Participatory Governance: An Interview with Song Qinghua

China Development Brief, no.49 (Spring 2011)

中文 English

Introduction: The following is an interview with Song Qinghua, director of the Beijing-based Shining Stone, one of China’s leading NGOs in the field of participatory community governance. The government’s recent emphasis on “social innovation” has raised the demand for Shining Stone’s services as local governments around China seek innovative ways to manage their communities. Song provides some interesting insights into collaborating with the government, and the challenges of carrying out community participatory governance in a Chinese context.

On the eve of the 2011 Spring Festival, Song Qinghua, the director of Shining Stone (社区参与行动), and her team were particularly busy. Beijing’s Dongcheng District Civil Affairs Bureau called Song and invited her to host a forum on the innovative “double support” (双拥) program which supports military officers and their families. While the “double support” program standardizes the relationship between the military and the local community and formalizes the community’s appreciation, the Dongcheng Civil Affairs Bureau was also looking for new ideas. They hoped that through innovative measures, military officers, the people’s government, and the people, would be able to fully exploit the needs and effectiveness of the “double support” program1.

It has been more than eight years since Shining Stone was established in 2002 to promote participatory community governance. Now, a growing number of local governments are accepting similar concepts and approaches. At the community level, they are using participatory methods in training sessions and for project implementation, leading to the creation of several dynamic and independent organizations of community residents. At project locations, neighborhoods, residents’ associations and other multi-stakeholder groups, people are collaborating and participating to address problems in the community. In Dongcheng, a mechanism for public participation is included in the local Twelfth Five-Year Plan (2011-2015).

Song Qinghua has promoted participatory governance beyond the neighborhood, introducing the concept to the central and local Party schools, and promoting new thinking and operational guidance on public participation and social management. This is all very timely and relevant for local governments, as they try to address growing “social contradictions” and conflict. In December 2010, the Central Compilation and Translation Bureau (中央编译局) and other organizations awarded Shining Stone with the first-ever China Social Innovation Award2.

In recent years, the development trajectory of community participatory action has evolved from the tokenistic promotion of participatory training methods to real, community-based initiatives, including project management and troubleshooting. More recently, conscious efforts have been made to document experiences and case studies. In addition, efforts are underway to try similar initiatives in communities outside of Beijing, and to develop a network for public participation. In cooperation with local governments, work has expanded from community building to include safety, fire prevention, culture, family planning and various other departments at the neighborhood level. In 2010, Shining Stone experimented with third-party mediation in local disputes in Beijing’s Dongsi and Chaoyangmen neighborhoods. In terms of funding, by 2010, Shining Stone has gone from relying completely on international funding to receiving 40% of funding from domestic foundations and government procurement of services. This means that community participation is becoming increasingly stable and localized.

Prior to Spring Festival, China Development Brief arranged for Song Qinghua to discuss the past, present and future development of community participatory action. The community has always been the focus of participatory community action. Song Qinghua stated, “There’s a difference between NGOs doing work in communities, and NGOs doing community work. To do work in a community is to simply do what you want to do—something that is not sustainable. But, if one were to do community work, one would have to listen to the needs of people in the community, and help them to develop their own problem-solving skills. Ideally, organizations coming in from the outside should be able to withdraw at an appropriate time.”

Participatory Governance: We Chinese can do it!

Fu Tao: Shining Stone from its establishment until today has been committed to promoting community participatory governance. In the past few years have there been any changes in your strategies? Have there been any breakthroughs?

Song Qinghua: When we were in the beginning stages of participatory governance, our understanding of it was very simplistic. In the first three years, we were limited to promoting the participatory approach. We mistakenly thought that it was enough to just have a “method.”
In recent years, a lot of new problems have emerged within the community: the transformation of old neighborhoods, an aging population, youth education and employment, the unemployed looking to become re-employed, etc. The demand for service is quite large. Currently, the biggest problem is the superficial nature of community service, which is typically government-led and one-size-fits-all, unable to tailor services according to demands. Therefore, over the past three years we have launched a community service management project that provides services based on demands, implementing a consultative and democratic system. This new approach is more than just an abstract concept; it is reflected in project design, implementation, management and monitoring. The main approach is to use the project as a carrier—encouraging stakeholders to ask questions and seek resolutions, weighing needs to reach a common understanding, and finally drawing up an action plan and organizing project teams to implement the project. This new participatory approach has led to many innovations in the delivery of community service innovation, altering the traditional service model.

