In the midst of an economic downturn, with the World Bank rather pessimistically predicting 2.8 percent year-on-year economic growth, the challenge of managing the growing tensions and contradictions within Chinese society remains at the top of Beijing’s agenda (South China Morning Post, September 27). In this context, this article examines the recently promoted model for managing contradictions, namely the “Fengqiao Experience” and the institutionalization-digitalization of social tension governance. In his work report to open the 20th Party Congress on October 16, General Secretary Xi Jinping discussed the optimal ways for resolving contradictions in society and cited the “Fengqiao Experience” (枫桥经验, Fengqiao jingyan) as the model solution (CCTV, October 17). Hence, the importance of the Maoist style experiences of Fenqiao, a small village in Zhejiang, have reached the top level. However, throughout this year, People’s Daily has promoted the “Fengqiao Experience” as the most important model to follow for the lower level bureaucrats.
In his 19th Party Congress report, Xi announced a newly introduced understanding of the general contradiction between unbalanced and inadequate development and the people’s ever-growing need for a better life (China Daily, November 4, 2017). This was supported by Mao Zedong’s views on social contradictions which he regarded as class struggle. It was then exemplified by the “common prosperity” (共同富裕, gongtong fuyu) campaign launched by Xi in mid-2021 (Qiushi, October 15, 2021). The induction of commonality should be read between the lines as an attempt to limit the increasing stratification in Chinese society. Also noteworthy is that Xi has continued to advance institutional changes across the country with local authorities not only participating in the “common prosperity” campaign but also opening mediation centers as well. This institutional shift should not be perceived in the traditional manner but through the prism of the Chinese government’s digitalization process. As stated in the national regulations issued by the State Council in June, digital governance should mitigate issues such as conflict resolution (contradiction resolution), social security prevention and control, public security and grassroots social governance (Gov.cn, June 23). Furthermore, the State Council promoted Zhejiang’s “Fengqiao Experience”—the Maoist style campaign resolving contradictions and the “Xueliang project”—a public security big data platform.
Of course, the central government instructs people, sets goals and provides directions, while actual policy implementation largely falls to local authorities. The central government can then, through its dominant position, select the most effective solutions based on the initial local outcomes. However, this is largely the case only in theory, as this process is also inherently political. Reshaping the definition of general contradictions and calling for more institutionalized and digital development allows the core leader to strengthen his political power base and incentivizes local governments to compete in China’s political system. This logic is illustrated by quantitative analysis of 35 articles on “managing contradictions” (化解矛盾, huajie maodun) published in People’s Daily (January-September 2022), which suggests that Zhejiang, the most frequently mentioned province, won out in the competition to become the testing ground for implementing Common Prosperity at the local level (46 times; see table one). Zhejiang, which is Xi’s political powerbase, was followed by some provinces that offered their own “in house” solutions to resolving contradictions.
Are Zhejiang’s Digital Solutions Plus the Maoist Model a Remedy for Tensions?
In June 2021, when the central authorities issued the “Opinions of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council on Supporting Zhejiang’s High-quality Development and Construction of a Demonstration Zone for Common Prosperity,” Zhejiang Province was selected as the pilot and demonstration zone for the promotion of shared prosperity across the country through mediation centers at the county level (Gov.cn, June 10, 2021). Zhejiang hopes to develop its superior model of managing contradictions, which can then be rolled out across the country. The provincial capital, Hangzhou, utilizes new technologies and old Maoist solutions to manage contradictions. The Hangzhou government uses digital infrastructure to empower grassroots social governance. By opening the “Digital Intelligence Governance Center” (数智治理中心, shu zhi zhili gongxin), it hopes to effectively deal with residents’ complaints and rapidly resolve conflicts through an early warning system. As People’s Daily explains, the quick process of receiving problems through the mechanism of “one-click completion” allows the government to efficiently manage and resolve problems and contradictions between the city’s inhabitants. In this regard, the collecting and controlling of large volumes of data is seen as critical. Since August 2021, the Zhejiang Provincial Government Service APP “Zhe li Office” (浙里办, Zhe li ban) has successively launched and utilized a digital application, “Intelligent Quick Handling of Key Minor Matters of People’s Livelihood in Zhejiang” (“浙里民生关键小事智能速办” zhe li minsheng guanjian xiaoshi zhineng su ban). As of May, the application had handled an average daily volume of 39,000 cases. The average resolution time was 66 percent faster In comparison to the traditional channels (People’s Daily, June 3).
