This paper was published in the Journal of the Zhejiang Province School of Administration (otherwise known as Party School) in 2015.

So far as I know, it is the only original contribution by a foreign author to this Journal.  Since the Journal is from CCP in Zhejiang, one of the wealthiest and most sophisticated provinces in China, it is as well respected as a CCP journal can be.

The paper is way too long for a blog read.  I outline a way for CCP to provide meaningful voice to populations angry over land thefts, pollution problems, and corruption.  Among other suggestions, a ready-in-waiting conflict resolution organization, structured at the provincial level, could be brought to bear on incidents of mass protest.  A stand-still agreement is necessary to force parties to negotiate.  This is one way to provide voice to Chinese people in the absence of democracy. 

This is a theoretical paper, although no one in China would describe it that way.  A bit too clear and direct.  The paper was presented at a conference at Zhejiang Business and Financial University in 2015, although my presentation was kept apart from those of other presenters.  I gave a more or less private briefing to about 30 faculty and students - either to inoculate others from dangerous ideas or provide me with a rapt audience.  Probably both are true.  The presentation was in the school's Party conference room.  

Negotiating Harmony – Conflict and Governance in the New Age


William D. Markle, Ph.D.

Zhejiang University of Science and Technology


March, 2014

Version 2 – May 15, 2014


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A fundamental question of the times is whether the economic and political reform necessary to continued growth in the Chinese economy can be accomplished within the existing political system.    This article briefly reviews the literature on complex systems, as applied to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the demands for a new method of addressing fundamental conflict – mass protest - over land rights changes and environmental problems.   The author suggests that use of conflict resolution skills and a defined public participation program, conducted at the provincial level, can be of use to the CCP in adapting to the new society. 



Stability and harmony 和谐  hé xié  are key words for public administration in China, as they have been for more than a thousand years.   Nevertheless, for more than sixty years, the concepts of stability and harmony could be trumped by economic development, in whatever form that took – land reclaiming, expressway construction, development zone clearing, or apartment and factory construction. 

That era is over.   For many reasons, including overinvestment, bank balance sheet problems, a rising middle class that demands attention, and social media that make communication instant and definitive, it is no longer possible for government at any level in China to ignore stability and harmony as important principles of governance.

As is well-known to readers of this journal, both environmental problems and land conversions are a significant source of instability.  One has to only consult China Daily, or most any western newspaper or magazine, to get weekly examples.  Most recently, last October, Xiage township in Zhejiang provides an embarrassing example, or Gangnan County in Wenzhou, in 2012. 

This article is not directed at providing advice for policy makers on compensation, or removal procedures.  This article argues for a more sophisticated approach to public involvement in public decision-making that can reduce the potential for, and severity of, mass protest.   Specifically, public participation training, in schools and training institutes, should include courses in conflict resolution and negotiation.  The public officials for whom this training is critical are those working in urban planning, environmental analysis, civil engineering, and public administration. 

In addition to conflict resolution training, it is important to develop a structured dispute resolution system within government, for use in local land conversion, land use, and pollution conflicts.  

There are five suggestions for consideration as part of greater use of rule of law, openness, and the reform agenda of the Xi Jinping era.

The five suggestions are –

1.Training in conflict resolution for undergraduates in urban planning and environmental programs 

2. Similar training for graduate programs in public administration and at institutes

3. Empower professional staff in decision-making, and publish environmental evaluation reports and demand conformance to a time frame

4. Create a defined provincial level procedure for conflict resolution, triggered without excessive delay or petition

5. Process and professionals in conflict resolution to report to provincial authorities


Public Participation, Conflict, and Demand for Change

Public participation techniques are well understood in China, at least at some levels.   Design of public participation in environmental assessment in China has been discussed by Wang and Chen (2006), Horsley (2009), Wang (2006), Zhang (2012), and Tang (2007), among others. 

As long ago as 2006, Pan Yue, the vice minister of the State Environmental Protection Agency (SEPA),  linked environmental changes to increased public participation –

In China, environmental protection is an increasingly pressing issue. Not only are pollution and ecological degradation becoming ever more serious, but also people are more and more unsatisfied about the situation. The speed with which we are polluting the environment far outstrips our efforts to clean it up. Why is this? China has a large population but few resources, and our production and consumption methods are too out of date. But at the root of the problem lies a more significant cause -- the lack of public participation in China.  (Yue, 2006)

Wen Jiabao made protection of land use rights in land conversion a theme of the later years of his premiership.  In an article in Qiushi -

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has called for farmers' land rights to be protected and criticized a widespread policy of moving villagers into apartment blocks so their land can be merged into larger blocs or developed.

State-backed land grabs are a cause of deep tension across China. Ten days of protests over confiscated farmland and the death of a protest organizer in Wukan in booming Guangdong province in December drew widespread attention as a rebuff to the stability-obsessed government.

In an essay for influential magazine Qiushi, or Seeking Truth, Wen said "rural residents enjoy the legal rights of land contracts, land use and collective income distribution," whether they stayed in the countryside or migrated to cities for work, according to a summary published by the Xinhua news agency on Sunday.   (Reuters, January 15, 2012)


And as recently as last October, Xi Jinping urged officials to resolve conflicts according to the rule of law, reminding officials of the “Fengqiao experience”  in 1963, in Zhuji.   The Fengqiao experience suggests that people should be enabled to resolve conflicts among themselves without having to refer disputes to higher level authorities. 

