“The Guangdong model”

The Economist has the latest article to describe the Guangdong Model, which seems to be only slightly different in practice than typical Chinese governance. Perhaps its a sign of the times that such small changes attract so much attention:

Perhaps the debate generates more heat in public than it does in the Communist Party itself. A researcher at Guangdong’s party school says Guangdong and Chongqing are not in opposition. Both regions, he says, are learning from each other. For example, Chongqing is building the development zones to attract investors that Guangdong pioneered in the 1980s. Guangdong, he says, could learn from Chongqing’s efforts to absorb migrants from the countryside into city life. Guangdong academics have studied Chongqing’s experiments in creating markets for rural land, where powerful restrictions apply even in “liberal” Guangdong.

In the political realm, however, Mr Wang’s supporters point to changes which, they say, are distinctive. One concerns the role of trade unions, a rather sensitive area for a party that is still unnerved by the role that Solidarity played in Poland in the 1980s to bring down Communist power.

Mr Wang’s rethink was triggered by a spate of 200-odd strikes last year in the Pearl River delta that began in May with workers downing tools at a Honda car-parts factory in Foshan, near Guangzhou. Mr Wang, says an academic, chose not to see the strikes as a threat to political stability. Indeed he expressed sympathy with the workers’ demands (which is perhaps easier to do at companies owned by foreigners). Elsewhere in China ringleaders are commonly rounded up once strikes have been settled, but those in Guangdong were not. All the incidents, the academic says, had “happy endings”, with pay increases of 30-40%.

Buying off strikers is common enough in China. But Mr Wang went further, encouraging state-affiliated trade unions (there are no independent ones) to be more active in representing workers’ interests. Trade unions in China are normally little more than creatures of management, run by party cadres. Prodded by Mr Wang, Guangdong’s unions began encouraging collective bargaining, a practice officially authorised but widely disliked by local officials who fear worker activism and upward wage pressures. Mr Wang’s views did not strike an instant chord with his subordinates. Most participants at one meeting on how to handle the strikes “didn’t get it” when he called for a hands-off approach, says someone with knowledge of the proceedings.

Supporters of the Guangdong model also point to the greater leeway Mr Wang has given NGOs, which are heavily circumscribed in China. Their registration in Guangdong, and especially in Shenzhen, a trailblazing economic zone bordering Hong Kong, involves fewer hoops. Mr Wang has been credited with promoting more open access to information about government spending. In 2009 Guangzhou became the first Chinese city to publish all its budgets.

Protests, sometimes violent, are common. In Dadun village, on the edge of one of Guangzhou’s satellite towns, a notice outside the government headquarters promises rewards of up to 10,000 yuan ($1,600) for turning in “criminals” involved in large riots in June triggered by security guards roughing up a street hawker. The rioters were migrants who work in countless small jeans factories, one even in a temple courtyard, trimming threads and stamping on studs.

Nor does the Guangdong model extend to free and fair elections. In September Dadun held a ballot for seats in the local legislature. But only its fewer than 7,000 Cantonese inhabitants were allowed to vote, and not the 60,000-odd sweatshop labourers from other provinces. In a village near Foshan, residents elected an independent candidate, ie one who did not have party backing. Plainclothes goons now keep watch on his home. A villager confides her support for the new legislator only in a hushed tone.

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