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The CCP and complex systems engineering

One of the earliest voices on the subject of social management’s automation through technology and systems thinking was the influential Marxist theorist Yu Guangyuan.5 In 1977, Yu wrote that like the application of natural science to Marxism, China’s “modernized production management and social management established based on automation also require widespread application of the technologies stemming from modern natural science.”6

The advancements Yu referred to were made in the mid-20th century in areas like mathematics, engineering and technology. These were pioneered by researchers such as Norbert Wiener, the mathematician and philosopher who pioneered cybernetics, and Claude E. Shannon, the mathematician, cryptographer and electrical engineer who is credited with founding information theory.7 In China, two influential leaders of this way of thinking were scientists Qian Xuesen, the “father of Chinese rocketry” and the author of Engineering Cybernetics (1954), and Song Jian, a renowned scientist and cybernetics expert.

A critical aspect of this different way of problem solving is that it views a system as an organism in a dynamic, non-linear environment. As it relates to social management, the way of thinking is not limited to the potential application of technology itself, but is inclusive of how the social management system must be designed before automation objectives can be realized.

The social management system seen in China today is influenced strongly by Song’s and Qian’s work, among others. The way of thinking they promoted has influenced thinking of successive CCP leaders. In fact, Hu Jintao acknowledged the influence of Qian’s application of engineering cybernetics on his scientific development concept, saying to Qian in 2008:

“In the early 1980s, when I was at the Central Party School, I listened to your report. Your theory emphasized that in order to handle complex problems, [we] must pay attention to grasping [the problem] from the overall perspective, and give overall consideration to all factors involved. This was a very original idea. Now we emphasize scientific development, which is to pay attention to the overall plan, taking into account all factors, and paying attention to all-around coordination to enable sustainable development.”8

The report Hu referred to had likely been presented during a “Central Party and Government Lecture Series on the New Technological Revolution” in 1984. A summary of the report, written by Song Jian, said that, “leaps and bounds in science and technology” since the 1940s had “influenced or given rise to transformations in the way social management agencies work.”9 In his report, Qian stated that adopting a systems engineering approach in the social domain required, among other things, establishing targets and facilities for systems analysis, a professional team implementing job responsibility, an overall design requirement with capacity for systems analysis, and a senior official with strong leadership and command ability.10


1. Leninism and Complex Systems 

The application of systems engineering to upgrade the social management system should be seen more as a natural progression than a fundamental shift in tactic. The concepts behind modern social management can be directly traced to the Mao era. In essence, the CCP has used modern scientific and technological concepts emerging from systems theories to reframe and update Leninist concepts. Among these are three key, and related, ideas that resonate with both Leninism and complex systems engineering: holism, dialectics and dynamic equilibrium.

Holism: In the Party’s way of thinking on management methods, a holistic approach is the starting point. This means simply that a problem is first viewed by thinking about the entire system, not an individual source of the problem within that system. As such, concepts like social management are purposefully and necessarily broad. Social management for instance includes everything from the provision of social services to emergency response. Each of these issues may be addressed on an individual level but are still an integral part of the larger process. Solving of problems on an individual level, a reductionist approach, does take place. As problems are solved however, the whole system is always engaged in a continuous cycle of change and development, making it impossible to solve one problem without considering how the entire system is impacted.11

Dialectics: For the Chinese Communist Party, dialectics are a way of dealing with complex problems. Bertell Ollman argued that the themes of science, critique, vision and strategy for revolution found in Marxism are “intertwined and so mutually dependent that it is difficult to separate them completely from each other.”12 The concept of dialectics, as applied to society, suggests society consists of many parts that are not independent of each other; rather, they intertwine. When one part changes, others invariably change with it, forming a natural system characterized by a continuous course of interaction and change.

Dynamic Equilibrium: Dynamic equilibrium describes a process in a constant state of motion. As soon as equilibrium is achieved it will be quickly followed by disequilibrium. In reality, the concept of dynamic equilibrium is not even about maintaining a single dynamic equilibrium, but about maintaining multiple dynamic equilibria within a single system.13 In essence: multiple problems are solved, multiple new problems, or new versions of old problems, emerge.


2. Updating Maoist Self-Management

The themes of modern social management are found in the Mao era, particularly through the idea of the “people’s participation” in social management. Social management has also always dealt with an integration of multiple facets of social, economic and political life. In its idealized form, the participation concept is operationalized through the combination of cooperative and coercive tactics. Together, these objectives describe “self-management.”

The idea of self-management is still a critical part of social management. In fact, the “social governance” section of Xi’s work report at the 19th Party Congress highlighted public participation, stating that society’s self-regulation and residents’ self-governance reinforce each other. Self-management, however, does not imply autonomy. Instead it describes the ideal function of the CCP’s governance system. To achieve self-management requires the successful automation of government functions through a combination of cooperative and coercive government tactics.

The template for the CCP’s social management process was visible in the Mao era. During the Great Leap Forward, one 1958 CCP Central Committee directive printed in the PLA Daily described the commune system. It said commune members were being recruited “extensively to participate in social management”.14 It added that voluntary passion for social management should be identified and absorbed with the aim to strengthen the Party. In its ideal form, the commune system was a self-managing unit of production. The commune was also directed at the self-management of social life, the allocation of resources, administration and Party-state power.15 In actuality, the Great Leap Forward involved the extensive use of violent coercion, and resulted in famine and the deaths of at least 30 million people in rural China, or even, if Frank Dikötter’s research is correct, at least 45 million people.16 Nevertheless, most of the key concepts and objectives in the idealized version of the commune system, described in the 1958 central committee directive, have remained consistent.

Work units, danwei, offer a similar example. Danwei were not only places of work. They were also tools for political mobilisation, which used co-option and coercion. Work unit members were allocated public goods and were classified based on their “good” or “bad” political standing.17 The division of society into smaller units did not allow autonomy from the Party. Instead, the divisions were directed at the creation of subsystems to enforce political control over a physical space. The key concepts and objectives in this example have remained consistent, even though social management no longer involves the concept of joining individual units of production to the process of social organization. The obvious difference is that in the present day, mass mobilization is not as visible as it was in the Mao era. The tactics have been redesigned, the objective has not.