Digital governance meets rural society

By CAO JINGYUAN and SUN XIULIN / 03-14-2024 / Chinese Social Sciences Today

Under the principle of “handling administrative needs without leaving the village on rural governance platforms,” public services are now included on digital governance systems. Photo: TUCHONG

Digital governance is a governance technique that involves the collection, computation, and application of digital information to the field of social regulation. With major advancements to the development and application of digital information technology in recent years, China has taken policy measures to promote rural digital governance. To align with these policy goals, many regions have begun to experiment with the application of digital governance techniques in rural settings.

Digital governance experiment

Since 2010, region “A” has been experimenting with incorporating digital governance into various rural public service reforms. In 2019, this region attempted to introduce comprehensive coverage via digital governance innovations. This article relies on extensive surveys of participants in rural governance reform pilot projects within region A from July to September 2020. Our research team focused on the development and application of a comprehensive digital rural governance platform—Hongtaoshu Rural Governance Platform (hereafter referred to as the “Hongtaoshu Platform”). Hongtaoshu means red peach tree in Chinese. 

Through research and analysis, field teams found that the governance functions eventually implemented by the Hongtaoshu Platform deviated from the A-region government’s initial expectations. Initially, the initiative aimed to establish a “point-to-point” direct governance relationship with each villager and to quantify all governance actions in rural governance. However, the platform gradually shifted to supplement the linear governance path of a “township government-village committee” and platform usage also gradually integrated digital governance technology with the “family governance model.” The family governance model utilizes the constantly expanding structural order and ethical norms of families as a means of governance, covering a range of relationships from family to neighborhood. On a practical level, these seemingly distinct governance mechanisms are intertwined. But how do family governance models and digital governance intersect in real technological applications? With this question in mind, our field team began to research the governance practices of Hongtaoshu Platform in region A.

The operation mechanism of the Hongtaoshu Platform exhibits institutionalized, procedural, and digital governance characteristics. However, further analysis of its actual operation reveals that behind the long-term effectiveness of the Hongtaoshu Platform lies a family governance based operational mechanism. 

Township governments are the link between state power and primary-level society. This system concentrates the management of administrative regulation, services, and tasks at the township level. The initial plan for this platform was to turn each villager’s governance actions into specific digits and manage these individual actions through digital technology. But this strategy not only faced administrative barriers but also operational difficulties in digitizing an impossibly large number of daily life-related behaviors. Ultimately, the Hongtaoshu Platform relied on family units to carry out governance actions, as this operational logic was more efficient.

A series of task processes were directed to the Hongtaoshu Platform to emphasize the supervisory function of governance efficiency. In the Hongtaoshu Platform, all governance tasks were ultimately simplified into growth values, and primary-level governments are only concerned with monitoring the progress of governance through digital processes. Thus, digital simplification of governance actions left room for the family governance model to flourish. 

To achieve governance objectives as quickly as possible, primary-level governments encouraged village committees to choose the most efficient governance methods. In livelihood-related governance, taking advantage of the integrated relationships within families was a relatively efficient and streamlined governance method. For example, region A recently focused on the administrative reform of funerals. Here, the family’s integrated nature helped village committees better address reforms, quickly achieving their governance objectives. The same was true for marriage customs, and other events which blended ceremony, state, and family.

Irreplaceability of family governance

On the systems end, digital governance has a preference for individualization. When computational technology was introduced into the Hongtaoshu Platform, information was collected and growth values were calculated on an individual basis. Regardless of which module issued tasks, the tasks were ultimately assigned to specific individuals for execution, and growth values were attached to individuals.

The governance objects of primary-level rural governance are the integrated relationship networks formed by families. Family relationships extend from kinship-based “small families” to clans based on blood relationships. In rural acquaintance society, highly overlapping living spaces make it so that integrated family relationships can extend to neighbors, fellow villagers, and other communities, making the integrated characteristics of daily life more apparent. In this scenario, how does digital governance apply to the complex social structure of family networks?

On the surface, familial relationships appear to make computational structures and operation mechanisms more complex on the Hongtaoshu Platform. The growth values in the Hongtaoshu Platform ultimately present two calculation paths: family growth values and individual growth values. Adding to the complexity is the process of simplifying governance behavior into digits, because it’s sometimes difficult to do so. As governance is closely linked to villagers’ daily lives, which are precisely conducted on a household basis, governance actions based on daily life cannot always be allocated to individuals.

