Participatory Governance: An Interview with Song Qinghua

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Introduction: The following is an interview with Song Qinghua, director of the Beijing-based Shining Stone, one of China’s leading NGOs in the field of participatory community governance. The government’s recent emphasis on “social innovation” has raised the demand for Shining Stone’s services as local governments around China seek innovative ways to manage their communities. Song provides some interesting insights into collaborating with the government, and the challenges of carrying out community participatory governance in a Chinese context.

On the eve of the 2011 Spring Festival, Song Qinghua, the director of Shining Stone (社区参与行动), and her team were particularly busy. Beijing’s Dongcheng District Civil Affairs Bureau called Song and invited her to host a forum on the innovative “double support” (双拥) program which supports military officers and their families. While the “double support” program standardizes the relationship between the military and the local community and formalizes the community’s appreciation, the Dongcheng Civil Affairs Bureau was also looking for new ideas. They hoped that through innovative measures, military officers, the people’s government, and the people, would be able to fully exploit the needs and effectiveness of the “double support” program ((Editor’s Note: The concept of social innovation (shehui chuangxin) is part of the government’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), and calls for innovative measures to better manage social problems and resolve social tensions and conflicts. Innovation is now a major theme in the work of many NGOs that seek to use the official mantra of innovation to legitimize their work.)).

It has been more than eight years since Shining Stone was established in 2002 to promote participatory community governance. Now, a growing number of local governments are accepting similar concepts and approaches. At the community level, they are using participatory methods in training sessions and for project implementation, leading to the creation of several dynamic and independent organizations of community residents. At project locations, neighborhoods, residents’ associations and other multi-stakeholder groups, people are collaborating and participating to address problems in the community. In Dongcheng, a mechanism for public participation is included in the local Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).

Song Qinghua has promoted participatory governance beyond the neighborhood, introducing the concept to the central and local Party schools, and promoting new thinking and operational guidance on public participation and social management. This is all very timely and relevant for local governments, as they try to address growing “social contradictions” and conflict. In December 2010, the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (中央编译局) and other organizations awarded Shining Stone with the first-ever China Social Innovation Award ((Editor’s Note: The Central Compilation and Translation Bureau is a well-known think-tank under the Central Committee of the Communist Party.)).

In recent years, the development trajectory of community participatory action has evolved from the tokenistic promotion of participatory training methods to real, community-based initiatives, including project management and troubleshooting. More recently, conscious efforts have been made to document experiences and case studies. In addition, efforts are underway to try similar initiatives in communities outside of Beijing, and to develop a network for public participation. In cooperation with local governments, work has expanded from community building to include safety, fire prevention, culture, family planning and various other departments at the neighborhood level. In 2010, Shining Stone experimented with third-party mediation in local disputes in Beijing’s Dongsi and Chaoyangmen neighborhoods. In terms of funding, by 2010, Shining Stone has gone from relying completely on international funding to receiving 40% of funding from domestic foundations and government procurement of services. This means that community participation is becoming increasingly stable and localized.

Prior to Spring Festival, China Development Brief arranged for Song Qinghua to discuss the past, present and future development of community participatory action. The community has always been the focus of participatory community action. Song Qinghua stated, “There’s a difference between NGOs doing work in communities, and NGOs doing community work. To do work in a community is to simply do what you want to do—something that is not sustainable. But, if one were to do community work, one would have to listen to the needs of people in the community, and help them to develop their own problem-solving skills. Ideally, organizations coming in from the outside should be able to withdraw at an appropriate time.”

Participatory Governance: We Chinese can do it!

Fu Tao: Shining Stone from its establishment until today has been committed to promoting community participatory governance. In the past few years have there been any changes in your strategies? Have there been any breakthroughs?

Song Qinghua: When we were in the beginning stages of participatory governance, our understanding of it was very simplistic. In the first three years, we were limited to promoting the participatory approach. We mistakenly thought that it was enough to just have a “method.”
In recent years, a lot of new problems have emerged within the community: the transformation of old neighborhoods, an aging population, youth education and employment, the unemployed looking to become re-employed, etc. The demand for service is quite large. Currently, the biggest problem is the superficial nature of community service, which is typically government-led and one-size-fits-all, unable to tailor services according to demands. Therefore, over the past three years we have launched a community service management project that provides services based on demands, implementing a consultative and democratic system. This new approach is more than just an abstract concept; it is reflected in project design, implementation, management and monitoring. The main approach is to use the project as a carrier—encouraging stakeholders to ask questions and seek resolutions, weighing needs to reach a common understanding, and finally drawing up an action plan and organizing project teams to implement the project. This new participatory approach has led to many innovations in the delivery of community service innovation, altering the traditional service model.

