An innate tension within the Chinese party-state is that between top-down centralism and obsessive localism. From its inception in pre-revolutionary Russia, Communist Party organisation has been a cell-like structure that, while imposing directives from above, is often autonomous in its actions.
In China, Party leaders railed against the dangers of excessive ‘closed door-ism’ 關門主義 for nearly a century and, early on, Mao himself had warned of the dangers of ‘sectionalism ‘ 本位主義, placing one’s loyalty to one’s intimates, comrades and friends above the greater good.
Regardless, the party-state structure imposed on China from 1949 according to a Soviet model adjusted to local conditions, has been the norm. Despite attempts to adapt an often stifling managerial regime over the past decades, the Xi Jinping era has witnessed the reinvigoration of what, in the language of the internet, is called ‘the walled garden’, that is the control of the individual’s social participation and access to services by those who maintain the walls. Old walls have been refurbished and new walls have been constructed.
During the Zero-Covid era of 2021-2022, we noted the effect of China’s self-inflicted isolation and amped up internal ‘feudalism’ in A Country Besieged by Itself. In ‘Xi Jinping’s Silos — the corrosive individualism of collectives,’ Appendix LIX of our series Xi Jinping’s Empire of Tedium, we offer a recent essay on the subject published by Pekingnology. It discusses entrenched problems and attitudes that continue to operate under a new guise. Division, bureaucratic competition, jealously guarded access to privilege, power and material goods, have all long served the Communist Party’s core aims of command and control.
Pekingology is a substack newsletter edited by Zichen Wang, a former Xinhua journalist who works for the Center for China and Globalization (CCG), a Beijing think tank. Wang also edits The East is Read and CCG Update.
Officially tolerated quasi-independent publications like Pekingnology are part of the ‘grey information economy’ that flourishes within what, since the 1980s, we have called China’s ‘velvet prison’. For more on this topic, see Less Velvet, More Prison and Elephants & Anacondas.
Participants in the grey information economy, be they academics, policy wonks, journalists or freelance commentators partake of a hallowed tradition in which canny authors ‘write between the lines’. Theirs is a well-honed art that enables writers of all kinds to communicate uncomfortable truths within the boundaries of permitted speech. The adept can utilise their authorial dexterity to identify issues of pressing concern, skirt around the systemic origin of problems without challenging the system itself and even offer palliative advice and partial cures to egregious problems. An ancient art honed to perfection under the party-state, it is often referred to as ‘hitting line-balls’ 打擦邊球. Practitioners are, to use a short-hand, expert at ‘pointing at the mulberry while vilifying the locust’ 指桑罵槐. Other well-worn clichés also reflect this well-practiced technique of seeking the solace of self-expression within a repressive environment. They include:
拐彎抹角 、含沙射影 、借題發揮 、
隱晦曲折 、旁敲側擊 、指雞罵狗。
Lü Dewen’s essay on Xi Jinping’s silos is an example of such writing. The typographical style of the translation, including passages in bold font, has been retained. The highlighted passages offer a further layer of ‘wink-wink-nod-nod’ critical commentary on the status quo by Zichen Wang, editor of Pekingnology.
Lü Dewen’s commentary is in the style of what is known as 小罵大幫忙 ‘a minor criticism that ultimately bolsters the status quo’. Both Professor Lü and Zichen Wang know that the Party is not daunted by silos, rather it is fearful of those who venture to cross boundaries and dare to create communities of shared interest.
The Hungarian writer Miklós Haraszti summed up this state of affairs decades ago:
Communication between the lines already dominates our directed culture. This technique is not the speciality of the artist only. Bureaucrats, too, speak between the lines: they, too, apply self-censorship. Even the most loyal subject must wear bifocals to read between the lines: this is in fact the only way to decipher the real structure of our culture… .
The reader must not think that we detest the perversity of this hidden public life and that we participate in it because we are forced to. On the contrary, the technique of writing between the lines is, for us, identical with artistic technique. It is a part of our skill and a test of our professionalism. Even the prestige accorded to us by officialdom is partly predicated on our talent for talking between the lines… .
…Debates between the lines are an acceptable launching ground for trial balloons, a laboratory of consensus, a chamber for the expression of manageable new interests, an archive of weather reports. The opinions expressed there are not alien to the state but are perhaps simply premature. (Quoted in Less Velvet, More Prison.)
— Geremie R. Barmé
Editor, China Heritage
8 January 2023
Xi Jinping’s Silos
Below is a translation of 呂德文：孤島效應是一大公害，是社會衰敗的徵兆 Lü Dewen: The silo effect is a major public harm and a sign of societal degeneration, posted on January 3 in the 新鄉土 New Rural WeChat blog of the China Rural Governance Studies Center of Wuhan University 武漢大學中國鄉村治理研究中心.