In addition to the difficulty of delineating which clusters of individuals are “families” in digital governance, the reward and punishment mechanism for growth values is also constrained by the integrated structural relationships of families. Currently, growth values can be exchanged for daily necessities, and these rewards are closely related to family livelihood needs. Moreover, rewards such as approval for homestead qualification rights, party membership, and chances to become village heads are mutually beneficial among family members, meaning that the qualifications obtained by individuals will ultimately benefit other members of a family. For example, homesteads — an important part of rural settlements — are a multifunctional compound space where rural residents can produce, live, entertain, and communicate together. These seemingly individualized mechanisms are often used in shared settings by families.

This integrative tension of shared family interests can influence villagers’ behavior. Interconnections between family relationships and daily governance makes coverage more effective on the Hongtaoshu Platform. To gain more benefits for family members living in the village, the collective nature of families inspires villagers with previously low participation rates to engage in primary-level governance. For example, in Village K, during the two years they used the Hongtaoshu Platform, the number of volunteers in the village increased by nearly 500 people, with the total number of volunteers exceeding one-fifth of the registered village population.

The extended reach of families is also applied to governance through the Hongtaoshu Platform. In the growth value system, moral scores account for a large proportion of the recorded value, and the “moral governance module” in the “Five Governance” module of the Hongtaoshu Platform is the main source for increasing the growth value. In the “moral governance” module, a series of clear moral behavioral norms are set, such as filial piety to parents, harmonious relationships between mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law, and harmony among neighbors, which demonstrate the extension of ethical relationships from within families to the outside network.

It is evident that this kind of routine valuation on the Hongtaoshu Platform can sometimes be overlooked by executors, and the family governance it pursued may not necessarily produce substantive governance effects. However, from the perspective of advocating moral and ethical relationships, as the developer of modern, rational, and institutionalized governance technology, the township government still to some extent continues the logic of family governance, hoping to shape a stable, more integrated, and better social order based on moral ethics.

Dynamics of new collaboration

Statistical calculations of family growth values are also tracked on the Hongtaoshu Platform, and the calculation method based on families intuitively reflects the integrated-family governance concept as indicated in the Hongtao Index. This integration of “families” prevents separate individual behavior and interests from isolating people from their families. The ambiguous governance mechanism linking individuals and families in the calculation logic of growth values is precisely a fundamental governance skill. The A-region government has utilized the integrative nature of “families” to gain traction on the Hongtaoshu Platform, encouraging more people to join the management mechanism of the Hongtao Index.

The family governance model is irreplaceable in rural governance, while digital governance also has corresponding advantages. Thanks to the development of information technology, digital technology is continuously optimizing its application in rural governance. Its core advantage lies in the ability to introduce computational governance techniques into rural governance, where people, events, and objects in rural areas can be transformed into digits, enabling intuitive management. In other words, digital governance can establish institutionalized, refined, and depersonalized management mechanisms through comprehensive information collection. 

Digital governance establishes transparent governance procedures, which allows for comprehensive supervision of primary-level governance practices. The Hongtaoshu Platform clearly leaves space for village-level governance practices in its institutional settings, while ensuring the simplest governance efficiency through digitization, intertwining the institutional mechanisms of family governance and digital governance.

The introduction of information technology gives the tension of collective family relationships a spatial mobility, and it also encourages mobile populations to participate in rural governance. Under the principle of “handling administrative needs without leaving the village but on rural governance platforms,” public services are incorporated into the governance system of the Hongtaoshu Platform, so that now all governance-related matters concerning the elderly and middle-aged populations living in the village are connected to the Hongtaoshu Platform. To encourage older citizens to participate normally in village affairs, even if their children do not reside in their home village, they still can register personal and family information through mobile phones and other electronic devices to help their parents submit and handle relevant affairs online.

In this era, amid modernization and social transformation the “social heritage” rooted in the countryside still plays an important role in governance. As long as each villager is covered by the family relationships in their village, everyone will be covered within the governance scope of the Hongtaoshu Platform, further achieving governance connectivity within the village. This is the main motive for the government in region A to leave space for family networks in the Hongtaoshu Platform governance mechanism. It allows the institutional norms of digital computational technology to harness the power of infinitely extended family relationships, intertwining these dynamics in a more robust governance practice.

Cao Jingyuan is from the School of Sociology at Shanghai University; Sun Xiulin is a professor from the Department of Sociology at the School of Social Sciences at Tsinghua University.

Edited by YANG XUE