Apart from this, the project also mediates conflict. In the past two years, many new problems and conflicts have emerged within the community over issues such as parking spaces for cars, pets, and conflicts between real estate developers and property owners. In the past, the neighborhood committee (juweihui) resolved these problems. If the neighborhood committee was unable to resolve the problem, then it would be referred to the street committee, which would make a judgment or take punitive action through administrative means3. These days, however, the interests of individuals reign supreme. The government intervenes because it is afraid that conflicts will lead to instability in the community, but residents are not so willing to compromise, making it difficult for the government to act. The government is increasingly aware that it cannot easily take on a middleman role. In this context, community participatory action plays an important role because it can use third party intervention to maintain a neutral stance and mediate conflict. The most important aspect of third party intervention is not to make a judgment and take sides, but rather to provide a platform for both parties to consult and discuss with one another.

FT: In the years of promoting the concept of participatory governance and its methods of use, what influence has community participatory action had on the government and communities?

SQH: The biggest change has been in the government’s role in dealing with these issues. There are some tasks that specialized social organizations are more suited to undertake than the government. The government is now beginning to accept the idea that these organizations can provide effective solutions. Dongcheng district now has an “open space” to promote public participation. In the past, we found that some citizens were dissatisfied, because they felt they could not have a real conversation; even if the government were to listen to them, it would not be able to provide helpful feedback. Now that we have more participatory approaches, there is a platform for government officials to become more aware of problems within the community and people’s opinions. We encourage people to share their ideas to create a common vision and establish action plans to resolve conflicts.

The story of the renovation of Housing Complex 68 is a good example. Basically, people thought that the renovation of the housing complex was the responsibility of government. But the government did not think that it had to get involved. This resulted in an intractable situation. Finally, we organized a discussion among the residents of the housing complex. What we found out was that if we mobilize people to take part in participatory governance, they can do anything. Although we may have learned about participatory governance from abroad, it is very applicable to Chinese people.

At the same time, it should be emphasized that the government is not only looking on from the side when it comes to community governance. Rather, the government is a partner, and the main actor. The government provides guidance and resources for problem solving, and should even help organize when necessary. This is participatory governance with Chinese characteristics.

Of course, currently, our influence lies mostly with neighborhood and district governments. The implementation of our project and its influence is still very limited. Although we have signed cooperation agreements with local governments for this project, established collaborative groups, and added elements of public participation, it will be a long process until the government completely changes its traditional way of doing things. Currently, there are a few places, such as the Qingyuan neighborhood in Beijing’s Daxing district, that have set up designated project officers to administer our project in communities and neighborhoods.

If a NGO and the government have difficulties in cooperating, a reason for this might be because the organization does not understand the government’s policies and work principles. NGOs cannot only stand on their own ground; they also have to understand the government’s needs and find synergies. For example, I like to talk about social innovation with government officials, and convince them that it is beneficial by bringing up the Fourth Plenary Session of the 16th CPC Central Committee, when a new pattern of social construction was proposed: the Party leads, the government is in charge, society collaborates, and the public participates. China already has a lot of experience with the Party leading and the government taking charge; what is innovative are the latter two. The Fourth Plenary Session of the 16th CPC Central Committee essentially gave the blessing to local governments to experiment with participatory governance. In the future, government will increasingly purchase services from registered civil organizations.

FT: Taking into account China’s realities and traditions, how is a foreign concept like community participatory action localized?

SQH: Many experts and scholars say that NGOs who use international approaches to handle domestic affairs will get nowhere because each country’s system is not the same. Personally, I believe that every country, in the process of development, encounters similar social problems. Problem-solving methods should also be the same. According to our experience, these development concepts and methods are not only viable in China, but can also be further developed. Of course, because of differences in cultural background and language, we do need to make some changes, both in terms of language and process. However, in practical application, in terms of the changes that are being brought about by participatory governance, China is just like other countries.

There is also the issue of adapting the format of participatory governance for the Chinese people. For example, “participatory” approaches typically place great emphasis on the non-intervention of open forum hosts. Hosts are typically only coordinators whose task is to watch the time and ensure participants stay on subject. In China, however, hosts typically steer the conversation. Chinese people often expect hosts to intervene and give proper guidance to the discussion, instead of adhering to a neutral standpoint. Many Chinese people would actually not be used to, or respect, a host who did not guide the conversation.

Yesterday, I went to a community district to participate in a discussion. During the discussion, the local people said that our organization was too small to resolve their problems; they wanted the government, which they felt was the most powerful, to take action. I explained to them: In fact, you yourselves are the most powerful. Do you not agree? If you always believe that the government will resolve your problems and you yourselves will not take action, this problem will never be resolved. Sometimes, people need to be provided with guidance and examples so that they can better analyze and understand. People need to be convinced to practice and experiment. When people have the experience of successfully resolving problems themselves through participatory governance—well, that is the most convincing argument that we can make. And that is the goal of our work.

  1. Editor’s Note: The concept of social innovation (shehui chuangxin) is part of the government’s 12th Five Year Plan (2011-2015), and calls for innovative measures to better manage social problems and resolve social tensions and conflicts. Innovation is now a major theme in the work of many NGOs that seek to use the official mantra of innovation to legitimize their work. 

