Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Governing China’s Neighbourhoods

Greetings from the Australian National University in Canberra, where a panel is discussing Luigi Tomba's book "The Government Next Door: Neighborhood Politics in Urban China", winner of the 2016 Joseph Levenson book prize. The book touches on the role of education in public employment: "The capital's employees in public administration units (shiye danwen), who today are recruited on the basis of examination and educational credentials, saw their average salaries more than double in the 1995-2000 period (increasing by 133 percent)." (page 99). 

Luigi described how he started his research for the book by going to middle class areas, knocking on doors in Beijing and talking to the residents. Many were public employees who had been able to acquire property with a government subsidy. These were therefore no a harbinger of western style democracy, but a group who would support the existing government structure. Even when protesting about local matters, the residents use the same rhetoric as the central government, so as not to be a threat to its legitimacy. In regional areas unemployed former state workers still used the same language to express grievances in. He suggests there are different "arenas of contention" set by government for different groups (working and middle class) to have different scope to discuss grievances. Luigi points out that even one group, such as the "middle class" has many subgroups. He suggested that removing the gates on gated communities was a major undertaking. Also he suggested that the Chinese Government could adapt to any  property bubble and contain possible social unrest resulting. Luigi described the construction of new communities without gates and walls as a "game changer", with more accountability. Government may have to take back some functions from the companies, such as local security.

Luigi gave a brief but fascinating description of the hybrid system where those in private apartments select and pay a company to maintain the buildings (as a body corporate does in Australia). However, the home owners have little say in what the company does and it carries out policies of the government. One interesting question is how access to the Internet and smartphones in particular may change this. Luigi briefly mentions broadband (page 113), but not smartphones. In answer to a question he commented it was not possible to sell an apartment in Beijing  now without broadband and the citizens may have several smartphones, which are used for day to day and intellectual discussions.

Luigi expressed some frustration that the book cannot be orderd through in China (but a Chinese edition is in production). The book is available from Asia Bookroom in Canberra.

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