Improvements to process and participation in decision making about the built environment are laudable.  But too often, such public participation fails because it is done at the wrong time or at the wrong level of analysis, or with wrong intentions.    Seven years after Hu Jintao promised

To ensure scientific and democratic decision- making, we will improve the information and intellectual support for it, increase its transparency and expand public participation. In principle, public hearings must be held for the formulation of laws, regulations and policies that bear closely on the interests of the public.... We will improve the open administrative system in various areas and increase transparency in government work, thus enhancing the people's trust in the government  (Hu, 2007)  

we know that the environmental protection process and land conversion process in China fail to protect.  In a short piece in Global Times, quoted in Qiushi, Yan reports that the draft changes to the environmental protection process were unlikely to protect Chinese or the environment.  (Yan, 2012).    And at times, the environmental protection bureau itself displays the problem with both regulating and collecting fines for violations of regulations – the economic moral hazard problem in Haimen City, in Nantong, in Jiangsu.  (WSJ, February 1, 2013)


And even though environmental protection is moving closer to the top of the national agenda, there is still reluctance on the part of powerful departments to consider environmental projection when proposed by the environmental protection bureau –


Strong and influential government agencies such as the planning commissions (jiwei), economic commissions (jingwei), and the construction commissions (jianwei) and industrial and commercial authorities are known to be reluctant to endorse and enforce stringent environmental measures for fear that they might slow down economic growth.  (Wing Hung Lo and Leung, 2007)


We are concerned here not with administrative rule making, or mediation in Chinese village life, or strike resolution, but with the use of public participation ideas in resolving conflicts in land transfers and the built environment.   These are the areas of most significant individual and group conflict in China, which according to research by Sun Liping at Tsinghua, reached 180,000 per year in 2010  (Fung, 2012).   


The topic is not new to the CCP.   At Fujian School of Administration, Wang Liping has held a class that points not to improvements in governance, administration, or communication techniques, but to violence –


To help illustrate his point that forceful demolition can lead to violence, Wang shows a slide of a farmer in Hubei Province who used a home-made cannon to drive away a demolition team in order to protect his land. The class falls quiet.   (Fung, 2012)


In what follows, I want to describe the CCP as a system of organization, and make the point that the CCP has demonstrated in the past, and must continue to demonstrate, that is an adaptive system, that can use flexibility to respond to challenge.    Then, discuss governance and public administration in China, and note that conflict resolution has not been part of professional training. 


CCP as a Complex Adaptive System

The unique political and governance structure in China has facilitated economic growth for 30 years.   During that time, the CCP has shown itself to have remarkable flexibility in adapting to new conditions – restructuring SOE in the mid-1990s,  banks in the late 1990s, opening to the world in trade and gradually expanding the scope of the private sector.    All accomplished within a single party state system, with hierarchical but still extremely decentralized control.   How is decentralized control possible?


Despite the decentralized nature of government in China, we can characterize government and political organizations as part of a single complex system.    A definition of relationships and interactions that are complex -

They are complex in that they are dynamic networks of interactions, and their relationships are not aggregations of the individual static entities. They are adaptive; in that the individual and collective behavior mutate and self-organize corresponding to the change-initiating micro-event or collection of events    (Mitelton-Kelly, 2003)


There are an uncountable number of parts, interacting both closely and at a distance, with varying levels of force and reaction over time.   It is really impossible to describe any policy change, any administrative change in such a system, as a linked set of linear commands, coming from a central authority to subordinate groups, which understand and obey.  The rational and hierarchical models of Max Weber or Henri Fayol certainly do not apply.   



Within this hierarchy, we can characterize the CCP as a relatively adaptive system, in the terms of Boisot and Child (1999) -

systems that have to match in a nontrivial way the complexity of their environment (Ross Ashby 1954, Wiener 1961), either to achieve an appropriate measure of fit with it or to secure for themselves a degree of autonomy with respect to whatever constraints it might impose (Varela et al. 1991).

Within the system, there are feedback loops, and non-constant levels of action and reaction between agents.  And a system that remains in existence for a significant period of time, responding to change from outside, must be minimally adaptive to the environment.    The adaptation requires the system to interpret, or understand, pressures being applied from outside.   How can a complex system adapt?   We can think of the hedgehog and fox essay, by Isaiah Berlin - “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing.”   (Berlin, 1953).   An adaptive, interpretive system can be a hedgehog or a fox.

Adaptive, interpretative systems have two quite distinct ways of handling the complexity that underlies the variety:

(a) They can either reduce it through getting to understand it and acting on it directly. That is, they elicit the most appropriate single representation of that variety and summon up an adapted response to match it.  Such a strategy leads to specialization informed by relevant codification and abstraction of the phenomenon.

(b) Or they can absorb it through the creation of options and risk-hedging strategies. That is, they can hold multiple and sometimes conflicting representations of environmental variety, retaining in their behavioural repertoire a range of responses, each of which operates at a lower level of specialization. This approach develops behavioural plasticity. There may be less goodness of fit between any given response and the state of nature to which it needs to be matched, but the range of environmental contingencies that an organism can deal with in this way is greater than in a regime of specialization.  It may endeavor to enhance its capability to deal with a wider range of environmental contingencies …

In plainer English, an adaptive interpretive system can develop a single response, informed by judgment, and specialize;  or, the system can become more sophisticated, and develop a variety of responses that are then more suitable for individual conditions.      There can be a single system response to the same challenge – always do This, or That;   or, be adaptive in the individual circumstance.

