General Secretary Li Xueming talks about consultation according to Confucius
Mariek de Valk
If you cannot reach agreement, put the topic to one side and let time do its work. The Economic and Social Council of China adheres to this ancient Confucian principle, which emphasises harmony above all else. The Council accepts that decision-making may take a long time, says its general secretary Li Xueming.
The Economic and Social Council of China was established eight years ago by the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), founded in its turn by the Communist Party in 1949. The Council is one of the many committees that report to the CPPCC. The CPPCC’s first chairman was Mao Zedong, who was also the leader of the Communist party and head of state of the People's Republic.
Even now, the Chinese government keeps a firm grip on both the Council and trade and industry. Employees who attempt to organise themselves into free trade unions are prosecuted, and calling a strike may result in a prison sentence. Independent trade unions are prohibited. There is only one trade union, the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU), which is controlled by the state and the Communist Party. Membership is not compulsory, but if employees wish to negotiate collectively about employment terms and working conditions at company level, they must join the ACFTU.
Still, things are improving slowly. Some enterprises are already attempting to organise a form of employee participation. They manoeuvre within the boundaries of Chinese law in order to comply as closely as possible with the OECD guidelines. For example, various foreign enterprises have set up internal “trade unions” to protect employees’ rights. And the Chinese authorities are gradually beginning to recognise the importance of improving employee participation. They realise that it will increase productivity and reduce employee turnover, sickness and social insurance costs. Li Xueming, general secretary of the Economic and Social Council of China, says nothing about all this, however. He prefers to emphasise the efforts made to achieve harmony. Compared with the Dutch Social and Economic Council, the Chinese Council is quite large, with more than 200 members. How do you manage to hold productive meetings with so many people?
“It certainly isn’t easy. We issue advice at the request of the Government or the CPPCC, but we also do so on our own initiative. It takes time to reach agreement. Sometimes we even have to lay a problem aside twice, until the time is ripe for further consultation. If there really is no other way, then our advice is divided. The Government appreciates our advice, because it cannot be expected to know everything. So it considers it useful to consult us. The Council has very clever scientists and other experts among its members.” What does the Economic and Social Council of China work on?
“We have four special committees that work on economic and social issues, environmental matters and international affairs. We also have a number of working parties, one of which organises a forum on an important social-economic topic each year. The other working parties are international in orientation. One working party focuses on contacts with the AICESIS, the worldwide association of economic and social councils. Another organises round-table discussions with Europe, yet another focuses on Chinese-African relations, and the final one on Chinese-Latin American relations. We are working to build a harmonious world by promoting dialogue between different cultures.” Why does the Economic and Social Council focus so much on foreign countries?
“We are eager to cooperate with other countries and to learn from them. For example, in 2001 we went to the Netherlands. Prime Minister Wim Kok gave a very impressive speech. But our contacts with the economic and social councils in the AICESIS are very important for us as well.” What is the biggest challenge facing your economic and social council?
“Like other countries, China has felt the effects of the worldwide economic recession. We must all work with our government to overcome the crisis. It is not easy to get everyone working together. The biggest problem for China is that we are a developing nation. Rapid economic growth is accompanied by the exhaustion of natural resources and environmental pollution. We have already done a lot about this, as part of our preparations for the Olympic Games in Beijing. But it is a constant source of concern, of course. That is why we consider sustainable development, climate change and corporate social responsibility important issues.”
|Social and Economic Councils Worldwide |
Social and economic councils and similar institutions are active around the world. The councils that operate in Europe consult one another regularly. Furthermore, there is a worldwide federation of social and economic councils, known as the AICESIS. Its aim is to promote the exchange of experience between councils worldwide and to encourage the establishment of social and economic councils in other countries.
How do all these different councils work? Part 5 (final instalment): the Economic and Social Council of China (2010).