Student Reflections (China 2017) – Jonathan Frankle (MIT)

2018-03-27 - 13 minutes read

Values inform policy. It’s a pattern of cause and effect so self-evident that it should hardly merit mentioning.

By: Jonathan Frankle

During my time in China, however, this seemingly obvious relationship between values and policy grew from an implicitly-acknowledged afterthought into a crucial mechanism for understanding the Chinese government. Through my interactions with students and faculty at Shanghai Jiao Tong University (SJTU), I learned to interpret intricacies of the oftentimes unfamiliar Chinese policymaking process by looking to the underlying (equally unfamiliar) value-system.

To my untrained American eyes, the week’s proceedings uncovered several values that seemed fundamental to Chinese political organization and policymaking: a tradition of strong central governance dating back millennia; a preference for societal order, collectivism, and “harmony;” a measured desire to incorporate limited public opinion into central decisionmaking; and a strong awareness of public reputation and “face.”

* * *

“China is not a federal state,” Prof. Xiao began as he opened his first lecture of the course. Instead, a strong central government is single-handedly responsible for ruling the nation of 1.4 billion people. In the same breath, he credited this structure to a tradition of central control of China stretching back thousands of years. In the comparatively young United States, we have many political values that derive from this kind of societally-shared historical narrative: individualism and a libertarian distrust of government (to name two). As a product of Prof. Xiao’s lecture on the structure of the Chinese state, I understood the corresponding Chinese values to be centralism – the broad acceptance of a strong, national political authority – and “harmony” – that Chinese society should flow in an orderly and oftentimes collective fashion.

Beyond the readily apparent centralism inherent in governing one fifth of the world’s population directly from Beijing, the organization of the Chinese government also offers a case study in harmony. The day-to-day tasks of the government are executed by a bureaucracy: the State Council and specialist ministries for areas like justice and public security. The State Council answers to the National People’s Congress, a legislative body that writes all laws and sits at the top of the governmental hierarchy. Although the Chinese government is not federal, Prof. Xiao noted that the country is far too large to rule exclusively at the national level. Instead, each province has its own subordinate People’s Congress and Council with similar responsibilities. This hierarchical structure repeats itself down to the county and eventually township levels. Power flows horizontally at each level and vertically between levels in a regular, orderly fashion.

At lunch after his lecture, Prof. Xiao explained that governmental officials slowly work their way up this ladder as they ascend to become national leaders. President Xi, for example, began his career as a local official in the early 1980s. Prof. Xiao mentioned a Chinese expression that frowns upon people who “take the helicopter to the top” as opposed to gradually climbing their way up the governmental ranks as they are prepared to do so. Although the remark immediately resonated with my sentiments on the current American government, the Chinese context merely rendered it another manifestation of harmony.

* * *

Later in the lecture, Prof. Xiao walked through the procedure by which bills become laws in China. This process takes place entirely under the auspices of the government, with a few limited (yet, according to Prof. Xiao, vital) opportunities to consider public opinion.

His overview reminded me of the United States regulatory rulemaking system writ large. Although American bills endure a legislative process open to widespread public debate within and beyond the Capitol, the American regulatory system aligns more closely with the Chinese lawmaking model. In the United States, a regulatory agency of professional specialists proposes a draft rule reflecting the policy goals of the agency’s leadership. It then solicits comments from the public, holds hearings, modifies the formulation in response to feedback, and eventually settles on a final rule that carries legal authority.

In China, all laws – not just regulatory rules – are created in a similar fashion. A ministry specializing in a particular policy area proposes a draft bill reflecting the preferences of the government. Most of the substantive policy discussions take place behind closed doors before the bill is ever proposed; Prof. Xiao explained that draft bills almost always become laws. Just as in the United States regulatory setting, the views of the particular officials responsible for a particular area of Chinese policy have enormous influence on the eventual bill.

At first glance, the key difference between the American rulemaking and Chinese lawmaking is the far larger role of public opinion in the United States. At lunch, Prof. Xiao clarified that, although the Chinese process seems to limit participation by individual citizens and companies, public opinion does play an important role. Companies are invited to make comments on proposals, although the comments are not made public as in the United States. Vocal citizens often express their views prominently on social media, and the government monitors these public reactions closely. Although these posts are sometimes filtered or the users’ accounts shut down, Prof. Xiao explained that even these measures serve as implicit acknowledgement that the government is aware of the authors’ views. After this comment period of sorts, the National People’s Congress enacts the draft bill, turning it into a law..

In hindsight, I recognize that the parallel I saw between Chinese lawmaking and United States regulatory rulemaking reflects a shared value: that public opinion should help to shape government decisions. In China, this value is tempered by central control, while in the United States it is exaggerated by individualism.

Interestingly, if the government is uncertain about a policy decision, it will sometimes pilot the concept in a small geographic area. If the policy doesn’t lead to any “disturbances,” it will usually become national law. For example, the government experimented with requiring citizens to use their real names on the Internet in Beijing (and later in several other cities) before rolling out the policy nationwide. Later in the trip, Danny Weitzner noted the irony that American federalism, which features a limited central government, was designed to achieve a similar pattern of local experimentation but has had mixed success in doing so. In contrast, the Chinese government is able to execute these policy experiments by virtue of its strong central control.

* * *

As a closing activity, groups of students were charged with brainstorming topics through which to continue the policy dialogue between SJTU and MIT. My group quickly veered away from this assignment, wandering into discussion of government access to data controlled by Internet companies. Centralism and harmony rapidly surfaced as before, this time accompanied by the importance of dignity and reputation – of “face.”

In China, it is normal for the government to have full access to the user data held by the Chinese equivalents of Facebook, Twitter, and Uber. Coming from an American perspective, where such large-scale data-access about citizens would be nearly unthinkable, I asked the Chinese students for their perspective. The response, delivered without hesitation or discomfort, was that Chinese citizens are “transparent” before the government. China, they explained, has thousands of years of experience with a strong central government, and this level of central involvement has been a part of Chinese culture since antiquity.

In response, I was challenged to articulate and explain the American values that substantiate distrust of authority and desire for a limited government.  Why do we distrust our government? Individualism and the governnarrative of the American Revolution certainly have some influence. But I also attempted to convey that distrust of government reflects, to some degree, distrust of ourselves. Policies that seemed acceptable in one era appear abhorrent in another as values evolve. We have a long history of challenging our often slow-to-move government to ensure that policy stays in line with values. The Chinese students saw their cultural values as static, obviating the need to challenge the government on those grounds.

For a few minutes, our discussion moved into how the students experienced Internet filtering. Having circumvented censorship all week with my VPN, I inquired about whether such tools were widely available in China. Indeed, VPNs that provide an unfiltered window into the Internet beyond China’s borders are permitted for research purposes at universities and law firms. I then asked how the government would react if a prominent celebrity publicly described on social media the ease of circumventing this filtering. According to the students, the government would be forced to crack down on VPNs (a measure the government took shortly after we left the country), having lost face in the public eye.

* * *

These vignettes collectively convey the beginnings of my answer to a question I grappled with throughout the trip: how does the Chinese policymaking process arrive at particular outcomes? Just as in the American context, although the methods for creating policy are complicated, the shortest and simplest possible answer is “values.” When it comes to determining which values matter, how they interact with each other, and by what means they influence policy…I’ll need to spend more than a week in China. But as a high-level tool for making sense of the Chinese policymaking process, the lessons described in the preceding paragraphs serve as an invaluable start.

For other Student Reflections or to see the Course Syllabus and Photos from the trip – see the Foundations of Internet Policy: a comparative perspective.