Tuesday December 05, 2023

Learning from China

August 31, 2021

Prime Minister Imran Khan has repeatedly shown admiration for the Chinese system. Contrary to popular notions, being an authoritarian state is not the raison d'etre of China’s rapid success.

If one studies the Chinese system, their success would be found ingrained in the governance at the local level. It is unfortunate that no mainstream political party in Pakistan has ever been sincere in this important, yet ignored, aspect of governance. If Pakistan has to learn something from China, the importance of local governments should take priority.

As China is a highly centralized state, policymaking remains the domain of the central government. However, for administrative functioning, the central government has devolved authority to the local governments at the grassroots level to perform their designated functions.

The local governments handle the administrative affairs that include, but are not limited to, education, health, social security, agriculture, industries and local development. The local governments in China are financially empowered. They get ample resources for the service-delivery. More than 90 percent of the education and health budgets are bestowed to the local governments to spend for the population’s needs and welfare. Agriculture, in which a lot of the workforce is employed, is also a responsibility of local governments.

Pakistan has a different political system from that of China. China’s one-party model cannot be replicated, but some key lessons can surely be drawn when it comes to local governance.

One, there should be a consensus-based socio-economic agenda in Pakistan. China has one party at the center but in Pakistan, the political parties at the center change with elections. It is mandatory that the different mainstream parties minimise their differences with thorough negotiations and set up a system that is mutually agreeable for all. For result-oriented policies, it is vital that the succeeding government does not undo the works of the preceding one relating to the local governments.

Two, Pakistan can give more authority to the local governments and strengthen them in areas relating to planning, financing and execution of the projects like China has. It can be fruitful for Pakistan considering it is a democracy (though a weak one). Democratic local governments are more responsive, representative, accountable and authorized.

Three, there must be a strong mechanism of accountability like the Chinese local government system has. China follows a cake-layered model of top-down accountability in which the higher tiers keep a check on the bottom tiers. Being a democratic state where local governments are set up with relatively competitive elections, Pakistan can have an even better accountability model. It can have a three-dimensional accountability model in which the local governments are answerable to the voters of their constituencies, higher authorities (like in China) and to a specially designed accountability institution for local governments which is independent of political interference.

Four, the local governments in Pakistan can help the country maintain socioeconomic order like they do in China. The Chinese central government tolerates and even incentivizes officials, using any means to produce local employment and attract investments. In Pakistan, employment opportunities are not uniformly distributed. People have to migrate or travel to big cities to earn livelihood.

Local governments boosting employment and economic activities can be of significant help in urbanizing the rural areas. Local governments are helpful to the locals as they consist of officials who have a better understanding of the local problems and who are able to utilize the local resources in an efficient way. With fiscal devolution, the autonomy of local governments increases. They can perform well to create jobs that can make the workforce involved and busy in work to meet their expenses and avoid the disturbance in socioeconomic order.

Five, it can help resolve the problem of mass movements challenging the state. Mass movements emerge out of the grievances of the people. As the local governments meet the basic requirements of people in a better way, it can be expected that societies at the periphery would feel empowered and less deprived. That would help the state resolve matters of insurgencies.

China, being an authoritarian state, uses the local government system as a tool of surveillance. The counties in China are small, and thus suspicious activities are monitored. With the help of local governments, Pakistan – a security state – can keep a check on alleged sponsors of terrorism and stop people from joining organizations posing a threat to national security. For that, the state must provide people with means to get their grievances resolved in the first place.

Six, local governments in China have done a phenomenal job in alleviating poverty. Pakistan has a huge problem of poverty. As local governments function well, local needs can be catered to by enhancing jobs, and local manufacturing helps lower prices so that things are purchasable by the poor. Healthcare, education and assistance in agriculture at the local level can significantly improve the lives of people in the rural areas.

China’s local government system does have its own limitations. For instance, this model has a one-size-fits-all approach. On the contrary, the rural and urban areas have different problems, but the model presents a more or less similar approach to the problem-solving mechanism. Resultantly, China as a whole has experienced sustained prosperity, yet the divide within the country is still huge.

Pakistan can take some key lessons from China with respect to the local government system and implement these in establishing stable and long-lasting local governments. They not only help serve as political nurseries for generating political acumen among masses and producing leaders in democracies, but also provide assistance in tackling lots of social problems like poverty and unemployment.

In China, the administrative powers are devolved to the local governments, but the political authority is centralized. Pakistan is a democratic state and there are multiple parties that participate in the electoral process. In our country, it can go one step further and political power can also be devolved to the local governments for they too are elected with competitive elections.

The writer is a political scientist with focus on international

relations and sociopolitical issues.