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Flexible governance vital to modern urban management

Author  :  CHEN PENG     Source  :    Chinese Social Sciences Today     2021-03-02

Currently in China, a consensus has gradually been built that modernizing urban governance is a prerequisite for advancing modernization of China’s system and capacity for governance. Urban governance is important because it is both the foundation and a testing ground for modern state governance.

All behavioral processes are products of specific temporal and spatial environments, so different contexts will normally generate different forms of urban governance. In the new era, it is urgent to explore and harness the flexible governance model in order to effectively raise urban governance levels.

Flexible governance

As a policy discourse expression, “flexible governance” was first put forward by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in the 2019 Government Work Report, when Li laid out plans for the new type of urbanization, calling for flexible governance and thoughtfully-designed services to make cities more livable and give them a more inclusive and welcoming feel. Thereafter, flexible governance became a popular phrase and has appeared in various policy texts.

Flexible governance is a new concept relative to traditional urban management. In the past, urban management in China was about extensive, rigid control. The government was the principal regulator, exercising comprehensive and strict control over society with public power. This model did achieve the goal of maintaining stability in the short term, but the long-standing mindset of rigid control significantly weakened the autonomy and ability for society to self-adjust.

In particular, traditional urban management was prone to blurring the lines between public and private domains, and between public and private spaces in the process of execution. Some executors were impatient and suppressive when handling problems. Obviously, a palliative managerial model such as this cannot solve deep-seated problems, and would instead invite new problems and conflicts.

This means, the “order-obedience” mandatory model featuring the exclusionary management of public affairs can hardly meet urban governance needs in the new era. In this context, great expectations have been pinned on flexible governance, which has become a practical approach for some local governments.

Based on the practices carried out by some local governments, flexible governance refers to a model in which the government, social organizations, and the public act as governance subjects, adhere to basic philosophies like people-centered principles, equality and independence, and fairness and justice, and adopt non-mandatory approaches such as rational communication and cooperation, to jointly deal with public affairs in urban life.

Therefore, compared with the traditional urban management model, flexible governance aims to build a governance form characterized by the participation, friendly cooperation, and joint governance of diverse subjects. In this new form, the government’s mandatory control gradually wears off, while its role to guide friendly consultation and collaboration reveals itself. Participants are no longer connected through one-dimensional relationships, but through diversified ties of mutually beneficial cooperation and equality-based consultation. Communication is no longer about order and obedience, but about mutual benefits. All in all, flexible governance reflects the rationality of modern urban governance actions and aligns with its intrinsic requirements.

Vital to modern cities

With rapid economic and social modernization, flexible governance can ease problems in modern urban governance.

First, it can cement the social foundations of urban governance. Like other behavioral processes, urban governance must be grounded upon a concrete social foundation. Social foundations not only hint at “hard” material conditions, but also include “soft” elements like public trust, support, and cooperation in governance activities.

It has been proven that positive interactions between the public and diverse subjects like the government, social organizations, and enterprises, will bring about relationships of tacit cooperation and mutual understanding, laying a strong groundwork for urban governance.

Flexible governance exactly contains these factors. As founder of philosophical Taoism Laozi (Lao-tzu) said in the Tao Te Ching, “The softest substance of the world can go through the hardest.” Flexible governance, which balances hardness with softness, not only delivers a people-centered approach in terms of value orientation, but also embodies inherent features of modern urban governance, such as inclusiveness, care, flexibility, and trust.

It is evident that urban governance embodied with these features is filled with rich social capital. On this basis, people will consciously trust each other and observe rules, thus solidifying the social foundations for urban governance.

Furthermore, flexible governance can create social cohesion. Deeper reforms are accompanied by dramatically changing interest patterns, divided social structures, diversified ideologies, and heterogeneous contradictions and appeals. All these have posed challenges to urban governance as they attempt to build consensuses and take unanimous action.

As one of its main functions, flexible governance can establish regular social behaviors, coordinate relationships, facilitate agreements, and encourage different subjects to act in concert by non-mandatory means like frank communication, mutual understanding, persuasion, and opinion guidance. This is a part of the process for developing social cohesion. It can unite scattered individuals, strengthen emotional exchanges, and build trust and cooperation among social members. It also inspires diverse subjects to reach agreements on public affairs, more willingly engage in urban governance by cooperating on an equal footing, and make their own contributions.

Flexible governance can also cultivate the government’s authority. The government is central to any forms of governance, so fostering government authority is a key issue for urban governance.

In Chinese language, “authority” is translated into quanwei. Another phrase “quanli,” which differs from quanwei in only one single character, means power. Despite the etymological link, their meanings are not the same. Power means influence, control, and constraint. It has more apparent “hard” features. By contrast, authority is softer, referring to the ability and prestige to convince the people.

In other words, authority is a kind of voluntary respect for and support of power. In daily life, people might be forced to submit to power, but their submission to authority is a personal choice. As such, it is often said that any organization will not attain their goals or effectively carry out activities unless they are founded on certain authority.

At present, as the public increasingly cares about democracy and the rule of law, urban governance has raised a basic requirement to the government: sufficient authority. Flexible governance can enable the government and other subjects like the public and social organizations to interact on the basis of understanding and trust, and guide the public to understand government policies from multiple levels and perspectives, thereby better shaping and constantly consolidating the authority of the government.

Facilitating urban governance

To make urban governance more flexible, it is essential to take multi-pronged measures in an orderly fashion on the premise of deeply understanding the basics of flexible governance.

First, efforts should be made to exploit affective resources for the sake of emotional governance. According to basic psychological theories, emotional engagement will inspire resonance, people will feel profoundly touched, and derive a strong sense of belonging, thus contributing to concerted action.

Flexible governance is distinctive largely in that it values affective interaction to build a bridge for emotional exchange between governors and the governed, cultivating harmonious relationships between the two.

Therefore, the use of affective resources is critical for adherence to flexible governance. In routine governance activities, primary-level governments should connect to, touch, and serve the people sincerely, so as to cement the base for urban governance.

Moreover, people-centered and democratic governance should be implemented. In light of historical materialism, people are the creators of history, and all activities should start from their appeals. Experience has proven that stronger democratic consciousness and more use of democratic strategies will generally lead to better results in urban governance. Hence it is necessary to stick to democratic philosophy and pay attention to equality among major actors in flexible governance. This means, emphasis should be placed on democratic governance in the form of democratic consultation, cooperation, and joint governance.

In recent years, cities like Nanjing have piloted democratic governance models such as the community consultation center, the “Tell the Whole Truth” workshop, and an association of respected village advisors, which could motivate the public to proactively participate in urban governance.

In addition, it is crucial to unblock channels for cooperation and implement synergic governance. Modern urban governance necessitates cooperation because the power of any independent subject is limited in the face of complex public affairs. Only by collaborating with other subjects can strong governance synergy be formed.

During the implementation of synergic governance, priorities should be given to establishing cooperative relationships between the government and social organizations, the public, and enterprises, and to smoothing diverse channels for collaboration among various subjects to create a networked governance pattern.


Chen Peng is a research fellow from the Research Center for Anti-Corruption and Governance at Jiangsu Academy of Social Sciences.

Editor: Yu Hui

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