Regional panorama: China

A contribtution from: Ka Lin, Zhejiang University (ZJU, China)

What existing socially innovative developments do you notice in China?

The promotion of the ‘social innovation idea’ in China exists for a decade, as a part of social movement in social administration. The efforts started in mid- 2000, in response to the state’s initiative to build-up a society with social harmony. This trend has been further reinforced by the state, with a new logic of enhancing entrepreneurship since 2010. This progress can be illustrated by a number of cases.

  1. The organisational innovation. Under the authoritarian context, the growth of civic organisations in contemporary China took two tracks, one by the quasi-governmental agents/organisations (with the support of public finance) and another is through self-administered civil agents, which are usually weak in both human and financial resource. In recent years, the local initiatives for cultivating collaboration among different agents took place through formulating various platforms of social interaction, which go beyond the division between the quasi-governmental and nongovernmental organisations. By taking Hangzhou city as an example, the municipal government encouraged to construct different forms of collaboration between the public and private agents, which included a) the cooperatives of agents in different sectors; b) the unity of different actors and assigning them correspondent duties through the contracts; c) the platforms of collaboration by independent agents; d) to build a synthetic mechanism of different agents and reinforce their linkages; e) to coordinate interactions among agents that undertake major or minor duties; and f) to foster the multiple levels of association with different actors for the performance of social actions. The development of these organisational forms helps the local government to achieve social goals more effectively.
  2. The state also developed a method of social administration by strengthening social networks at the community level. In this way, communities are virtually divided into a number of grids as the units of administration, concerning the matters of local peace, social order, social care, information sharing for employment, education and pension, etc. The administration of grids is supported by the information technology, which influences different aspects of communal life. For instance, this system enables various agents of local communities to interact closely and facilitate them to perform joint-actions. This experience has been implemented nationwide, and various models of such practices are developed.
  3. In regard to elderly care and children rights, China is encountering a great challenge and is under much pressure of an aging society. In 2015, the number of people over 60 years (retirement age) amounted 15.5% of total population, which put a great pressure on the care of older people. To cope with this challenge, the local governments has set up several programs of purchasing services which facilitates the growth of NGOs and stimulate the civil agents to provide the elderly care services. On child rights, the civil organisations are motivated and engaged in charity services and free meals program. This charity program launched in early 2011 by a journalist Den Fei, who mobilised over 500 news reporters and dozens of mass media, along with the Chinese Foundation of Social Welfare, to provide free meals to poor pupils. After operating this program for a half year, the State Council announced a program of free meals for the students of rural public schools in many regions. In the mid-2010s, the state invested over 16 billion RMB a year on the program, which benefited more than 26 million poor pupils in the 680 counties.
  4. To apply the advantage of IT in social administration. In recent years, the Chinese government promoted the strategy of ‘Internet Plus’ applied in the fields of health care, employment service and community administration. The application of IT is wide spread and its immediate impact stimulated the growth of economy by encouraging the growth of micro-level enterprises and innovative groups, besides it facilitated the innovations at workplace, social sphere, and in internet-created virtual world. In social aspect, it helps the usage of internet for the public services, which promotes the provisions of efficient services, by the public agents. For instance, on the health and elderly care, the ‘smarting tech’ is popular and it helps for long-distance dialing and use of big-data to prevent the risk of public health. It also facilities the level of elderly care through integrating the supply of the medical and elderly care services.

Is social innovation formally positioned on policy level in China?