A key characteristic of adaptive systems is the ability to undergo substantial  change, without collapse or failure. 

The decentralized complex system can survive because it can adapt.

That CCP absorptive adaptive model now needs to be called upon again, as China addresses the problems of corruption and

environmental pollution and land reclaiming.   This is a public administration problem of the first order.   Existing public administration theories allow for more effective solutions to conflict than have been used in China in the past. 


New Public Management – Models and Practice

The term New Public Management (NPM) refers to a view of governance that tries to incorporate consideration of “markets, managers, and measurement”  as a way of improving performance and accountability  (Ferlie, 1996).   Although NPM was a popular emerging paradigm in public administration in the US, and then in China, the number of published articles on NPM has certainly faded in recent years.  And there is no particular reason to force Chinese public administration practice into a western theoretical construct.  But the lessons – treating citizens as customers, providing information, and lessening the gap between citizens and administrators - do continue in China. 


As part of the New Public Management focus, there is increasing attention to what is referred to as “governance.”   Governance refers, in part, to the set of traditions and practices by which laws are implemented.  In essence, governance refers to both quality of governing and reasonableness of policy.   Are rules for society reasonable, and understandable by those to whom the rules are applied, and is there a sense of fairness in the application?   New public management, and governance techniques, are applied to daily effectiveness of organizations in cities in China.  But the implementation process in built environment projects remains a public administration problem in the world, but particularly in China. 



The Chinese government has learned to respond to the wishes of the people, in some cases better than in others.   In general, one expects that the higher the level of government, the more sophisticated the leadership, the less tied for promotion to enhanced local GDP, the more willing leaders will be to listen to the local view.  

Zhejiang Province is a key example.   Rich, experienced, open to the world, and innovative, Zhejiang has long been in the forefront of administrative reform in China.   The Zhejiang model of land reform, allowing for transfers of development rights (TDR) within and between local governments, is well known (Wang, Tao, and Tong, 2009).  And more recently, Haining has been selected as a pilot for land reform, allowing mortgages of village property and sales of farmer land to those outside the village; and Wenzhou has established a “rural property rights service center, that in theory allows sales of village land to citizens from within the county.    


As far back as 1995, the Yantai Service Promise System, in Shandong Province “drawing on the New Public Management approach to administration,”  represented a serious attempt to make the bureaucracy more customer oriented and professional (Foster, 2006).   Fifteen government departments were required to provide service delivery promises to citizens, and the local government leaders appeared to consider citizen complaints and survey results quite seriously in individual leader evaluations.


A version of the Yantai system was begun in Jinhua in 1996, 

and in Wenzhou, in 2003.   Other cities – Beijing, Guangzhou, and others -  have implemented more open communications with citizens, and provided a survey mechanism to review the performance of government departments. 


In addition to openness in administrative matters,  there are public officials willing to experiment.   In Shaoxing, a communications model has been used to defuse conflict between a real estate developer and neighborhood residents.   This model used intervention by the urban planning authorities to pro-actively address concerns, rather than ignoring them or waiting for conflict to reach a higher level of intensity (Zhou, 2008, unpublished).       


But these laudable experiments in communication are still focused on administrative actions and service delivery.   We are concerned here with projects, not programs, that constitute once-in-a-lifetime events for most citizens and farmers.


More commonly, however, we have seen examples of local mass protests, real conflict, being resolved by provincial or higher government leaders, stepping in at the critical moment to undo the Gordian knot of development and its externalities.   Witness environmental and land transfer conflicts in Wuhan (Provincial Party leader steps in to resolve); Dalian (City leaders vow to close paraxylene plant, and move it); Ningbo (city officials decide to cancel paraxylene plant);  Shiyang (Deputy Director of local Development and Reform Commission and former City Party leader meet with protesters);  and many other places. 


There are problems with this high tension, high conflict model, however.


Governance has two components – leadership and administration.   Both exercise power,  and both need to demonstrate legitimacy for a sense of fairness.   China, with its focus on relationship and Party loyalty, has tended to solve public conflicts in governance through application of leadership, rather than administrative techniques.    At the last moment, or too often, after the last moment (someone is killed, or worldwide media attention is obtained) a top leader, from the city or province – possibly from a central organization – steps in to mediate or construct a solution. 


But solution to conflict through application of leadership should be the least attractive option for the CCP and the government.   For reasons that are as apparent in the west as they are in China, using leadership as a solution mechanism puts leaders in uncomfortable positions, often between parties with equally good claims to authority and justice, and forces a solution that could be more sophisticated in form if left to negotiation at a lower level of authority.   Moreover, governance by leadership almost necessarily takes place after local dissatisfaction has risen to the level of local mass protest, once positions have hardened, interests are damaged, and trust in government is weakened. Governance by leadership is a high-cost strategy.  It is responding, rather than anticipating, and tends to put the government in a negative position. 


Leadership, moreover, takes on new dimensions as the demands of the economy and the culture change.   Leadership that once meant making command decisions now must be collaborative, and collaborative not only with a few subordinates and leaders, but collaborative with the general public, who demand more and better from leaders.