  2. Editor’s Note: The Central Compilation and Translation Bureau is a well-known think-tank under the Central Committee of the Communist Party. 

  3. Editor’s Note: the street committee, also known as the subdistrict office, represents the lowest level of administration in urban areas. Below the street committee is the neighborhood committee which is made up of volunteers and part-time employees of the state. 


付涛 中国发展简报2011春季刊

2011年春节前夕,社区参与行动主任宋庆华和她的团队格外繁忙。 东城区民政局来电话,邀请她去主持举办一个创新“双拥”(拥军拥属)服务开放空间论坛。 在“双拥”工作成为军地两个部门之间程式化、形式化而且有些乏味的慰问方式之际,东城区民政局开拓思路,希望通过工作创新,在部队官兵和民政和街道之间探寻“双拥”工作的真实需求和有效性。

自2002年机构成立推进参与式社区治理,迄今为止已逾8载。 现在,越来越多的地方政府接受了相关理念,并在社区层面利用参与式的技术方法合作开展培训并实施项目,催生了一批富有活力的社区居民自治组织。 在项目点,街道、居委会和社区居民等多方利益主体,共同参与解决社区内的各种疑难杂症。 在社区参与行动注册的东城区,已经把开放空间的公共参与机制写入区政府“十二五”工作报告。

宋庆华甚至把课堂从基层的街道办搬进了中央党校和地方党校,讲解公众参与和社会管理创新,为政府官员提供具体的创新思路和可操作的创新工具方法。 这正好契合了当前在社会矛盾冲突频发中处于焦虑状态下的地方政府的迫切需求。 2010年12月,社区参与行动获得了由中央编译局等机构联合举办的首届中国社会创新奖。

社区参与行动近年来的发展轨迹,划出了阶段性的特点:从单纯的面上的参与式方法培训推广,转而同时深入社区,通过项目化管理解决具体问题,再到开始有意识地进行经验和案例的总结和梳理,还开始考虑在北京以外的地区尝试扶持同类性质的机构,并发展公众参与网络。 在与基层政府合作的范围上,已从社区建设延伸到安全、消防、文化、计生等街道的各个部门。 2010年,作为新的探索,社区参与行动还尝试作为独立的第三方,在东四和朝阳门街道介入社会冲突调解。 在筹资方面,从过去完全依靠国际资助,到2010年国内基金会和政府购买占了40%,越来越稳步迈向本土化筹款。

《中国发展简报》在春节前约到了忙碌中的宋庆华,谈社区参与行动的过去、现在以及未来的发展思路。 这些年来,社区一直是社区参与行动的着力点。 “NGO 到社区做事,与做社区的事,是两个概念。到社区做事,仅仅是做你想做的事情,这不可持续。但如果是去做社区的事,你就需要通过社区群体去寻找他们自己的需 求,去动员和培养他们自己解决问题的能力,并最后实现他们自己的想法。这样,外部的组织就能够在适当的时候撤得出去。”宋庆华说。

参与式治理:我们中国人能行! 问:付 涛(中国发展简报)


社区参与行动从成立至今,一直致力于推动参与式社区治理,这些年在工作策略上有什么变化? 取得了什么样的突破?


近年来,社区中出现了很多新问题,例如老社区环境改造、老龄化、青少年教育和就业、失业人员再就业等等,服务需求很大。 目前,社区中存在的最大问题在于社区服务流于形式,表现在社区服务是政府主导、统一模式,无法按需求提供服务。 于是我们在后三年推出了社区服务项目化管理。 社区服务项目化管理是以需求为导向提供服务,并进行基层协商民主的制度化建设,这样一来,方法就融入到项目的设计、实施、管理和监督评估的过程中,而不是单纯的学习方法了。 主要做法是以项目为载体,通过利益群体提出问题,寻求解决办法,通过权衡需求来达成共识,最后制定行动计划和组织项目小组实施项目。 实施项目管理引发了很多社区服务创新,通过服务创新改变了传统服务模式。

此外是介入冲突斡旋。 这两年社区内出现了很多新的问题和冲突,如停车冲突、有车族和无车族矛盾、抢占停车位、物业公司因停车位问题与业主的矛盾、养狗与不养狗的矛盾、开发商与业主的矛盾等等,火药味很浓。 过去这些问题都是由居委会出面解决,居委会不能解决的由街道出面。 而街道政府出面都是用行政手段进行裁判和压制。 可是现在的问题是利益驱动大于一切,政府出面的原因是怕社区因为这些冲突出现不稳定,而居民强调自己的利益也不肯妥协,再用这样的解决方法是不行的。 政府越来越意识到自己已经是冲突中的利益相关者,已不能担当中间角色。 这个时候社区参与行动以第三方身份介入,持中立态度进行冲突斡旋。 第三方介入,其中最重要的不是去裁判问题,而是提供冲突双方协商的机制和平台。


