China Power

Decoding ‘Social Management’

Recent Features

China Power

Decoding ‘Social Management’

China’s government has coined a new piece of political jargon: social management. But what does it mean?

The Chinese Communist Party is tired of playing Whac-A-Mole with social unrest, and over the past few months it has directed its rank-and-file to focus on shoring up stability before protests happen. President Hu Jintao has set policy in a distinctively Chinese way – coining and promoting a new piece of political jargon: ‘social management.’

As of this weekend, the phrase has received institutional standing: China’s highest authority on internal security, the Central Committee for Comprehensive Management of Public Security, has been renamed the ‘Central Committee for Comprehensive Social Management,’ in an announcement made by chair and Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang.  The seemingly dry bureaucratic announcement suggests that China is institutionalizing Hu’s recent focus on aggressive control of ‘unharmonious elements,’ combining the country’s new social safety net, its censorship apparatus, and its police in an effort to create a system for preventing and managing social unrest.

The rise of social management is reminiscent of ‘harmonious society’ and ‘scientific development,’ arcane but important phrases that have influenced policy at all levels for years. Like harmonious society, social management leapt to widespread attention after Hu called for ‘strengthened and innovative social management’ in a major February speech. Social management, unlike other slogans, is for internal consumption by Party members charged with upholding stability. New buzzwords are a big deal in China, and officials at all levels rushed to show that they were implementing social management – and to try to interpret what it means.

The need to interpret ambiguous mandates gives officials and academics a chance to push their points of view – and articles proliferated trying to answer Baidu searches for ‘What is social management?’  Prominent academics gave interviews and wrote articles offering sometimes quite liberal answers, while local officials got a chance to promote their work as examples of ‘innovative social management’ – such as a minor official in rural Guizhou Province who got the attention of the official Xinhua news agency with his discovery that he could use voting on local issues to pacify disgruntled farmers.

But this is probably the point – Hu’s speech, made at a special high-level study session as the Chinese government was nervously watching the wave of revolutions in the Middle East, was clear about the purpose of social management: ‘to solve prominent problems that might harm the harmony and stability of the society.’ He mentioned a huge range of government functions – social services, workplace safety, dispute resolution, and police, among others – as social management tools, challenging officials in almost every part of the Chinese government to find ways of reducing social unrest.

For a long time, the Hu-Wen government has made an explicit connection between its social reforms, such as creating a basic social safety net and trying to combat widespread corruption, and the stability and legitimacy of Communist Party rule. But the high frequency of protests over local issues, as well as shocks like the 2008 economic crisis and the Arab Spring’s wave of democratic revolutions, have apparently convinced China’s leaders that social stability doesn’t simply arise from good policy, but has to be managed at all levels, and managed aggressively before problems develop.  As Party seminars and conferences studying social management have proliferated, it seems that Hu’s call for innovation is intended to produce something that seems very odd outside China – a formal system and body of knowledge for maintaining an authoritarian state.

As Feng Jun, an executive at the Shanghai branch of the national Party School, put it at East Asia Forum, ‘For a long time, social management reform and development has been treated mostly as a way of supporting economic reform by fostering social stability. Increasingly, (the Communist Party) is aware of the broader strategic importance of social management in governance.’

The focus on social management – and its institutionalization in the hands of the committee responsible for supervising the police – suggests that officials will be justifying policies and initiatives of all kinds in terms of stability.