What to do, now?   The customary answer is training, for both leaders and for administrative staff.   Government leadership, management, and administrative technical skills can be, and are, taught.   But skills in implementation, particularly as regards dealing with the public –how to do what is desired -  remain generally untaught.   For most environmental and land decisions, “decide, announce, defend” remains the dominant implementation model.   The government decides on policy or program, announces a decision, and then is forced to defend that decision before an angry and aroused public.   But a changing environment demands changing nature of training that can utilize a different, more sophisticated model.   And the new era of development in China requires an implementation model that takes public participation into account, and in a manner more respectful of public wishes. 


Public Communications and Public Participation

The term public participation gongzhong canyu, 公众参与 can have many meanings, and many ways of implementing. 


There are many ideas in the “toolkit” of public participation -

Obtaining information from the government

Complaints or petitions to the government

Deliberative democracy experiments

Public meetings or hearings

“Field investigations”

Expert analysis

Online activism

Street protests and demonstrations


Public participation refers to the public’s involvement in government decision making, whether regulation or rule-making (zhiding tiaoli, guizhang, 制定条例,规章or administrative  xingzheng juece, 行政决策  (Horsley, 2009).   This is the definition most of interest in discussing ways of lessening public protest and improving citizens’ lives.   But this list of public participation techniques is too limited.   It does not address the response to conflict in the streets, moving to destruction of property and prestige.


A local government can provide information, and take complaints, and have public meetings, and conduct expert analysis of a project well in advance of construction, and still face mass protest at perceive injustice.  One can make the argument that with “correct” dissemination of information to the public, and properly scheduled public meetings, and serious attempts at obtaining expert opinion, there should be no need for additional public participation techniques.    The facts on the ground, however, suggest that the “correct” processes are seldom followed, and the result is the demand for public participation tools that help to resolve conflict.   The suggestion here is that skills in conflict resolution, including negotiation, should be part of the public participation toolkit.   


To be effective, and considered just by all participants, public

participation must be timely – that is, it must take place before spending commitments are made, certainly before construction begins;  information with which to analyze proposals must be provided; and it must be understood as being useful – public participation that is “public relations” rather  than public involvement is designed to result in loss of respect for, and trust in, government.


Above all, public participation must demonstrate respect for the views of the public, whether informed or not, and allow a “seat at the table” in decision making.   This is where the conflict resolution skills are necessary.


Rather than the decide-announce-defend model noted above, a

more sophisticated model for public participation is discuss-decide-announce, in which community concerns are made part of the decision-making process, rather than trying to address them at the end of a process when commitments may already be made and it is too late to develop anything but anger and resentment and protest.  Public participation needs to be more than press agentry, or one way dissemination of information, or even two-way communication that is widely asymmetric in power relations. 


A government that can only communicate in these ways is not a government that is confident of its role, and not a government that inspires trust.



Trust can only come from communication, and that in an honest manner.   Otherwise, communication is one-way and is public relations, not public participation. 


In design of a public participation system, there are three dimensions to keep in mind.   What is the scope of participation – will the public be permitted to protest, or petition, but without meaningful response, or will the public be considered as a partner in decision-making?    What is the method of communication – press releases and announcements, or face-to-face discussion, with decision-making to come later?   What is the extent of authority of the government participants?  Are they both responsible for decisions and authorized to make changes?  If not, then the public is going to be at a significant disadvantage in any discussion.   Why talk with people who cannot do anything?  (Feng, 2006).


It is important to keep these three dimensions in mind when considering public participation models for China.

-  Scope of participation  - must include all parties affected; 


- Mode of communication – must be timely, and useful;  special  

  efforts to communicate, and provide technical advisors for the

  public, as needed;


-  Extent of authority – participation must respect the public,

acknowledging that not all interests – even government interests-   can be equally satisfied.


Public participation in physical project review is different from administrative reviews.   Administrative actions generally do not involve threats, or perceived threats, to life, health, or livelihood;  construction projects and land takings often do.    So we are faced with conflict, rather than simple evaluation;  and public participation in conflict resolution is a far different skill than participation in surveys of prior performance. 


One of the teachers within the Chinese Academy of Governance system, Zhong Kaibin, has echoed the demand for better results from leaders, in practice of public management -


The fourth area is related to China’s transformation from a public administration system based on personal will and charisma to one that is increasingly based on rule of law, which has been recognized as necessary for a modern state government. This transformation, however, requires an independent judicial system and genuine public participation process.   (Xue and Zhong, 2012)


The existence of government schools of administration, as well as public administration programs within universities, speak to the need for professional education and continuous learning.    There are now more than 100 MPA programs in universities and Party schools across China (Wu and He, 2009).


Notably, there seems to be increasing attention in Chinese MPA programs on public communications;  negotiation, however, is a topic reserved to business (MBA) programs.   Public communications seems to be focused on public speaking and putting one’s best foot forward, as it were, rather than addressing conflict. 


A review of public administration programs at Zhejiang University, Fudan, and Shanghai Jiaotong confirms that there do not seem to be required or elective courses in conflict resolution or negotiation within public administration programs, at either the undergraduate or graduate level.   There does appear to be a negotiation course and a conflict resolution course within the Tsinghua Master’s in Public Administration Program, but both are 1 credit courses, not required and apparently not considered important topics for education. 