Since the mid-2000, the social innovation issues had been promoted with relation to social administration, and this orientation of development is still continuing in recent years. For instance in July, 2011, the state published a document on the decision of reinforcing the innovation in social administration. By November 2014, the state charted out and emphasised one of the state goals towards development as, to reform the way of social administration, to create new mechanism of social administration, to strengthen grid management, as well as to develop the service-oriented comprehensive system at the grass-root level. These policy actions inevitably raised the demand for reforming the system of local governments or to make similar actions. For instance in the late, 2011, the municipal governments of Beijing, Hangzhou and Zhuhai devised local guidelines on developing these new ways of administration in these cities.
However, since 2015, the state has promoted a campaign of ‘entrepreneurship and innovation among the public’, with its major purpose as to stimulate the national economy. In the end of 2015, when the pace of the economic growth has slowdown in China and the pressure on the finance and economy has increased, the human capital-intensification or the resource-based production lost their attractiveness for the Chinese economic growth. The investment-stimulated growth lost their dynamics, and reduced growth rate of GDP, compelled the state to emphasise the innovation-oriented growth as the direction for future development.
Accordingly, in March 2015, the State Council issued the guidelines for the promoting mass entrepreneurship and in subsequent three months, some policy measures have been announced by the State Council for promoting mass entrepreneurship. Apart from this, the local governments such as the city government of Shanghai published documents that called for reinforcing the innovative actions of social administration in 2015. The idea of innovation is also prevailed in the social spheres of education, environment, anti-poverty efforts, health care and social assistance, as well as the charity and cultural activities. According to some studies, 31% of these innovative actions came from private agents, 14% from the public sector, and 52% from social sector.

What is the biggest challenge for social innovations to become alive?

The lack of legal instruments to support innovation actions: For instance, some studies highlighted the need for certain laws to encourage the growth of NGOs in regard to support social enterprises, cooperatives, self- administrated local groups which have developed in numerous ways of innovation in the social spheres.
The institutional barriers for making social innovations: These barriers exist pertaining to the system of registration for NGOs, the space for competition of social enterprises and the level of collaboration among different actors. These developments create a large free space of innovation.
However, within a strong authoritarian context, the way of social administration is in a top-down approach, which allows the state a strong power to control civil society, but generates a lacking of autonomy of civil agents, which reduce their momentum to make innovative actions in the social affairs. It also restricts the import of financial and human resource from different social sectors to make new experiments at the gross -root level.

Which impacts do you expect from social innovations for our societies?

From the positive view, social innovation should be able to create a strong dynamics for social change, which is the major power of social transformation. For this sake, social innovation in China can generate some fundamental change in society or in people’s daily lives. Social innovation can also have its effect on broadening people’s view, and may lead towards new perspectives of evaluating society. The assessments on the meanings of social experiment could be made in the light of changes in people’s spirit of adventure and risk taking and finding new way of living.
Through innovation, we can formulate new relations and linkages among different actors in social spheres and to formulate new alliances, new contacts and connections in order to create new institutional channels among social actors. Such effects can produce more opportunities for business and new resources of human connections and organisational interactions for such change.
Taking charity issue as an example, different agents and actors can work together to develop activities for social assistance and poor relief. In China, these collaborations among social actors can lead the innovative ways of donation, like the entertainment payment by Alibaba (fund-raising on internet), the happy donation by Tencent, the shared fund by Jindong and easy-buy in Suning. These initiatives bridged the IT companies with the needy people through the internet channels and they have become successful stories to combine business action with charitable actions to the needy groups.
In short, social innovation in China has been developed in different fields. The policy ‘innovation for social administration’ is promoted by the government for strengthening the power of social control. The innovation at the grass-root level happens usually through the motivation of community activities. The NGOs are encouraged to be more active on managing social affairs along with strong civil motivation, though the institutional structure imposes some barrier that limits the space for social innovation. The impetus for social innovation has also come from the development of internet and modern technology.
This technology-driven force for progress can be illustrated with some popular examples of smarting cities in urban management, the smart care for elderly people, and the use of internet and big data for community administration. For instance, by collecting the data on health care, housing and employment, it can be used for developing new systems of services on housing, elderly care and employment services. As increasing number of people utilise Weibo, Wechat and QQ to contact each other, to enhance efficient communication and saving time in current fast pace daily lives.

Author: Ka Lin