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Message to President Obama on

Harmony Governance

For the third consecutive year, Chinese have told pollsters that corruption is the
biggest blot on China's image. Last year alone, 18 minister-level officials had to step
down because for alleged involvement in corruption. And China ranks 79 among 180
countries on the Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index for 2009.
But is corruption really the biggest blot on the country's image? The above facts say
so. There is one person, however, who thinks otherwise. And Wang Liping should
know, because she is an associate professor in Peking University's School of
Government and has been dealing with different levels of government officials who
attend her classes.
But how does she know that an overwhelming majority of officials are honest? This is
where her specialization, political psychology, comes into play. She says many of
her students complain about their misery: the hard work they do and the tough life
they lead. They remain dedicated to their work despite the ordinary salaries they
draw. And most of them get few or no chances of taking bribes.
So why is corruption such a big issue? Because corrupt officials, who abuse power,
take bribes and lead a luxurious lifestyle, have helped create the wrong image of
public servants in people's mind, she says. Media reports on corrupt officials and the
public debates it sparks have a lot to do with it. The "media works on the principle of
man bites dogs". Just like a dog biting a man does not make news but a man biting a
dog does, honest officials are not considered newsworthy, whereas corrupt ones are.
Wang is one of the few Chinese scholars researching on political psychology. So
devoted is she to her work that she does not use a mobile phone and often skips sad
news because they could be unnecessary distractions. Academics and officials know
how important her research is for some of the problems facing the country, but she
says it is far from profound. The urgent task, she says, is to improve officials' image
and enhance local governments' credibility.

Political science is nearly a century-old subject in the West, but relatively young in
China. That makes political psychology even younger, and only a few scholars are
researching on it in China. Even Wang's decision to conduct research in political
psychology was incidental. She decided on it when she was helping her teacher with
a series of books on political sciences about 10 years ago.
In traditional political science, people participate in politics to meet the interests of
the people or to achieve their own goals. That may be true, but Wang's subject says
people's psychology, too, exerts great influence on the function of a political system.
So political psychology could play an important role in analyzing some political
problems and seeking their solutions, she says. It could explain, partly though, why
social conflicts are growing despite the economic miracle of the past three decades.
Wang's research has helped her to conclude that a handful of corrupt officials have
tarnished the image of the entire officialdom and raised doubts over the functioning
of some local governments. People don't always think rationally. Instead many
simply form their political opinions based on their feelings. The erosion of people's
trust in governments is an obvious result of such political psychology.
A survey of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, conducted in 2007, shows
people have great faith in the central government but their trust in local governments
has declined.
"That's understandable," Wang says. "Most of the people deal with local
governments in townships, counties and districts not the central government. China
is a big country with the largest population in the world with many complicated
problems. People will have complaints, many of which are targeted at local
governments, especially against corrupt officials."
People will have less trust in local governments if they have disputes with them.
Wang cites the examples of the Weng'an incident in Guizhou province in 2008 and
the Shishou incident in Hubei province last year, to explain her point. In Weng'an,
30,000 people took to the streets in protest against the death of a girl, and in
Shishou thousands of protesters clashed with police after local authorities allegedly
tried to cover up a cook's death as a suicide.
In both places, simple incidents snowballed into mass incidents. But they did not
happen "all of sudden", she says. "They happened because the local authorities had
not paid attention to public mood for a long time. So what the governments need to
do now is to put people's concern on top of their agenda."
A more deep-rooted reason behind the growing social conflicts, Wang says, is
Chinese people's sensitivity to equality. Over the past three decades, economic
development has helped lift 8 million people out of poverty every year. China's
economic development is indeed a miracle, "but we have to immediately start
bridging the wealth gap and reducing inequalities".
World Bank figures show China's Gini coefficient, a measurement of income
inequality, has risen from 0.18 in 1978 to 0.47 today, surpassing the warning mark of
0.4. Peoples in other countries with wide wealth gaps may be more tolerant because
of lack of equal opportunities or religious factors, she says, but not in China.
Psychologically, Chinese are more obsessed with equality. Some people indeed
have made huge amounts of money illegally in the pst three decades.
"Don't fear deficiency but fear uneven distribution. Don't worry about poverty
but worry about uncertainty." This comes from Confucius and Chinese have
believed in it for 2,500 years. This explains why people in some places are
dissatisfied despite the rapid growth of the local economies.
The drastic changes in society and the weak social security system, too, have
aggravated people's sense of anxiety, which could cause more social conflicts and
harm social stability.
Wang, however, is optimistic of China's future. What is needed is social reform to
ensure a more even distribution of resources and political reform to give people a
greater say in day-to-day running of governments. These will take years, but an
improvement in officials' communication skills and more people-friendly
administrations can yield wonderful results in the short term.
For instance, when officials announce details of corruption cases, they should be
cautious enough not to overplay the crimes and mislead the public, she says. And
more importantly, they need to highlight the deeds and achievements of honest and
upright officials through the media.
But more than anything else, local governments have to learn how best to redress
public grievances. They need to exercise more caution in order not to intensify
conflicts. Since people's passions can be stirred up easily, local governments have
to solve their problems sensitively. It's not wise to let the problems accumulate until
protesters grow into large groups, sparking mass incidents.
Many local governments have blamed "a few people with ulterior motives" for inciting
mass incidents. This shows they are not trained to deal with such incidents. They
should know that instead of appeasing the people, such irresponsible statements
could make them more suspicious and angry.
Authorities should speak on the basis of facts and be as transparent as possible,
Wang says, just like they do in the developed countries. Officials in developed
societies are well trained to release information at the appropriate time and at proper
intervals when something significant happens. This is something new for Chinese
officials, especially those working for local administrations. Better communication
skills will improve the officials' image and enhance people's confidence in
governments, which could be the biggest gain of the short-term reform.
Wang says the Henan province official who told a journalist: "Do you want to
speak for the Party or the people?" is an apt example of a bad communicator.
Officials should never make such provocative remarks. Instead, local
"governments need to encourage more tolerance, friendship and love in
society (because) eventually they will help build a harmonious society ".
(China Daily 01/28/2010 page9)