Ash Center: Good Governance in China

May 17, 2013

Social Services, Social Media, and the Role of the Private Sector

By Kate Hoagland – Communiqué: Spring 2013, Volume 12

The “Challenge and Cooperation” conference and the Dean Ellwood delegation’s visit to China held earlier this year were especially timely as interest in China’s good governance continues to rise.

“I think there is a growing realization that China’s focus on economic development over the last few years has come at a high social cost,” said Julian Chang, executive director of the Rajawali Foundation Institute for Asia. “A lot of concerned publics are interested in innovations in public policy—how to provide better services for the poor, elderly, sick, and uneducated.”

Delivering such services is going to be increasingly important with more than a third of the population estimated to be aged 60 or older by 2050, according to the China Research Center on Aging. Typical reliance on the family for elder care may not be sustainable in the long term.

The Ash Center has several policy conferences scheduled later this year to further expand research in social policy. Held May 1 to 3 at Harvard, its Asia Vision 21 conference is co-sponsored with the Harvard University Asia Center and will explore the challenges of care giving for the elderly in China as well issues of domestic and regional security, environmental policy, and the global economy. On May 16 to 17 at the Shanghai Harvard Center, Director Saich will lead the symposium “Civil Society and Governance.” Sponsored by the Harvard China Fund, the event will convene scholars and industry experts to examine the role of nongovernmental and grassroots social service provision within both Chinese civil society and the greater East Asian region.

Other upcoming events include a policy forum on the role of higher education institutions in the globalization of China (held May 15 with Harvard Professor William C. Kirby), as well as this year’s Asia Public Policy Forum: “Poverty, Inequality, and Social Protection,” held in Jakarta, Indonesia on May 28 to 30. The Forum will bring together policymakers and scholars to share success stories, analysis, and relevant research on notable ways to reduce poverty and build up social networks across the Asian region.

Governing in the Social Media Age
In addition to improving social services, the country also faces potential challenges governing in the midst of an explosion of social media communications. Sina Weibo—China’s equivalent to Twitter—reported surpassing 400 million users with more than 100 million messages posted daily. While the company is required to self-censor its users to curb the spread of dangerous rumors, the sheer speed by which the technology allows Chinese citizens to communicate poses serious difficulties for governance. Whistle blowing has found a new medium, and government officials are under increased pressure to play a more active role in the arena and adapt to the new population of empowered Weibo publishers.

In the famous case of “Uncle Watch,” the tongue-and-cheek nickname of the government official sporting a number of luxury watches, Weibo users raised eyebrows and their voices, resulting in his eventual dismissal from office. Longer sleeves may now be the new trend in business suit fashion, but along with it comes an awareness that officials need to be more careful.

The Rising Role of the Private Sector
In the face of such public and now government scrutiny, more and more officials are ridding themselves of luxury properties and goods, despite the deeply rooted tradition of gift giving in Chinese culture. Yet, as the crackdown on bribery and corruption intensifies, this presents a new opportunity for the private sector, which arguably has not benefitted from such practices and is eager to find new ways to operate effectively. The Ash Center already conducts several executive education courses for private sector officials, and anticipates the demand will continue to increase as this sector takes on a larger role in delivering social services.

For example, this summer the Center will host its second annual Asia Energy Leaders Program, convening HKS faculty and senior energy executives from the region to analyze emerging trends in energy technology, policy, and markets. A key element of this and other training programs is providing business people with new perspectives on collaborating with government and viewing new ventures as not only a means to generate profit, but also to deliver social good.

According to Chang, the private sector is learning to play a role in government policymaking while also beginning to more effectively lobby for its interests. Expanding training to the private sector dovetails with the Center’s existing work on globalization through its China Goes Global conference. At this annual event, the Center convenes academic, public, and private sector leaders to advance analytical research and the overall state of knowledge about China’s growing role in the world economy and the unique position the private sector is projected to play in driving future economic growth. The sixth annual China Goes Global conference will take place in September 2013 at Jakobs University in Bremen, Germany.