How China's Leaders Steer a Massive Nation

The Chinese version has its advantages. For instance, it makes it easier to assess the consequences of innovations. A successful real-life test also helps convince opponents to support a reform. Flexibility is assured through the development of competing models. Sinologist Sebastian Heilmann has called China a "learning authoritarian system."

The establishment of special economic zones in the 1980s was already part of this model. There were pilot projects in healthcare, pension reform and the system of registration. Everything was tested, from road tolls to smoking bans to travel requirements for Taiwan. Small Signs of Goodwill The government even experiments at the local level with those elements of good governance it would normally refuse to accept: transparency and giving citizens a say. The towns of Wenling and Baimiao became famous for publishing their budgets and listing their expenditures in detail. This prompted the state-controlled newspaper China Daily to print an article under the headline: "Transparent Budget, Happy People." It concluded that publishing budgets leads to fewer people complaining about the squandering of taxpayer money and puts an end to the private abuse of public funds.

These are small signals of good will that the authoritarian regime is sending to its people. One milestone was an environmental law which requires the solicitation of public input. The people are even asked to comment, via email, on the five-year plan.

China's leaders sense that they can no longer simply govern as they see fit, and they are feeling new pressures. China now sees up to 180,000 so-called mass incidents a year. The people are becoming adept at staging sit-ins and blocking streets to champion their interests. What was once a matter for the very few now triggers nationwide solidarity activities. The Internet has become established as a marketplace for opinions and innovations. For instance, the rumors about a coup in Beijing only gained as much traction as they did because China's leaders generally act behind a cloak of secrecy, so that without freedom of the press the people can do nothing but speculate. What is happening on the web is direct participation, as short-lived as it is intense, a forced instead of tolerated participation in politics.

Officials in Lanzhou have also felt the effects of local residents' fury. When they tried to stage a run through the city on New Year's Day 2012, artist Ma Qizhi protested online. "Refuse to be a filter made of human flesh!" he wrote on Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging website. He meant that the people of Lanzhou shouldn't offer themselves up to be sucking the city's polluted air into their lungs.

The protest wave surged through the Internet for only a few days, but more than 10,000 discussed their opinions of Lanzhou's plans on Sina Weibo. "The decision-makers must have swallowed some kind of pill if they think that children should run under such conditions," noted one person. Another wrote: "In China, the leaders are more interested in saving face than in their underwear, which is why they will not take back their instructions."

Even the state-owned news agency reported favorably on the resistance, and the local sports agency announced that it would take the suggestions of the environmental agency into account in the future.

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