Suffocating Silos and Social Stagnation
Today, Chinese society has fallen into a state of fragmentation. Everyone is self-protective and wary, with each group and unit focused on creating a safe and comfortable environment for themselves, completely disregarding the troubles they are causing for others. This “silo effect” has become a significant public harm, increasing the cost of social operations and weakening the public sphere, signaling a degeneration in society.
Starting January 1, 2024, Peking University and Tsinghua University will share identity verification information to facilitate smooth inter-campus movement for their staff and students.
At first glance, this might seem like a story about “openness,” but on closer examination, it reveals an expanded version of “closure.” Clearly, the interconnectivity of Tsinghua and Peking University staff and students is an act of self-fragmentation from the city and society at large. This policy, while convenient for the two universities, burdens the rest of society. It declares to the society that Tsinghua belongs to Peking University people and vice versa, but neither belongs to the society as a whole.
China’s top two elite universities, proud of their inclusive culture, have paradoxically become insular, leading the way in establishing “enclosures” and creating societal silos, which is disheartening. Perhaps, the definition of an elite university needs rethinking. Following the business logic, the more a university emphasizes “exclusivity,” “privacy,” VIP status, and superiority, the more elite it appears. The elite status of universities is not measured by their contributions to society, but rather by their mystique and the privileged status of their faculty and students.
Following the example of Tsinghua and Peking University, a considerable number of universities across the country are becoming silos. The justifications for this fragmentation are laughable, claiming that open campuses disrupt order and pose risks of student injuries. These reasons are an insult to universities and intellectuals and a disgrace to the dignity of university students.
Professors who consider themselves “owners” of the university and advocate for closed campuses are contemptible. Students who view themselves as children and think closed campuses are protective are disappointing. University leaders, who disregard the value of public service and reduce their role to mere security concerns, are short-sighted.
There was a time when cities strived to improve micro-circulation for better connectivity. Now, such plans have stalled, and even the discussion of implementing them has ceased. The higher the state ranking of an institution, the more difficult it is to negotiate passage through campuses, hospitals, or institutional compounds. During the COVID-19 pandemic, cities primarily requisitioned universities, party schools, and other units within their jurisdiction, as coordination with province-run and central ministry-run universities was daunting.
It’s not surprising that many universities have become isolated kingdoms, indifferent to the needs of the cities they are in and the voices of the citizens.
Not only universities but also other places have set up barriers to movement. Everywhere you go, there are barriers, walls, QR code scanning, registrations, appointments, facial recognition, and checks.
The issue of “security” has moved from the hidden corners of society into broad daylight. Previously, security was the responsibility of specialized agencies and professionals. Now, everyone is the primary person responsible for security. Even the smallest units must appoint security officers, covering property safety, fire safety, and personnel safety. To prevent any possible incident, extreme caution is required.
As a result, security procedures and equipment have become commonplace in every setting. Local governments have invested an enormous amount of human and financial resources in everyday security, yet the more they invest, the less capable people seem to be of handling risks. When everyone feels endangered, everyone becomes defensive.
Currently, almost every residential area is a silo. The government has taken emergency measures as a norm, and 网格管理 “grid management” has almost become an unquestionable innovative approach. No one seems to have considered the consequences of dividing areas into “grids” and assigning responsibilities to “grid managers”. In fact, this creates territorial divisions and fosters an attitude of indifference towards others’ affairs.
No one seems to have thought about how, after breaking free from feudal constraints and striving for interconnectedness, a unified market through reforms, and a Community of Common Destiny, we are now creating obstacles and differences between people on a micro level.
In fact, freedom is not just an abstract slogan. Nowadays, the difference in status between people can be measured by their ability to cross these “boundaries.” University staff and students form a special interest group, exclusively enjoying public cultural spaces, leaving ordinary citizens who yearn for an academic atmosphere frustrated. If they cannot resist, they have to rely on connections with university staff for appointments, making relationships a symbol of status.
It’s ironic that on one hand, public spaces in cities are becoming more open, with parks, libraries, museums, and even community centers setting up stations for outdoor workers. Some shops even offer cheap or free services to cleaners. On the other hand, those with vested interests are monopolizing territories, erecting fences, and setting thresholds, taking advantage of the city while guarding their small plots.
We are deliberately creating 土围子 “enclosures.”
There was a time when “enclosures” symbolized feudalism. As a Hakka, living in clustered family settlements, our ancestral homes were fortified for defense, with gun holes for protection. As a child, I had a strong sense of territory, and visiting classmates from different families required caution, as passing through others’ territories attracted scrutiny.
People are aware of the warmth within these “enclosures” but choose to ignore the cold brutality between them. Many imagine the social integration role of “village elders” but overlook that they often represent specific territorial interests and are leaders in territorial conflicts, contributing to social division.