Local authorities also need to meet specific quotas for the Chinese evaluation system. When reporting on Xi’s visit to Anji County, Zhejiang in March 2020, People’s Daily reported that the Anji County Social Conflict and Dispute Mediation and Resolution Center had accepted more than 27,000 petitions and conflicts and disputes, and had a resolution rate of 97.2 percent; the province’s county-level social conflicts and dispute mediation and resolution centers had accepted in 2021 a total of 1.96 million petitions with a settlement rate of 93.1 percent (People’s Daily, June 3).
In the context of promoting the Zhejiang technological model for resolving contradictions, People’s Daily recalled the Maoist period of the early 1960s. Needless to say, the central government and Xi support the model and emphasize “the Fengqiao experience” as the key to applying best practices for managing contradictions in all local and provincial governments throughout China. During the Mao era, the cadres and masses of Fengqiao Town, Zhuji City shaped the “Fengqiao Experience” by “mobilizing and relying on the masses, insisting that contradictions should not be handed over, but resolved at the grass roots level, through arresting minor groups and enhanced security” (发动和依靠群众，坚持矛盾不上交，就地解决，实现捕人少, Fadong he yikao qunzhong, jianchi maodun bu shang jiao, jiu di jiejue, shixian bu ren shao). Notably, the local authorities at the lower levels of government in Zhejiang have adopted the “Fengqiao model.” They hope to resolve contradictions at the most local level of government —the village level: “Small things do not leave the village, big things do not leave the town, and contradictions do not turn over.” Zhou Qiang, Chief Justice and President of the Supreme People’s Court of China, argued that this solution is an effective social governance plan rooted in Chinese culture, which is aligns with China’s unique conditions, and “has become a valuable experience created by our party’s leadership of the people in correctly handling conflicts among the people” (People’s Daily, March 3).
Studying the “Fengqiao Model” and Other Approaches
Following an article written by Zhou Qiang, the People’s Court took responsibility for implementing the “Internet+Fengqiao Experience” solution to improve the “world-leading Internet judicial model with Chinese characteristics which strives to create a higher level of “digital justice” (数字正义, shuzi zhengyi) for the masses” (People’s Daily, July 6). As People’s Daily declared in July, people’s courts play the role of “outposts” and “fortresses” in preventing and mediating conflicts and disputes, which are literally on the doorstep (“家门口” 纠纷解决站点, “jia menkou” jiufen jiejue zhandian), by not allowing them to be escalated further up the judicial administration structure. Moreover, as the campaign has ramped up across the country, 8,429 people’s courts have been established on the mediation platform to connect online with comprehensive treatment centers, mediation centers, judicial offices, police stations, trade unions, women’s federations, and townships. There are 43,033 grassroots governance units such as townships (streets) and villages (communities) that “by effectively activating the grassroots dispute resolution service, a large number of conflicts and disputes can be resolved on the spot promptly according to law” (People’s Daily, July 6).
In implementing the Zhejiang model, it is important to note that the People’s Daily has also reported the positive approaches of the Anhui, Yunnan, Shanghai and Hunan governments in managing contradictions. The “Fengqiao experiences” allow the local authorities to show their effectiveness and demonstrate their commitment to follow this “old-new” model. However, the Fujian, Ningxia and Henan provincial governments have promoted their own solutions.
As reported in January, the Anhui government developed the “Fengqiao Experience” for the new era, designed a comprehensive management mechanism for social conflicts and promised to maintain people’s safety. By developing the model, the local government standardizes channels for expression of public demands, coordination of interests, protection of rights and interests, establishment of a comprehensive social conflict governance mechanism for prevention and control, investigation as well as categorizing, dispute resolution, and emergency response (People’s Daily, January 25). The Yunnan provincial government boasts exceptional results in that the number of conflicts and disputes, which have been resolved, have increased year by year. Since 2016, the province’s public security organs have resolved more than 900,000 conflicts and disputes, tackling various hidden dangers at the source and effectively maintaining social stability (People’s Daily, August 4). In Shanghai, the “Fengqiao Experience” falls under the city’s Higher People’s Court, with reconciliation and mediation being given priority. The critical thing, for Liao Yongan, as cited by the People’s Daily, is that the model detects disputes early on and reduces social disruptions(People’s Daily, August 18). The Zhejiang model was followed in Changsha, Hunan where 172 “Fengqiao-style police stations” adopted various methods to resolve conflicts and disputes as well as to promote the prevention and control of social security with targets of zero accidents and zero crimes. In 2021, local authorities proudly announced the number of incidents in Changsha had hit a 10-year low (People’s Daily, August 28).