But the “first line” responders to community or village conflict are usually administrative staff,  in urban planning, environmental analysis, or civil engineering.   This is reasonable.   But these professionals receive no training in conflict resolution, or in negotiation.   The question remains as to how much authority such professionals have, in the face of serious conflict.   But they are the first contacts the public sees.   To reduce the spread of conflict, it is important that these “first responders”  have some training in reducing conflict.   This is recommendation No. 1.


1.Training in conflict resolution for undergraduates in urban planning and environmental programs


These are officials with the most direct understanding of issues on all sides of a conflict, and the most technical ability to address problems. 


A review of university catalogs in urban planning, civil engineering, and environmental planning suggest that there are no required courses in conflict resolution or negotiation.


The content of such courses can vary.   International undergraduate business programs already incorporate negotiation courses – examples are Fudan University and Zhejiang University of Science and Technology (ZUST).    These courses will tend to focus on business disputes rather than government-citizen conflicts, but negotiation skills can be similar in both cases. 


But the public management programs – the School of International and Public Affairs at Shanghai Jiaotong University is an example – do not have a required negotiation or conflict resolution course.   Within public administration programs in China, negotiation or dispute resolution does not appear on course listings.   The Chinese Academy of Governance does not seem to offer such courses, either.


In any case, the current negotiation courses taught in China tend to focus on business negotiation, in which both sides are fundamentally hoping to achieve the same goal - a profitable outcome.   But most disputes with village people in China are of conflictual nature, in which power distribution is clearly unequal, one side is reluctant to acknowledge the legitimate interests of the other side, and on one side there are often people willing to take to violence

to protect perceived threats to their lives, livelihood, and health.


Public administration programs, both within universities and within the schools of administration, should have a required course.   There is not a more important piece of training that leads to hé xié than conflict resolution skills.    And current public officials in districts, townships, counties, and cities need such assistance as the first line responders to conflict. 


Where should such training take place?    My suggestion is that the natural location is within the undergraduate or graduate urban planning programs at universities, and within environmental planning programs, and in the CCP schools of administration.  So, suggestion number 2:


2. Similar conflict resolution and negotiation training in graduate programs in public administration and at institutes





Community Empowerment – Exit and Voice


Citizens have two active potential responses to undesired local conditions – they can choose to leave, moving somewhere else where conditions might be better; or express their unhappiness.   We refer to these as exit and voice.  Among the two responses to conflict – voice, and exit -  Chinese generally do not have the choice to exit – to leave the village or the neighborhood.    Voice is their means of resolving conflict.    Voice can be discussion, at one end of a communications spectrum, or it can be violent disruption, at the other.   Violence appears when trust is lost.   Discussion, on the other hand, requires trust.   The classic description of exit and voice is by Albert Hirschman (1970).   Voice and exit both work in both the marketplace and in governance. 


The classical work of Tiebout suggests that individuals and businesses make a location decision partly on the mix of public resources available in different locations, and the prices (taxes) at which they are offered.   If the cost benefit analysis of public services and taxes paid changes for the worse, as defined by the individual, the individual or business is inclined to move, to a location with a preferable mix.   This is obviously the “exit”  choice.


The “voice” choice in provision of government services includes complaint, letters, media attention, and street protest.  


But more significant than street protest, more than complaint and media attention, is the work of community organizing and community empowerment in the US. 


Community organizing involves creation of a stronger sense of community in poor and under-served communities, through meetings and public information and creation of a sense of ownership and power, with which to confront the government.  The goal is to win attention, resources, and a “seat at the bargaining table” -  forcing government to pay attention to an organized community that is difficult or impossible to ignore, when individuals could safely be ignored. 


It is fair to say that the seat at the table – the ability to negotiate – is the desire of community organizing everywhere.  In the US, the organizing work of Saul Alinsky and his followers became so powerful that the Chicago local government created a Department of Neighborhoods in 1981, to specifically hear the “voice of the neighborhoods.”   The concept of listening to the people, in a way not provided by representative government (aldermen, mayors) or by individual media, constituted a huge change in the way neighborhoods were understood in American government.   In some cases, local governments now provide annual funds to community organizations that may oppose projects of the same local government.   This can create organized opposition.   But it does provide a way for information to flow up to the decision makers. 


Why would local government do this?   The short answer is that governments in the US do not want to see mass protests or significant organizing against what might otherwise be government policies or projects.  Smart governments want to be ahead of public opinion, not always responding to conflict.   If a “seat at the table”  is the goal of community organizing, after protest and resulting media attention, then it may be possible to provide the seat without the prior conflict.   Making community part of the decision-making process makes for good politics and, in the American sense, good governing


It is probably a bridge too far to suggest that governments in China provide funding for a citizen movement.    But conflict that is not addressed, except in the extreme, does not foster trust in government, and people who perceive themselves to be wronged do not forget.   At the same time, there is no negative response more

feared in harmony-seeking China  than the organized mass public protest.   Where should voice be expressed?


These are critical issues for China now, and in the next ten years.   It is no longer sufficient to promise a better world at some undetermined time in the future, when the socialist state is fully achieved.  And, it is no longer sufficient for government to take action without responsible acknowledgement of the interests of the people.   