最大的变化是政府看到了自己在处理这些问题上的角色转变,也看到自己有很多事情不能干,与专业的社会组织协同合作才是解决问题的有效途径。 政府转变后就会有意识去推动运用这些方法。 东城区已将“开放空间”这种公众参与机制在全区推广。 我们在工作中发现,原来老百姓只是单向地发牢骚,提问题,觉得没有对话机制,觉得政府不可能来听,即使来了,也得不到反馈。 政府的一套完全是形式化,和社区实际问题无关。 现在我们通过参与式方法的介入,首先是搭建平台,让政府官员意识到社区里有很多问题,老百姓对这些问题的观点是什么。 我们推动居民根据自己的想法,建立共同愿景,制定化解矛盾的行动计划去解决问题。

68号院的故事就很有说服力,这是一个解决老房子的环境改造问题。 这个故事解决了一个大家都认为这是不能撬动的杠杆:居民认为这是政府的事情,应该由政府来给我们解决;政府认为这些小事不是政府要做的,同时也不信任居民有能力做。 最后结果就是永远没人管。 于是我们就介入了这个问题。 我们的做法就是,首先组织68号院居民讨论,居民自己解决问题行不行? 经过这种参与式治理的实践,我们发现,如果百姓动员起来了,什么都能做。 参与式治理虽然是国外引入的概念,但我们中国人能行!

同时,应当强调的是,在社区治理中政府不是旁观者,而是合作者,是主体,要为问题的解决提供指导、提供资源,必要的时候还要担当组织的责任。 这是中国特色。

当然,目前我们的影响主要在街道和区政府,实施的项目和影响力还非常有限。 我们感觉政府在这个层面需求很大,也有积极的意识。 虽然政府和我们在项目上签订了一些合作协议,成立合作小组,增加了新的公众参与的内容。 当然,政府传统的那套东西还在做,完全改变还需要一个很长的过程。 目前已有些地方,如大兴区的清源街道,为了推动社区项目管理专门在每个社区和街道层面设了项目专员。

如果说NGO和政府合作有难度,其原因还是不太了解政府的政策和工作思路。 NGO不能只站在自己的立场上,还需要去了解政府的需求,寻找结合点。 例如,我喜欢和政府官员谈社会创新,用这个话语说服一些政府官员特别有利:16届四中全会提出社会建设新格局,党委领导、政府负责、社会协同、公众参与。 我们说前两个方面政府已经很有经验,要创新就是后两个。 其实这给地方政府提供了一个落实中央精神的渠道和方式。 未来政府面向民政注册的组织购买服务的空间会越来越大。


很多的专家学者有一种说法,说NGO拿着国际的东西来做事行不通,因为各个国家的制度不同。 但我认为,不管哪个国家在发展过程中遇到的社会问题都是一样的,解决问题的方法也应该是一样。 根据我们的经验,这些发展理念和方法不仅在中国是行得通的,而且还有所发展。 因为文化背景的差异,话语不同,我们确实需要进行本土化的转换,包括一些话语的转换和程序上的调整。 但是在我们实际运用中,真的看到人们在参与中产生的学习、进步和发展的效果,这一点和其他国家出现的结果是一样的。

还有就是在形式上,如何调整为中国人容易接受的形式。 例如,在开放空间论坛中,参与式非常强调主持人不能引导,主持人只是一个协调者,他的任务就是控制时间和引导参与者在讨论中不要跑题。 但在中国,有遵从权威的习惯,认为主持人要有导向性,我们就要求主持人在必要的时候做一些正确的引导。 有时候你完全不引导,恪守中立也不行。 中国人还是愿意听更多的道理,如果主持人只是让参与者讲他们一时还是不习惯,同时参与者可能还不认可你。 这就需要做一些调整,让他更加觉得你的权威性会使会议更容易进入正常程序。

昨天我到一个社区参加讨论,他们说,你们这个组织太小了,靠你们解决不了我们的问题,还是要政府来解决,政府是最大的。 我给他们解释说:其实最大的是你们自己,你们为什么不这么认为呢? 如果你们总认为政府会来给你们解决问题而自己不行动起来,这件事就永远解决不了。 有时候需要去引导,帮他们分析理解,还要拿案例去说明,最重要的就是必须要说服他们自己能够去实践和体验。 当他们在实践中真正体验到自己可以解决问题后,特别是通过行动让他们看到了问题的改变,才是最有说服力的。 我们的工作目的就是要实现这样的结果。


Translated by Marisa Lum

Reviewed by Frankie Chen

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