China must rise to the social management challenge

On Monday, President Hu Jintao chaired a meeting of the Political Bureau of the CPC Central Committee, discussing the issue of effective “social management.” According to the minutes, the country is facing a surge of social frictions coupled with booming economic development. Social management has thus become a challenging task that urgently requires a practical solution.

Increasing social concerns, as written into government statements,  reflect a gradual policy change from a decade ago when policy revolved around the economy. The clear economic successes seen since then have completely transformed the country, but economics alone is not the answer to social justice and individual rights, with which the public have become increasingly concerned.

Over the years, the government prioritized the economy in its manifestos in the hope that the robust economy would perpetually power China’s emergence and improve the well-being of its people. However, such a policy priority has had many side effects.

A liberated economy that rewards efforts may also encourage unscrupulous greed, leading to moral hazards such as the ongoing food safety crisis. The growing wealth may be distributed unevenly, sometimes polarizing society and stirring social agitation over the inequality of justice. Some people may be marginalized during growth as a result of their inability to navigate the currents of a changing economy. The environment also suffers from the unrelenting pursuit for wealth, which jeopardizes the potential of the next generation.

The challenges facing every developing country must also be addressed. However, the questions facing China appear to be more acute. The country has a population of 1.3 billion, which makes the cost of social failure much greater. The country grows under the watchful eyes of Western countries, which greatly complicates, and sometimes politicizes, social problems.

The tendency to politicize social problems is exactly what the phrase “social management” tries to move beyond. It posits that mounting social problems are caused by a lack of public service and legal assistance, insufficient regulation and law enforcement, as well as flawed institutional designs. All these need to be resolved on a case-by-case basis, which suggests that there is no political panacea. This is a more sophisticated strategic project, determine whether China’s growth is sustainable.

Clearly, the demand for better social management rises along with greater social consciousness. But these provisions of are uneven across the country. This compels residents in areas of poor social management to move to areas where public and lawful service is better. Their shangfang (petitions to higher authorities) mark the grassroot efforts to seek justice but also a failure in that scant local services cannot offer satisfactory answers to the population.

Finally, China’s social management task perhaps needs more realists who excel at understanding society and offering solutions than idealists who believe drastic political reform can fix everything.

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