In negotiations of all kinds, we talk about having to address two different kinds of needs – those that are tangible, and those that are intangible.  In business, we suggest that one party not agree too quickly to an otherwise acceptable offer, or make a concession too fast.  We want the other side to feel that offers and counteroffers are taken seriously.  It is understood that the intangible interests – in being treated seriously, in having positions considered fairly – are as important as tangible results.   In neighborhood and village conflicts, people have interests in a clean environment, and in fair land transfers.  These are tangible.   The intangible is being treated with respect, before, during, and after conflict.    It is no longer sufficient to offer the solution, without the expressed, and intentional, voice of the people being heard.   People have interests in clean air;  but they also have interests in being respected, which requires being heard, and is a form of justice – respect for the individual.






Barriers to Public Participation and a Solution


Public participation in environmental impact assessment is required by law in China (Zhang,, 2012).   But despite ten years of required public involvement, the number of protests over land seizures and environmental problems, violent and otherwise, continues to grow.   The list of weaknesses in environmental assessment in China is well known.   Zhang et al., quoting Zhao, 2010 -


there are some limitations in current EIA public participation mechanism. First of all, the extent of public participation is limited. Relatively small percentage of projects is subject to the compulsory public participation requirement. On the other hand, the timing and duration of engaging the public is rather short. The way in which the public is defined and selected also brings bias to the true public participation. Secondly, the access to information is limited. Although progress has been made to increase public access to environmental information, there are still uncertainties regarding what to disclose and how much to disclose, and concerns of potential social unrest if too much information is disclosed. Thirdly, the public has limited impacts on the final decision-making. The power of all the parties is out of balance among project proponents, EIA institutions and the public. In addition, the voice of environmental NGOs in China is still relatively weak (Zhao, 2010).

Despite the widespread dissemination of policies regarding public input, implementation remains generally poor, as evidenced by the size and number of mass protests. 


Why is implementation poor?   There are several reasons.   One is political, or, shall we say, reflects a public choice perspective – leaders who see an advantage from not serving the public interest. 


There is no doubt that political obstacles can easily prevent useful implementation of the participation process.    Low level officials can easily circumvent regulations from above, and to the extent bad information does not flow up the chain of communications, upper level executives may not know about problems until the problems are well advanced in severity and complexity.


So one reason for poor quality of implementation can be found in corruption – local officials trying to collect economic rents for themselves, and deceiving the public in the practice.   This is a serious problem, and must be addressed at the highest levels of the Party.


On the government administration side, another issue is low levels of information made available to the public, or information made available in inconvenient form or at inconvenient times.      In China as in the US, a conflict resolution system will only work as well as the commitment to honest voice and openness 信息公开 xìnxīgōngkāi


There are also citizen reasons for not engaging with government in conflicts.  Low willingness to engage can come from four causes.  


-  a traditional reluctance in China to engage in public affairs;

-  lack of awareness of proposals, and a means of response (no

non-government data or information sources are available, petitions have no value)

-  fear of reprisals

-  costs to protest, including ineffectiveness of past efforts


Frustration with the process is cited by Ma, Webber, and Finlayson (2008), from Eastern Horizon.   Respondents to a survey on the failed sealing of a waste storage facility were asked what they thought of public hearings generally.   While about 40% of the respondents thought that public hearings were useful,

nearly 59% of respondents chose the answer that public hearings were ‘not useful, public opinions are rarely adopted’. In other words, most people thought that hearings were not useful and/or that public opinion was rarely heeded.



There may be a more traditional reluctance to engage with government in China than in the west.   That is possible.  But the intense use of forms of communication – petitions, lawsuits, complaints, trips to Beijing as part of xinfang techniques – suggests that even if there is a tradition of acceptance, that tradition does not impede Chinese from attempting to make their grievances known.   This does not appear to be a reasonable argument for lack of public participation, particularly in this new era. 


Data and Means

There are many ways in which public information can be obtained prior to land takings or construction projects are begun, and all of those are in use now in China, in different places in different times.   As with many regulations and programs in China, problems lie not in the form but in the substance of the work.   The laws exist, the desire to enforce does not.


There are already systems in place to prevent illegal or undesirable conversions of land  (Heurlin, 2007).


There remains a problem of evaluation of data.   Emissions data, or controls on pollution, are beyond the ability of most citizens to evaluate.   How to provide adequate representation for citizens in conflict?  


In politics, we sometimes argue that a government needs a loyal opposition to provide better policy, better monitoring of results, and better outcomes for the society.    This article does not argue for an opposition; but it does argue for a government ombudsman, or review process, or voice in consideration of the public interest, largely construed.   No such voice exists now. 


There are many ways in which a public voice can be provided.   In China, given recent history, it is important that any system of providing additional voice be located away from local officials, and that the system clearly provide for – perhaps, require - additional delay in construction and land transfer.   Delay is always to the benefit of voice.   Delay is always detrimental to those who want to avoid the law. 


