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Regional Governance: Chinese Style

Bill Dodge / Feb 19 2012

For Release Sunday, February 19, 2012

Bill DodgeWhat does the “New China” have to tell us, not just about economics and society but models of regional governance?

On a recent trip — my first since just after the Cultural Revolution — I concluded that although China displays painful characteristics of unfettered capitalism, the results are impressive. Ancient cities of neighborhood mazes have been converted into 21st century metropoli of high rise corridors. Development sites in Beijing and Shanghai are filled with dozens of tall cranes. New cities are housing hundreds of thousands of residents, often located in depressed regions. Stores are packed with shoppers, especially buying products with English names, such as Happiness toilet paper.

Jobs have been created for hundreds of millions of workers. Infrastructure projects are overwhelming; there are world class museums in major cities and endless transportation projects, often lined with well-manicured landscaping. A dozen transit lines already operate in Shanghai, with another half dozen under construction. And Shanghai’s Maglev that speeds one to or from the international airport at up to 430 kilometers/hour.

Not all is positive, however. The historic communist safety net that guaranteed jobs, rice, health care, and pensions has been torn apart. Great advances have been made in educating students and providing good jobs, as is evidenced in the rows of towering condos in major cities. But in rural areas, the “barefoot doctor” clinics have been abolished, requiring everyone to purchase health care. And the rural schools are woefully underfunded.

Environmental challenges are legend, making it difficult to breathe the air in cities and even the rural spaces in between. In many areas, the only safe water is bottled. Most of the children of the estimated 250 million migrant workers are raised back home by extended families. Their parents only see them over Chinese New Year.

The national government has designated the four major urban regions — Beijing, Chongqing, Shanghai and Tianjin — as provinces (somewhat like our states). It also designated another 283 urban regions as prefecture-level cities (a level of governance encompassing villages, towns and counties, numbering collectively hundreds of thousands). Ultimate authority is held by the Central Committee of the Communist Party and National People’s Congress — which have few reservations about meddling at all government levels.

The national government also owns all the land. Development is on leased property; a condo owner, for example, might receive a lease for 75 years. Any property is potentially available for development or redevelopment, a system that facilitates building large scale housing, commercial, and industrial projects and connecting them with equally large scale transportation systems. As a result, new development takes on a monumental scale that’s only — and in some cities — brought down to a human scale by still-saved historic neighborhoods.

Public participation is unimpressive. Witness the millions of people who were relocated, with often limited public involvement, to construct the Three Georges Dam. However, social networking is beginning to have an impact on government action. Just one example: Over 800,000 people tweeted criticisms of the government the day after a school bus (built for a few but packed with dozens) was destroyed in a fatal crash.

What can we Americans learn about regional governance from China? Are we, regionally, pursing the types of bold actions commonplace in China? The answer is clearly no. We have a less impressive history of empowering regional organizations to secure the public approvals and resources required to take bold actions in a timely manner. Lacking an all-powerful national government, we have great difficulty engaging all levels of government in creating effective regional governance. We have an impressive history of public participation, but we appear to be so divided into warring satrapies that we are unable to consider, much less take, bold actions.

Which lives a critical question. How do we Americans resurrect the civil discourse and government will required to build support for financing and implementing the bold actions that will keep us competitive in the future?

Bill Dodge is the former Executive Director of the National Association of Regional Councils, author of Regional Excellence, and is writing a new book on regional charters. He can be reached at columns are not copyrighted and may be reproduced in print or electronically; please show authorship, credit and send an electronic copy of usage to


  1. Jim Coyle
    Posted February 19, 2012 at 7:28 pm | Permalink

    As a result of being involved in negotiating an evolving sister City relationship with a modest sized Chinese City, I share your concern about the community aspects of the new China. Local Chinese citizens are still limited in their engagement not only with us but with their own communities. I am convinced that the extremely large cities and regional Chinese governments can only survive if they stifle citizen involvement. I am also convinced that Democracy, to survive well, requires smaller units of governance for the provision of basic neighborhood services and accountability. As a result, you have in China communists controlled regional governments and in the US often fractured local governance situations. I would take our models anytime.

  2. Eve Brooks
    Posted February 20, 2012 at 9:45 am | Permalink

    Neal –
    Wonderful how you can capture so much in few pages!
    Stephen told me the story — but you put in into a nutshell!
    That’s wonderful story telling/