to attend – along with about a dozen other foreigners.  They all ostensibly had some type of background in city governance.  I was brought along by my Chinese political science professor, who often gets called to advise the city government here, for a different reason: because he is probably one of the world’s greatest admirers, along with Alexis de Tocqueville and Henry David Thoreau, of New England’s town meeting tradition——and I happen to have grown up in Vermont.  Never mind that I haven’t lived in New England since reaching voting age, and have yet to attend a single town meeting.  But at the very least, I’ve had some indirect exposure to direct-democracy rejection of proposed school budgets and enjoyed a free day off every second Tuesday in March.  So along I went.

One of the currently-occupied cottages.Guard post on a driveway leading to one of the leadership cottagesNot that any of the officials actually wanted to hear about small-town direct democracy anyway.  The dream of local officials here, it seems, is a top-down implementation of some type of idealized Western European lifestyle where polite, educated people happily work to provide original, high-quality goods and services to each other and then on weekends partake in community-building cultural and recreational activities like art shows and charity half-marathons.  Or, failing that, to get people to have enough concern for each other to be willing to wait in lines and follow traffic laws.  (Still pretty unrealistic.)

But the Party wants this so-called “civilized” society, defined in their terms by outward appearances of collective citizen support for the public good, without civil society, or the participation of citizens outside the state in collectively defining the public good.  “Grass-roots community participation” to the Communist Party simply means greater support among the people for their policies.

An inscribed rock marking where Mao Zedong used to study English during his frequent stays.This gradually became apparent as we realized that the officials and the foreigners, most of whom could speak passable Chinese, were nevertheless speaking different languages.  The two Germans, two Brits and two Americans kept talking about how citizens tend to participate in public life only to the extent that they have both a stake in the outcomes and the ability to influence them.  The Chinese alternated between re-stating the problem of finding the right mix of policies to get everyone to love them and observations that the people just weren’t qualified to judge bad policies from good.

One of the Americans, a university professor and middle-aged woman of Chinese descent, was my favorite, based on pure entertainment value. She began by telling her hosts that, despite her ancestry, she was full-blooded American, not Chinese, “although I know for all of you that is probably very hard to understand.” (It was, and always is.)  Later she jokingly referenced efforts at community-building in American cities.  Speaking through one of the translators, she said in English:

“Community-building is about empowerment.  For example, in Chicago’s South Side, an area with mostly poor African-American neighborhoods, we had people like Barack Obama [pause for translation, continue pause for effect] bringing people together as communities based on empowering them [pause] with more political power [pause] based on their rights [pause] under the law [pause].  If you really want communities, then what China needs is 10 million Barack Obamas to come over and start community organizing [long, long pause]. But I don’t think you want that.”

...and a detail of groundskeepers guarding against leaves.A detail of soldiers guarding against intruders.Clearly, nobody was getting much out of this.  So why even hold this stupid meeting?  The whole thing was absurd:  Unelected officials in China invite a few ordinary citizens from a couple developed democratic countries to meet with them at a walled-off luxury compound (on land seized from private individuals) in order to ask their guests how the Chinese government can get its citizens subjects to give a damn about anything besides themselves.  And the result is that the hosts get defensive in the face of Western arrogance about universal values, and respond with “cultural values” critiques of so-called Western absolutism.  In the end, the only ‘tangibles’ were the corny group photo, extravagant banquet dinner, and the over-the-top gifts to the participants of silk bathrobes and expensive tea.

But when it comes to developing spontaneous public participation in China, ‘tangible’ is not the goal.


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China’s Newest Legal Aliens

residence permit

   We can stay! After carefully reviewing the pile of evidence I submitted to make our case, the Hangzhou Public Security Bureau has decided that we probably won’t pose any harm if we all stay here for a year.  There was much to consider, such as whether my landlord had paid her taxes in the last year, but apparently our most doubtful claim was that we’re all related.  It would seem that white people trying to sneak other white people into China is a pervasive problem, or a very serious threat.  Granted, the last time Westerners were entering China as they pleased, bad things happened: treaty ports, opium, burning down the Summer Palace, etc.  But the burden of proof required to establish familial relationship was a little more difficult than we expected, and we’d expected a lot.  Long story: after providing the PSB written certification from two state governments verifying the competence of the town/county clerks who issued our marriage and birth certificates, and then written certification from the US Department of State verifying the authenticity of the state government certifications, the issue was still in doubt.  I mean, from the PSB official’s perspective, that “Hillary Clinton” auto-pen signature could have been photo-copied from anywhere.  How to proceed?

   After talking it over with another official, the two came up with a solution: go get the US Embassy to certify the documents!

   “You want me to go to Beijing?  That’s pretty far. Besides, the embassy staff are just employees of the State Department. They work for the Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, the person who certified these documents. They’re not going to de-certify her certification.”

   “Yes, but this document isn’t written in Chinese. We don’t know if it is real.”

   “Can I go to the Shanghai consulate instead?”

   “That’ll be okay. They should also be able to tell if it’s real.”

   “Yes, they should. You just want them to provide their own certification?”

   “Yes, they just need to certify it.” We looked at each other for a moment, both smiling in that awkward Chinese way, and the official, perhaps sensing the scorn building in my smile, relented with a small allowance, and in doing so stepped off whatever logical foundation had been the basis for his original position. “Their certification, it can be in English.”  

   So, after a taxi ride across town, a 100-mile train ride to Shanghai, a long metro ride through Shanghai, and a just-before-closing-time arrival at the consulate, I was able to have a State Department consular staff member write a hand-written note concurring with her boss’s recognizance of the validity of my civil documents.  And in the end, although I’m pretty sure they wouldn’t have been able to read her handwritten English any better than Secretary Clinton’s large-font, printed form letter, her little note was exactly what they wanted.

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