Good Governance / 良政善治
The term “good governance” (善治) was first mentioned in a high-level Party document from 2014. Today, it is firmly established in the political vernacular. In party-state discourse, the focus is on the efficient provision of public services, combatting corruption and abuses of power within the CCP, and establishing law-based governance, i.e., codifying policies and measures in laws and regulations.
The primary objectives are to increase prosperity and safeguard collective rights, most importantly public order and security, rather than the institutionalised political participation of independent non-governmental actors and citizens. Increased monitoring by digital means and laws and regulations that severely restrict individual liberties are regularly characterised as good governance. This is markedly different from the broader definitions of good governance set out by the UN and the EU, which encompass factors such as efficiency, accountability, transparency, inclusiveness, the rule of law, civic participation and the protection of social minorities. The UN and EU frameworks explicitly envisage close cooperation with non-governmental actors and place a strong emphasis on the protection of human rights, including civil and political rights.
Use of the term good governance in Chinese official discourse took off in the early 2000s, in step with global discussions around good governance. In the UN framework the term has expanded to include civil rights protection, public participation and the involvement of non-governmental actors in all public affairs, whereas party-affiliated academics and officials have criticised this “catch all” approach and argued for staying close to the concept’s original definition in administrative science. This means focusing on efficient governance, containing corruption and abuses of power and strengthening the legal and regulatory framework, rather than granting institutionalised rights to citizens and non-governmental stakeholders to have a say.
The main focus instead is on the material benefits and the sense of progress and individual gain (获得感) for individual citizens granted by the state. Especially in the context of Covid-19, the Chinese system of governance has been promoted as a viable and ultimately superior alternative in safeguarding and providing public goods such as safety and health, one not constrained by a focus on individual rights and interests. This focus on output legitimacy is also reflected in the terminology (良政善治). The most often used word shanzhi (善治) might be better translated as “benevolent” governance. The term is derived from traditional political philosophy and is framed by the political leadership as a continuation of Chinese schools of thought. The term lianzheng (廉政), often used synonymously or in conjunction with shanzhi, denotes incorrupt or “clean” governance.
This narrow interpretation is in line with the political-ideological discourse of the CCP that emphasises absolute Party leadership, which was further encoded in the Chinese Constitution in 2018. The primary goal is to ensure that the CCP fulfils its role in governing the country well. Public order, social stability – i.e., the absence of protests – and provision of economic growth are seen as key benchmarks of success. The strong emphasis on the higher common goods of public order and security means that even laws that heavily restrict civil liberties are seen as important pillars of good governance. For example, the introduction of the National Security Law for Hong Kong and of coercive re-education measures in Xinjiang were hailed as steps towards good governance, despite conflicts with international human rights norms.
The concept of good governance is also closely tied to new initiatives expanding the use of digital technologies. Xi Jinping has been promoting the new concept of monitoring-based “smart governance”, i.e., tight, digitally supported supervision and disciplinary governance of public institutions, companies and citizens alike. The drive to modernise governance emphasises technocratic, data-based control under centralised CCP leadership and supervision, rather than sharing watch-dog responsibilities with non-governmental actors or the media. This model is presented as more efficient and ultimately superior to the Western approach to governance, and its focus on the rule of law and the supervision of state power through the separation of powers and press freedom.