Social Management or Social Governance: a Review of Party and Government Discourse and why it Matters in Understanding Chinese Politics


The political report given by Xi Jinping at the 19th National Party Congress in late 2017 introduced the concept of “a social governance model based on co-construction, co-governance, and co-sharing.” This essay explores the use and interpretations of official discourse on governing society since the late 1980s to understand what is new about this concept. I examine key central documents and scholars’ interpretations of their language in order to analyse the changes in the Party’s stated thinking on governance, and to demonstrate the importance of central document analysis in understanding Chinese politics. I find that the term social governance does not have one clear, static meaning and that to argue otherwise would be misleading. Rather than developing in a linear way, as is often assumed, the concepts used in official discourse are found to be ambiguous and at times contradictory. This plays two important roles. It creates space for scholars to use official discourse as a channel for political participation, while at the same time facilitating the use of official language as technique for governing its users.

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    For example, in a 1996 speech on managing risks to economic growth Jiang Zemin cited specific issues—urbanization and migrant workers—as increasing the difficulty of “social management.”

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    This does not suggest the distinction between such organizations and government was clear. The plan calls for “filling them out” with “contingencies of government workers.”

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    It is beyond the scope of this paper to expand in detail on the concept of the “broader political atmosphere” but this is also something that can be understood better through analysis of central documents. For example, in the last few years the annual Government Work Report has contained an unprecedented amount of content about following the Party, e.g. the mandate to maintain Four Consciousnesses (四个意识).

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    For example, in some places, to be eligible to take on government contracts a social organization must have a three-star evaluation rating. Without sufficient Party building within the organization, it cannot be granted this rating.

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    To study the Party Constitution and regulations and Xi Jinping’s policy addresses, and to live up to Party standards.

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    To maintain political integrity, think in big-picture terms, follow the leadership core, and stay in alignment. First introduced in 2016 at a meeting of the Central Committee’s Political Bureau.


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Snape, H. Social Management or Social Governance: a Review of Party and Government Discourse and why it Matters in Understanding Chinese Politics. J OF CHIN POLIT SCI 24, 685–699 (2019).

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  • Social governance
  • Chinese politics
  • Discourse
  • Communist Party of China