An honest search for harmony in “built environment” disputes requires that first-line responders in conflict be empowered to provide data, including any environmental reports.   But before environmental reports are completed, front line officials should be able to provide data and help citizens and peasants understand what has been provided.   So, suggestion number 3 -


3. Empower professional staff in decision-making, and publish environmental evaluation reports and demand conformance to a time frame



To address public fears regarding public participation, including threats of reprisal from government leaders, it is necessary to locate a conflict resolution or negotiation program at a level of government sufficiently removed from the local level to allow for some public trust in the process.   As noted in an village aphorism,


“the Center is our benefactor, the province is our relative, the county is a good person, the township is an evil person and the village is our enemy”  (Michelson, 2008)

At the same time, the way to reduce corruption at the local level – village, township, county – is to empower the public to communicate with leaders above that level.    I suggest a conflict resolution or negotiation process as that method of communication, once past the petition stage.


So, recommendation number 4 –


4. Process and professionals in conflict resolution to report to provincial authorities



Another reason for lack of participation is the understanding that protest has costs, short term and long, in several forms.   Heurlin calls this the “Peasant’s Dilemma.”   There are costs in lost time, from productive activities in farming or factories, as well as real dangers in being detained, beaten, or murdered.  See Huerlin (2005), Lichbach (1994), Javeline (2003), Whyte (2010), and many others. 


It is important for the government to encourage additional use of public participation measures by the public, as a way of deflecting anger and conflict that rises to the level of collective protest.    The costs, real and perceived, of public participation to the individual peasant are high – costs in lost time, lost wages, potential reprisals.   As a result, anger and resentment fester, and instead of being defused over time, rises to the level of organized protest as a last resort, when the costs of non-protest become too high to bear.   


There are systems in place that have been designed to address conflict that cannot be ameliorated at the local level – specifically, the petition system.   But even with recent proposed changes to the petition system, it is unlikely that this system will work to  the advantage of citizens and peasants, unless there are additional procedural delays and steps required in the development process.


So, suggestion number 5 –


5. Create a defined procedure for conflict resolution, triggered without excessive delay or petition, coming from provincial authority.


It is necessary to construct a dispute resolution system that is administered at the provincial level or above, with a funding source that does not depend on city or lower revenues, with trained conflict resolution experts, or trained mediators, who have power to bring about solution.    Robert Emerson made a similar suggestion in Disputes in Public Bureaucracies (1999),   cited in Michelson (2008). 


The benefit of such a system is that it provides the voice demanded by villagers and citizens.   This, per Whyte and others, is a demand for procedural justice, not distributive justice, and can substantially enhance the position of the Party.   Other measures to enhance distributive justice – greater democracy, independent courts, even hukou reform – are far more difficult for the CCP to accept.   Corruption policies are good;  but  it is doubtful whether even the most rigorous corruption regimes can reach to the lowest levels of governance, where most mass protests arise. 


If administrative officials in urban planning or another technical department are to have authority to resolve conflict, they must report to leaders sufficiently high in the CCP ranks to overrule or counteract actions by local officials.   And, of course, the technical staff should be relatively protected from the lure of corruption.    The suggestion is that each province have an urban planning staff, perhaps from the Development and Reform Commission, whose job it is to assist local technical staff in resolving conflict.   Such an official should have the ability to call a standstill to development in the face of conflict – much as the banking regulators were able to call a halt to actions regarding Zhongdan Investment Credit Guarantee Co. Ltd.,  in Beijing in 2012.   Standstill will put a halt to pressured response from villagers, force scrutiny onto local officials, and do much to restore some element of trust in government.  (Chovanec, 2012)


An argument can be made that active use of conflict resolution skills – particularly negotiation skills – is contrary to Party polices and goals, of remaining as the leader of the people.   And government plans and expertise are far beyond anything that is reasonable for the public to obtain – technical skills in planning, real estate, evaluation, budgeting, and mitigation of damages.    Consulting – in an honest, open fashion – could be viewed as government weakness.   Leaders should lead.


The contrary is true.    Leaders who are secure in their power are unafraid to ask for assistance.   There are different sources of power and types of power.   Coercion, threats, and force are ways of exercising power.   But Antonio Gramsci, in Selections from the Prison Notebooks,  used the centaur – half man, half beast - image from Machiavelli to describe the different characteristics of power.    More traditional power, violence and threats, are the beast half;  but capitalist relations demand the more human side of domination, the thinking, consensual source of power.   That is certainly where China is now, and will be.   Use of consensual means of power does not take away from leadership or authority;  it expands it.



Additions to Required Process

In addition to training for government officials, it is necessary to provide a structured public participation program for units of government.   Such a program has several elements –

  1. Requirement for submission of the public record of public hearings and public participation meeting to relevant city and provincial bureaus before a land conversion and transfer can take place
  2. Additional procedural requirements for existing public participation in environmental reviews.
  3. Any public hearing or meeting record regarding land conversion or construction of “significant public projects” must be signed by a provincial or city representative, who was in attendance at the meetings.   This should help remove principal-agent problems among village or other local leaders.


  1. Triggering of a required conflict resolution program -  when protests submitted reach a particular level – and publicized – then a conflict resolution system must be employed. 
  2. Publishing of environmental reviews in time for public consideration
  3. provide technical assistance to the public to help in understanding of technical details of proposals


Benefits to CCP of a defined negotiation process


What are the benefits to the CCP of better conflict resolution skills in the development of projects and transfer of land?   Here is a list, not in any particular order of importance.


Retain Government Authority

Conflict resolution skills, used proactively, puts the government in charge of change.    Mass protest by definition means that the public perceives that its interests are not being served, and is a failure of change management.   Asking questions at the beginning is far easier than offering concessions in a media charged atmosphere, later.


