2005-2006 Annual Theme:
The Third Space of the ‘Commons’
The Debate on `Public’and `Private’ Capital Investment in the Reform Policies of the PRC
The central policy move toward deregulation is generating a crisis (or an opportunity) for public good provision in every sector. A space is opened up for private and pseudo-private providers to step in and take over responsibilities that used to fall into the hands of public authorities. This conference aims at exploring policy options that may nurture the emergence of the third space, an interstitial domain between the “private” and the “state” (which is often conflated in the Chinese context with the “public” or the“collective” ). To make the first step toward such a discussion, we will sort out the conceptual overlaps between terms such as the “state” (guan), the “public” (gong), and the “private” (si). We will also examine the conceptual ambiguity of the “commons” in China. Does it refer to state owned property, or privately owned collective property, collectively owned property, or some other hybrid experimental forms?
At this juncture when the provision of public goods (economic, energy and environmental goods, information and cultural public goods) is up for grabs as the result of deregulation policies, it is urgent to delimit the boundaries defining what should and should not be subject to market forces. Participants in this conference will address the boundaries in question. We will examine the basic terms of the creation of a policy environment that would be most conducive to the emergence of such an interstitial space, the “commons.” No matter how we define “common property” in the Chinese context, it is increasingly obvious that collective public goods are being squeezed between state and private appropriation. We need to discuss what kind of roles can state, collective actors, and private actors play in order to ensure the existence and growth of the third space?
We will start the conference with the discussion of the “public” and “private” conceptual divide, or lack of such a divide, in Chinese, European, and American contexts. This exercise will enable us to locate historically contingent models or experiences that had nurtured the rise of common properties. We then move on to the present. We will examine the crisis of pubic goods delivery in locate states side by side with the experimental practices of new rural cooperatives. The latter movement provides a fertile ground for our discussion of the “third space,” its utopian ideals, promises and problems encountered thus far.
Next, the conference examines the issue of “common” property. Case studies about different sectors are presented. The SOE reform and the controversy evolving around the Lang Xianping Incident is a case in point. The issue of “common” property is also embedded in the policies of Information Technology and cultural industries. In the latter sector, the shifting boundaries between the “public cultural goods” and commodifiable cultural goods result in volatile and often conflicting policies that threw the media and IT sectors into constant disarray. Because bundled rights and mixed investments has been the norm in reform economy, the question of “common” property is often conflated with “public” ownership in the cultural sector as well as in other economic sectors. It is time for us to distinguish those two concepts from each other and to highlight the question of the “commons.” We explore the elusiveness of the private/public divide and the possibility of the creation of a third space, the commons, for China.
The other two policy domains we examine are poverty alleviation and energy/environment. In each domain, the state is pulling back. Privatization is the going trend. Where the balance is going to fall and how will the notion of “free access” play itself out in those policy contexts are questions we will address.
To sum up, there are several larger issues at stake for participants of this conference: (1) the possibilities of the third space and policy incentives for local states to grow such a space; (2) Which kinds of public goods should be auctioned and which kinds should not be? (3) Some Chinese critics now argue that at issue is not only the privatization of public goods but also the entitlement and increasing legitimation of private capital and private interests to enter the public domains and to redefine the content of public goods (the privatization of education is a case in point). How should we evaluate this process which some called "siren caiquan shehuihua" (original text omited? Many argue that such an emerging scenario demands that the state undergo a transformation from the developmental state to a state that protects the third space from being nibbled away by privatization through legislative measures. Yet liberal thinkers argue the opposite: namely, that there is only partial privatization in China and that the state needs to retreat even further rather than intervene. The thematic focus on the “commons” in this conference will shift the current Chinese debate from the public/private divide to the terrain of “communities” and communal needs and actors. Furthermore, we need to ask what public and private actors can do to preserve that space that should not be claimed by either the “state” or “private” interests.