The collective economy of the Pearl River Delta, once envied due to rapid industrialization and urbanization, increased land values dramatically. Some village groups saw their collective income skyrocket, leading to enormous dividends and overnight wealth from demolitions. Members within these “enclosures” benefited, but those outside were envious. This collective economy raises doubts about whether it is socialist or feudal in nature.
Whether it’s the “grid system” in urban communities or the “collectivization” in rural areas, both appear modern, even socialist. Initially, these systems aimed to promote social progress and openness. However, they inadvertently created the “silo effect.” People live in fortresses with clear boundaries, calculating personal gains and losses.
The “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) effect continues to spread. Cities need rubbish collection sites – but not near anyone’s neighborhood. Trash bins are necessary – but not under anyone’s building. Everyone fights for their rights but ignores public good.
The silo effect has become institutionalized. Everywhere there are “enclosures,” boundaries, and each government department is staking out its territory.
At the grassroots level, local authorities have been “colonized” by higher levels, losing their autonomy and ability to make decisions. Each department wants a “foot soldier” at the grassroots level, commanding or bypassing local authorities as needed.
Wealthy departments spend money expanding their influence through the establishment of grassroots organizations. In less favorable circumstances, they hire coordinators to work for their interests. Meanwhile, powerful departments leverage tools such as supervision and performance assessments, mandating that grassroots entities serve their departmental agendas. Grassroots levels are inundated with staff from various sectors, who, despite being based locally, primarily execute tasks delegated by higher authorities, adhering directly to their commands. Within various platforms and systems, these workers are governed by protocols, functioning in a regimented manner, effectively becoming “screen bureaucrats.”
There is a pronounced silo effect between departments. Each department operates with its own interests in mind, working from its own perspective. In conducting their activities, many departments naturally adhere to the principle of pursuing benefits and avoiding disadvantages. They strive to retain control over advantageous matters, while actively seeking to offload tasks that are burdensome and yield little appreciation.
Departments also have a hierarchy, with powerful ones reaping benefits and weak ones struggling to survive, relying on hard work to gain favor from leaders. Due to departmental selfishness, even basic information is not shared.
A typical example is each department building its system and platform, unwilling to share information, creating data silos. Frankly, the construction of so-called big data platforms by local governments is unlikely to succeed under the current system.
Before the commercialization of ride-hailing services, transportation departments and taxi companies were building their respective platforms, with no technical barriers but facing departmental and regional divisions. The smaller the platform’s user base, the less efficient and useful it becomes.
指尖上的形式主義 “Formalism at the fingertips” stems not from technology but from departmental fragmentation.
[Zichen’s note: “Formalism at the fingertips” refers to excessive formalities and duplication across government apps and social media, such as dozens of WeChat groups for work projects within one unit that needed to be checked in every day, or a certain time that must be spent within a certain app.
“Formalism at the fingertips” represents a mutated and renewed form of formalism in the digital context and is one of the primary causes of increased burdens at the grassroots level. Combating “Formalism at the fingertips” is crucial for the image of the Communist Party of China, for winning the hearts and minds of the people, and for the modernization of the state governance system and capabilities. It holds significant importance for promoting a positive social atmosphere in the Party and government conduct. To implement the decisions and arrangements of the Party Central Committee and fulfill the Central-level requirements for rectifying formalism to reduce burdens at the grassroots, specific suggestions are proposed for standardizing the management of government mobile internet applications (hereinafter referred to as government applications), government’s public accounts, and chat groups.
— Concerning Several Opinions on Preventing and Controlling “Formalism at the fingertips” by Central Cyberspace Affairs Commission]
Due to the troubles caused by this fragmentation, various coordination mechanisms have been established. More and more leadership groups and committees are formed, but this leads to another problem: government inefficiency due to overlapping roles. Departmental leaders attend more meetings, partly due to the increase in coordination bodies.
At the grassroots level, the establishment of emergency bureaus aimed to integrate emergency resources, but emergency coordination is a comprehensive task that no single department can manage. Ultimately, government offices must coordinate. In some places, to improve efficiency, personnel are reassigned from various departments to focus on key tasks. In some cases, these task forces have become special zones, attracting the most capable and energetic young officials, and inadvertently restructuring the grassroots system.
A multi-centered work pattern has emerged at the local level, often relying on unconventional systems. With concentrated governance resources and leadership attention, the result is a few active individuals and many who are disengaged.
Regrettably, overall societal efficiency is likely declining. While we see the efficiency of concentrating efforts on major tasks, we overlook the sharp decline in regular capabilities due to the silo effect.
- Zichen Wang, Wuhan University professor blasts security- and selfishness-driven fragmentation, where “even basic information is not shared”, Pekingology, 8 January 2023, a translation of text published in the 新鄉土 New Rural WeChat blog of the China Rural Governance Studies Center of Wuhan University 武漢大學中國鄉村治理研究中心