Keep Conflict Local

It is important for the CCP to keep protests local.   Negotiation and consultation before implementation is one of the best ways to do that.   Citizens in Dalian are unconcerned about negotiations on a paraxylene plant in Ningbo;  but they are concerned when the objections rise to the level of mass protest.     As an adaptive complex system, the CCP allows local solutions to local problems.   That is still true with use of better public participation techniques, but conflict resolution skills and negotiation skills add to the “toolkit” of local solutions.   China is not at the point in development or law in which national laws can be effectively enforced.   Local solutions to local problems are a satisfactory substitute.


Keep Leaders out of Local Processes

Use of planners in planning departments, or officials in environmental departments fits with a traditional Chinese approach – adaptive, not like western approaches, which are more complexity reducing (using law and regulations),  Chinese approaches would be more complexity absorbing (harmony and guanxi)).   In any case, leaders should be kept out of the process as much as possible.  


Reduce Costs of Governance

Mass protest is far more costly to the government and CCP than to villagers or citizens.    By the time conflict reaches the stage of mass protest, the cost to organizing at the village level is small, and the cost to leaders in terms of trust and image is very high.   In this era, information is relatively easy to obtain, voice, as expressed through social media, is cheap.    A small expense in time and money at the beginning of a project will seem very inexpensive when compared with the costs of dealing with protest later. 


Remove Threat of Reprisals

Consultation and negotiation at the beginning removes threats of reprisal from local officials to citizens; which enhances trust in government and creates working relationships.    There have also been cases of threats by the public of revealing confidential  information about leaders,  as a way of forcing upper level action against local leaders.   While providing information about corrupt leaders is good, extortion is not. 


Strengthen Party Discipline Process   

Use of a defined conflict resolution process provides additional evaluation information for both discipline inspection and the organization departments.   How well can leaders serve the public interest?


Increased Party Legitimacy and Flexibility

Allow local solutions for local problems   - including response to petitions, and reduce the use of “extra-legal” actions – chengguan – that stifle protest and decrease legitimacy


Novel idea – Strength Through Openness

Real power is shown in not having to use it.  See  sun tzu-  “the supreme art of war is to subdue the enemy without fighting”   sun tzu    孙子   writing in The Art of War孙子兵法,  Sūnzǐ Bīngfǎ.

Provide Administrative Clarity

 As in Yantai – provide a defined system for protest, rather than the ad hoc system now in place.   This alone, if done in an open and honest way, should provide greater trust in government.


Rationalize Land Use Procedures

Even though several provinces, including Zhejiang, have announced plans to reform rural land use and sales, there remains the problem of how to plan for future uses below the county level.    If peasants are going to be provided with stronger land use rights, then a stronger system of adjudicating those rights must be in place.   A conflict resolution system provides a means of doing that, without having to resort to court actions which may be influenced by local officials in any case. 


Improve the Business Climate

Increased use of conflict resolution or negotiation skills, in advance of significant conflict, improves the business climate by bringing difficult issues – land conversion, pollution – to the leadership at the beginning, when solutions may be possible, rather than later when solutions may be impossible and government legitimacy is lessened. 


There may be additional costs to using better public participation skills.   Costs may be in simple delay, or significant costs in pollution equipment or additional compensation to farmers.   It seems difficult to argue against such spending, however. 


Allow Regional Solutions

At the same time as local solutions – within the township, or village – to local problems are enhanced, there may be a need to consider more regional solutions to larger problems.  The pollution impacts from a steel factory, or a coal burning power plant, are regional.   An honest public participation process allows for consideration of who should be “at the table” in discussion of regional issues, and a structured conflict resolution process is a way to do that.


Improve Evaluation of Cadres

The Organization Department zu zhi bu  already takes into account more than simple GDP growth in the evaluation of leaders for future positions.  The absence of conflict is another measure.   This can be enhanced by existence of a defined public participation program that reduces conflict.   Use of the techniques is not a negative for leaders;  it should be considered a positive development, demonstrating consideration of public needs in addition to business needs. 


Reduce Corruption -  An honest public participation program acts to reduce corruption, since it raises issues of conflict before a project is implemented, and allows the public to ask the question that all too often goes unanswered in China – “why?”


Removes Pressure from Leaders for Special Privilege

The honest leader can find himself in a difficult position when pressured by powerful business owners or other government officials to approve a project to which the leader has objections.   The ability to use a structured public participation program, required by law or local practice, allows the leader to “put more moving parts” into the machine of project approval.  Significant opposition by the public cannot be ignored.


Address Democratic Issues

At its most fundamental, democracy is a system for providing voice to the public.  Democracy with Chinese characteristics will certainly not look like American democracy.   But additional voice for the public in China, particularly on those projects in which they are most interested and have the most stake is a good step in the direction of Singapore, which certainly is not democratic but allows voice.


Serve the People

An honest public participation program serves the needs of the people, both locally and regionally.   The program will require additional data and analysis, which may not be available to the public in government channels;  but that is a small cost to pay for the benefits of providing more harmony.



There are many ways to provide additional voice to the Chinese people.   A China that wishes to lead, not only in economics but in public approbation, should do better on government effectiveness.   A dispute resolution system is necessary, feasible, and Chinese.   It is the manifestation of harmony with Chinese characteristics. 












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