As Fan Yu, a professor at the Law School of the Renmin University of China, suggested, local law and regulations have significant similarities but should also highlight their respective advantages. The similarities are mainly embodied by the narratives regarding the role of law and establishing people’s mediation centers. The understanding of the promotion of the peculiarities and comparative advantages, at least, was followed by the Fujian, Ningxia, Liaoning and Henan governments (People’s Daily, March 23; August 18). The Fujian government gave full rein to technological solutions but controlled them from the upper level. By introducing this process, the government in Fuzhou follows the national petition system and promotes an “Internet + petition” system. Fujian has built a three-dimensional and information-based social security prevention and control system of “service + prevention and control” as well as “civil air defense + technical defense”— as the province is critical for China’s Taiwan policy. Through measures such as nipping conflicts and disputes in the bud, efficiently utilizing police resources, as well as other resources through technology, the government underpins the safety of the people and stability at the very local level from social disruptions such as crime and disputes (People’s Daily, August 18).
In the case of Ningxia, the principal contradiction was related to water supply and water management. Due to the lack of water, the local authorities’ main task in this case was to patrol the canals and prevent villagers from “stealing water.” In other words, the main goal of limiting the negative impact of contradictions was environmental regulation. Through special regulations with the help of farmland restoration, many places implemented water-saving technologies such as sprinklers and drip irrigation (People’s Daily, July 7). Liaoning province established a mechanism of “five-star secretaries catching petitions,” which underscored that secretaries at all levels have primary responsibility for resolving contradictions at the local level. Moreover, provincial cities like Benxi, introduced the concept of “red housekeeper” (红色管家, hongse guanjia), which refers to building the party so that it can take the lead in safety matters (People’s Daily, January 19; May 25).
Cai Qinliang, director of the Law and Regulations Division of the Legislative Work Committee of the Standing Committee of the Henan Provincial People’s Congress, blames rapid growth for growing tensions and argues that Henan will resolve the problems through strict regulations. As a local regulation highlighted by People’s Daily says, the critical factor in resolving contradictions above the county level is the coordination and information system (People’s Daily, August 18). Moreover, the people’s courts should give full rein to the critical role of judicial functions in the prevention and resolution of conflicts and disputes; improve the mechanism for resolving conflicts and disputes by linking non-litigation and litigation, and carry out guidance, mediation, and judicial confirmation for resolving conflicts and disputes following the law (Zhengzhou Peoples’ Court, July 7).
Table One: Top ten provinces resolving contradictions in China (January-September 2022)
|Province||Number of mentions||Overall frequency %||Number of articles||Follow the „Fengqiao experiences”|
Source: author’s own calculations with support of software for text analysis based on 35 articles on contradictions published in People’s Daily (January-September 2022).
Paraphrasing the old Chinese saying, “there is a heaven above, and Suzhou and Hangzhou below” (上有天堂下有苏杭, Shang you tiantang, xia you su hang), we can say “there is a central committee above, and Zhejiang below” (上有中央下有浙江, Shang you Zhongyang, xia you Zhejiang). Needless to say, the Propaganda Department’s support of Zhejiang is not without reaso. For political purposes, promoting the “Fengqiao Experience” follows the simple logic of supporting the current leader’s political powerbase through implementing his ideas of the institutionalization-digitalization of the contradiction management process. Furthermore, with problems and tensions remaining at the local level, the central government has all the necessary conditions in place for a successful 20th Party Congress. The Central Committee likes silence, but it is not only the central government that wins. In fact, this is a win-win between central and local bureaucrats as the contradictions will remain and be resolved at the lower level, allowing local networks to sweep the problems “under the rug”, which in turn results in only positive messages being sent to the higher level. However, Lou Yiwei, the former Minister of Finance, laments that all data from the provincial level is, frankly speaking, far from accurate, and the situation remains unchanged (Bloomberg, December 11, 2021. On the other hand, as not all local authorities follow the Zhejiang model, the central government does shape the ideological platform for horizontal competition. In the long term, it seems to have secured its central position for the single-person leadership.
Dominik Mierzejewski: head of the Centre for Asian Affairs (University of Lodz); Professor at Department of Asian Studies at the Faculty of International and Political Studies (University of Lodz); Chinese language studies at Shanghai International Studies University; visiting professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences in Beijing; the principal investigator in grants supported by the National Science Centre (Poland), Horizon 2020, Ministry of Foreign Affairs; specializes in the rhetoric of Chinese diplomacy, political transformation of the PRC and the role of provinces in Chinese foreign policy.