A short but interesting debate unfolds in the letters page of the current Foreign Policy magazine. One of its overarching messages is the critical role family plays in the stability of China.
Families, even extended families, provide a safety net that enables people to weather problems – periods of unemployment are easier to handle, forced relocations can become less of a burden. Family members can also band together to fight legal or regulatory injustice, pitch in for unexpected health care bills or buy land as a group or provide loans to start a business.
In short, families can provide the social safety network that the government does not provide.
In many ways, families balance out the damage that local government causes through corruption and a disproportionate emphasis on economic growth over welfare.
One way to help this is to allow for the faster development of civil society. Non-governmental organizations (NGOs), both domestic and foreign, are not yet allowed in China but there are signs of change.
On May 25, China Daily reported that the government is to create registration policies for NGOs (foreign NGOs have to operate as businesses in China) and streamline registrations for their domestic equivalents.
All this is part of an effort to deal with a very basic problem that Beijing: how to maintain its authority and legitimacy if economic growth begins to waver. As long as more people make more money than they did last year, all is good. If that changes, there are fears of social unrest. Nobody wants that.
Families can provide some stability in bad times but their ability to act as the country’s surrogate social safety provider only goes so far. A strong civil society can give people more recourse in times of trouble but Beijing needs to let go of some of the reins.