European Council on Foreign Relations

On the ground in Guangzhou

I have just returned from a research trip to China for our upcoming What Does The New China Think? project. Within a few weeks, our team travelled from Shanghai to Beijing to Guangzhou and back to Beijing, with the goal of engaging with contemporary Chinese academics and intellectuals across the country to, indeed, find out what China thinks.

Trips like these are hardly ever a one-way street; our journey also helped me to reassess what I think about China.  It is simple enough to consider China a monolithic authoritarian regime, with Beijing as its centralised power source. I hinted at the true variety within China’s political landscape in my last blog post, foreshadowing the ramifications of the by now internationally notorious Bo Xilai case. And while we as early as last November devoted a whole edition of our China Analysis publication to the possibility of competing development models within China (Chongqing vs. Guangdong), I didn’t truly appreciate the variety in China until I recently set foot in the capital of Guangdong province, Guangzhou.

The difference starts once you step outside the air-conditioned airport terminal: Guangzhou’s subtropical humidity affords the city a flourishing flora and is miles away (1,356 to be precise) from Beijing’s dusty, sandstorm-ridden concrete jungle – and just like the meetings in Beijing tend to be dry, non-committal, and taciturn, the people we met in their air-conditioned offices in Guangzhou shocked me with their relative openness, confidence and local loyalties. “All the big changes in China are tested in Guangdong first,” a local activist told us with a self-assured smile, shortly after quoting the high number of peaceful public demonstrations that actually yield results, increases in social welfare programmes and the growing involvement of NGOs in the province’s daily life. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Wukan, the 12,000 soul village that staged an open protest against the Communist Party after officials sold land to real estate developers without properly compensating the villagers, is in Guangdong. While attending a conference in Beijing, a scholar confirmed that “Guangdong is at the forefront of all the social changes in China,” but this observation was followed by a concerned wrinkle of the forehead.

If there ever was a competition between Chongqing and Guangdong for the future of China, Bo Xilai and the irrevocably connected Chongqing development model are clearly out of the race. Guangdong, at the same time, doesn’t seem keen to enter the race in the first place: the people we spoke to in Guangzhou appeared hesitant to ascribe any successes in the province to one person, namely the reformist Party Secretary Wang Yang, but rather emphasised the role of the “politically aware” population. And they appeared adamant about the fact that there is no Guangdong model to speak of (“After all, look what happened to the last publicly debated development model,” a Chinese friend who lives in Guangzhou told me). Whether this coquetry is a true indication of the attitudes in Guangdong or not, the area nonetheless appears to be a laboratory for the exploration of the involvement of civil society. The widening income gap, the abandonment of rural areas causing overpopulation of cities and the ailing health-care sector are all problems that China and the Party are facing across the board – the People’s Republic in Guangdong appears to explore a wholly different, “people” approach to solve these problems.

Guangdong as a whole is the first clear indication of a development model that – perhaps due to the distance to Beijing and the proximity to Hong Kong – seems to be “officially” under less tight control from the central authority. In Shenzhen, Guangdong’s special economic zone, the Party just recently allowed certain NGOs to register directly with the Civil Affairs Bureau without the sponsorship of a supervisory government agency, thereby greatly increasing the independence of these organisations, and making Chinese NGOs at least less-governmental. It is difficult to foresee what consequences these local experiments in China will carry. But the mere fact that these experiments appear to be centrally endorsed tell a story of a China that – in however small increments – might learn to appreciate its 1.3 billion strong population as an, not just a danger to stability.

 

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