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Xi Jinping’s Quest for Self-governance Without Democracy

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Xi Jinping’s Quest for Self-governance Without Democracy

In the quest to ensure local accountability, elections are out; the “Fengqiao Experience” is in. 

Xi Jinping’s Quest for Self-governance Without Democracy
Credit: Depositphotos

In the quest for modern governance solutions, China continues to explore innovative methods to ensure local accountability without adopting Western-style democratic elections. This trend has been particularly notable during Xi Jinping’s tenure, marking a significant deviation from the methodologies preferred by his predecessors. Under Xi, the once-promoted enthusiasm for local elections has significantly waned

A key initiative in this shift is the revival of the “Fengqiao Experience,” a concept originating from Mao Zedong’s era. This strategy focuses on resolving local disputes and grievances through community mediation and self-regulation, thereby reducing the need for higher authority intervention. The Fengqiao Experience is particularly supported by Xi Jinping as a means to mimic the outcomes of liberal democracy – accountability and public satisfaction – within China’s unique political framework.

The Challenge of Local Governance in China

China’s vast territorial expanse and the complexity of its demographic composition pose unique challenges for centralized governance over localities. The absence of local democratic institutions complicates the central leadership’s ability to hold local officials directly accountable to the public. 

Traditionally, governance in China has relied on a top-down monitoring system to regulate the behavior of local officials, such as local cadre management and anti-corruption campaigns. However, these methods have limitations, as the central leadership lacks the capability to acquire full information about local affairs. In contrast, liberal democracies typically employ a bottom-up system of accountability, allowing the public to elect their leaders directly, thereby incentivizing those leaders to prioritize the welfare of their electorate.

China also attempted to secure bottom-up accountability by establishing the Bureau of Letters and Visitations (信访局) and online petition system, intended to gather complaints and petitions directly from the local public regarding local governance. However, the effectiveness of this bottom-up system is compromised by its integration within the very local governmental structure it is supposed to monitor, creating a conflict of interest that undermines its potential to authentically address local concerns. This structural flaw leads many citizens to bypass local mechanisms altogether, opting to petition the central office in Beijing, thus burdening the central government further with monitoring the system itself.

Hence, Xi Jinping’s predecessors, beginning with the reforms under Deng Xiaoping, initiated the gradual introduction of local democratic elements, especially through village-level elections, with the intention of expanding these practices to higher administrative levels and across different entities. However, under Xi Jinping’s leadership, there has been a notable shift away from this trajectory. Xi has concentrated power at the central level and cannot afford to expand local democracy, which may nurture potential political opponents.

The Fengqiao Experience as a Solution

The “Fengqiao Experience,” which originated in the early 1960s in Fengqiao village in Zhejiang province, functions as a mechanism for mobilizing the masses to address social conflicts at the grassroots level, bypassing the involvement of higher legal institutions. Mao Zedong later endorsed this practice, leading to its nationwide adoption. 

The Fengqiao Experience advocates for mediating conflicts informally and locally, without resorting to punitive measures. As the China Media Project explained, this method promotes the idea of “keeping minor issues within the village and more significant issues within the town,” effectively preventing the escalation of conflicts to higher authorities.

In recent years, Xi, who has promoted the model since his tenure as Zhejiang provincial party secretary, has introduced the “New-Era Fengqiao Experience.” This updated version integrates self-governance, rule of law, moral principles, and digital technology, aiming to modernize the traditional model while maintaining its core objectives of social harmony and conflict prevention.

Under Xi’s advocacy, the Fengqiao Experience has been adapted and implemented in various innovative grassroots governance models, highlighting multi-departmental collaboration and the use of digital platforms to enhance conflict resolution effectiveness. For example, Shanghai’s Hongkou District developed the “Three Institutions Linkage” mechanism to address the limitations faced by police stations, judicial offices, and lawyers in conflict resolution. Similarly, in Zhoushan’s Putuo District, a unique four-step management method caters to the challenges of one of China’s largest fishing ports. Additionally, in Zhejiang’s Zhili, an initiative by local entrepreneurs to form the “Big Sisters for Security” studio exemplifies the self-organization aspect of the Fengqiao Experience, successfully mediating disputes such as factory wage arrears. 

These adaptations reflect the flexible and innovative application of the Fengqiao model in addressing modern governance challenges, demonstrating its ongoing relevance and effectiveness in fostering social harmony and stability.

Medicine or Poison: The Effectiveness and Potential Risks 

The Fengqiao Experience offers an innovative alternative for local governance, enabling communities to manage social controls internally. Traditional public security measures – encompassing repression, litigation, and mediation – impose significant operational costs. China’s expenditure on public security has consistently represented a substantial portion of its fiscal budget, escalating further with an increase in mass incidents. In 2023, the budget allocation for public security exceeded 200 billion yuan ($28 billion). 

There is a judicial burden as well. National courts managed to mediate 7.822 million disputes before reaching litigation in the first three quarters of 2023, marking a 30.1 percent increase compared to the previous year. This burden to the judicial system highlights that, in terms of reducing litigation processes, the Fengqiao model has proven to be an effective strategy within China’s governance framework.

However, the nationwide implementation of the Fengqiao Experience also presents potential risks. Despite its emphasis on the rule of law, the mechanism is fundamentally rooted in grassroots self-governance, which may lead to a lack of standardized criteria in dispute management and reliance on subjective judgments. Granting power beyond the law to mediators could potentially lead to misuse by unqualified individuals, compromising fairness, particularly in disputes involving the interests of related parties or personal grievances.

Additionally, when practical problems arise in the promotion of the Fengqiao Experience, it becomes challenging for localities to provide feedback to the central government, as the model is personally approved and vigorously promoted by Xi Jinping. Those pointing out its flaws could be questioned in terms of loyalty, a factor highly valued by Xi.

Moreover, the adaptability of the Fengqiao Experience raises significant concerns. Its birthplace, Zhejiang, is one of the wealthiest and most open provinces in China, with relatively well-educated and affluent local populations. Replicating Fengqiao’s success in underdeveloped regions may prove highly challenging. In regions where tangible interests outweigh concerns about dignity and pride, individuals may lean toward confrontational methods of resolution until their demands are met. 

As a cornerstone model of contemporary grassroots governance, the implementation of mediation techniques in these areas has long been a complex yet unavoidable issue in China’s efforts to uphold stability. To simultaneously improve both the quantity and quality of conflict resolution, local authorities may need to further enhance policy flexibility and innovation in the application of the Fengqiao Experience.