Apart from this, the project also mediates conflict. In the past two years, many new problems and conflicts have emerged within the community over issues such as parking spaces for cars, pets, and conflicts between real estate developers and property owners. In the past, the neighborhood committee (juweihui) resolved these problems. If the neighborhood committee was unable to resolve the problem, then it would be referred to the street committee, which would make a judgment or take punitive action through administrative means ((Editor’s Note: the street committee, also known as the subdistrict office, represents the lowest level of administration in urban areas. Below the street committee is the neighborhood committee which is made up of volunteers and part-time employees of the state.)). These days, however, the interests of individuals reign supreme. The government intervenes because it is afraid that conflicts will lead to instability in the community, but residents are not so willing to compromise, making it difficult for the government to act. The government is increasingly aware that it cannot easily take on a middleman role. In this context, community participatory action plays an important role because it can use third party intervention to maintain a neutral stance and mediate conflict. The most important aspect of third party intervention is not to make a judgment and take sides, but rather to provide a platform for both parties to consult and discuss with one another.

FT: In the years of promoting the concept of participatory governance and its methods of use, what influence has community participatory action had on the government and communities?

SQH: The biggest change has been in the government’s role in dealing with these issues. There are some tasks that specialized social organizations are more suited to undertake than the government. The government is now beginning to accept the idea that these organizations can provide effective solutions. Dongcheng district now has an “open space” to promote public participation. In the past, we found that some citizens were dissatisfied, because they felt they could not have a real conversation; even if the government were to listen to them, it would not be able to provide helpful feedback. Now that we have more participatory approaches, there is a platform for government officials to become more aware of problems within the community and people’s opinions. We encourage people to share their ideas to create a common vision and establish action plans to resolve conflicts.

The story of the renovation of Housing Complex 68 is a good example. Basically, people thought that the renovation of the housing complex was the responsibility of government. But the government did not think that it had to get involved. This resulted in an intractable situation. Finally, we organized a discussion among the residents of the housing complex. What we found out was that if we mobilize people to take part in participatory governance, they can do anything. Although we may have learned about participatory governance from abroad, it is very applicable to Chinese people.

At the same time, it should be emphasized that the government is not only looking on from the side when it comes to community governance. Rather, the government is a partner, and the main actor. The government provides guidance and resources for problem solving, and should even help organize when necessary. This is participatory governance with Chinese characteristics.

Of course, currently, our influence lies mostly with neighborhood and district governments. The implementation of our project and its influence is still very limited. Although we have signed cooperation agreements with local governments for this project, established collaborative groups, and added elements of public participation, it will be a long process until the government completely changes its traditional way of doing things. Currently, there are a few places, such as the Qingyuan neighborhood in Beijing’s Daxing district, that have set up designated project officers to administer our project in communities and neighborhoods.

If a NGO and the government have difficulties in cooperating, a reason for this might be because the organization does not understand the government’s policies and work principles. NGOs cannot only stand on their own ground; they also have to understand the government’s needs and find synergies. For example, I like to talk about social innovation with government officials, and convince them that it is beneficial by bringing up the Fourth Plenary Session of the 16th CPC Central Committee, when a new pattern of social construction was proposed: the Party leads, the government is in charge, society collaborates, and the public participates. China already has a lot of experience with the Party leading and the government taking charge; what is innovative are the latter two. The Fourth Plenary Session of the 16th CPC Central Committee essentially gave the blessing to local governments to experiment with participatory governance. In the future, government will increasingly purchase services from registered civil organizations.

FT: Taking into account China’s realities and traditions, how is a foreign concept like community participatory action localized?

SQH: Many experts and scholars say that NGOs who use international approaches to handle domestic affairs will get nowhere because each country’s system is not the same. Personally, I believe that every country, in the process of development, encounters similar social problems. Problem-solving methods should also be the same. According to our experience, these development concepts and methods are not only viable in China, but can also be further developed. Of course, because of differences in cultural background and language, we do need to make some changes, both in terms of language and process. However, in practical application, in terms of the changes that are being brought about by participatory governance, China is just like other countries.

There is also the issue of adapting the format of participatory governance for the Chinese people. For example, “participatory” approaches typically place great emphasis on the non-intervention of open forum hosts. Hosts are typically only coordinators whose task is to watch the time and ensure participants stay on subject. In China, however, hosts typically steer the conversation. Chinese people often expect hosts to intervene and give proper guidance to the discussion, instead of adhering to a neutral standpoint. Many Chinese people would actually not be used to, or respect, a host who did not guide the conversation.

Yesterday, I went to a community district to participate in a discussion. During the discussion, the local people said that our organization was too small to resolve their problems; they wanted the government, which they felt was the most powerful, to take action. I explained to them: In fact, you yourselves are the most powerful. Do you not agree? If you always believe that the government will resolve your problems and you yourselves will not take action, this problem will never be resolved. Sometimes, people need to be provided with guidance and examples so that they can better analyze and understand. People need to be convinced to practice and experiment. When people have the experience of successfully resolving problems themselves through participatory governance—well, that is the most convincing argument that we can make. And that is the goal of our work.

In Brief

The following is an interview with Song Qinghua, director of the Beijing-based Shining Stone, one of China’s leading NGOs in the field of participatory community governance.
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