This month’s session of China's National People's Congress probably wasn't one for the history books. Talk of reform continued, but the new government positions don’t go past a number of small-bore reforms that aim to centralize the management of a range of hot-button issues.
The restructuring plans announced over the past two weeks are mostly belated efforts to get control over parts of the government that created public relations challenges during the Hu administration. The Chinese Coast Guard and other maritime police are being rolled into a new “State Oceanic Administration,” responsible for enforcing China's disputed claims to islands in the South and East China Seas. Similarly, the two agencies responsible for overseeing private media markets are being joined into one, and the notoriously corrupt Ministry of Railroads, responsible for the Wenzhou train crash, is being broken up. And finally, the Chinese Food and Drug Administration is being elevated and reshaped, reportedly along the lines of the American FDA. Food safety and counterfeit medicine are constant problems for China.
In one sense, this is a pretty modest start for Xi Jinping's presidency – these are issues on which the government has faced a good deal of pressure, and it's not at all clear that these reforms mean anything more than American presidents appointing “czars” to give the appearance of action on controversial issues. For example, debate continues among pundits about whether a unified maritime command will lead to more or less aggressive dealings with Japan – personally, I don't know.
But that comparison to czars in American politics draws out what I think should be rather surprising to us: how much, and how clearly Chinese public opinion, via its expression in the media, now plays a role in setting the agenda for the country's leaders. Despite a lack of political reform, the Communist Party under Xi seems to be continuing its drift toward the “Yes, Minister” model of government – politics as damage control for a series of scandals.
This is a long way from the understanding of politics that used to dominate Chinese leaders' thinking – the belief that wealth heals all wounds; that the Party could afford to ignore all criticism as long as it could provide prosperity. The last ten years have seen repeated efforts to come to more sophisticated models of politics – from Hu's focus on corruption and good government, to the brief promotion of the idea of “Gross National Happiness.”
But between Xi's obvious respect for the power of the media and the public sphere suggests an entirely new approach to managing public opinion in China: responding to what people say they want, or at least appear to be doing so.