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.
Not 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.
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.”
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.