July 17, 2005

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Democracy's long, slow march

One of the (many) problems with totalitarian government is it does not have a feedback mechanism. Especially in a country as vast as China, there are no effective ways for the government to hear from its citizenry. In a country that is rapidly growing richer, that is no longer good enough. Irene Wang in the (unlinkable) SCMP reports on a growing phenomena, public forums:

In recent years, many cities and rural areas have held public hearings on policies that affect ordinary people. The process is not designed to challenge the Communist Party and does not include direct elections, but gives people a say in public decision-making.

Some analysts say contact between the government and public interest groups may help defuse rising social tension and usher in a kind of democracy with Chinese characteristics. But observers also question the effectiveness of the process and whether it can become an institutionalised part of the way decisions are made.

The hearings became part of the legal system in the past decade with the introduction of legal codes on legislation, administrative punishment and pricing. As a result, the hearings have mainly focused on price increases and the drafting of regulations.

One place where the idea has taken off, with surprising results, is in Zeguo, a rich township in the coastal province of Zhejiang . More than 250 residents were picked at random to represent the permanent population of 120,000 people. They met recently to discuss and rate which projects would be funded by the town's budget this year. The local people's congress backed the consensus to make it legitimate. Zeguo Township's party secretary and meeting organiser, Jiang Zhaohua, said the outcome was different from what officials expected.

"We thought our people would like projects with immediate visible effects, but on the contrary, they voted for the projects with long-term benefits," Mr Jiang said. "The usual practice of local governments is for 20 people from the party committee sitting together and deciding everything behind closed doors."

Zeguo township and the other 15 administrations under Wenling city began holding open discussions six years ago. The city's publicity department came up with the idea to explore how to "enhance and improve ideological and political work". Gradually, the discussions turned into public policy debates in which anybody could express their opinions.

"The discussion process has been institutionalised," Wenling publicity official Chen Yimin said. "We assess officials based on how well they implement the system, and people question officials if any important public policy goes through without debate."

But one swallow does not make a summer (or even a good night).
However, Wenling is still a relatively rare case among the mainland's 660 cities and 20,600 township governments. More often than not, authorities are opaque and tend to ignore public complaints, fuelling rising conflict between citizens and the local authorities...

Land disputes are a factor in the country's rapid urbanisation and modernisation and some analysts doubt that open deliberation will have any real impact on the situation. Cai Dingjian , a former deputy director of the National People's Congress Standing Committee Research Office, said the hearings were mostly for show. "Few members of the congress attend the hearings," Professor Cai said. "In most cases staff members just give the members a summary of their opinions or judgment, and so the hearings cannot have much of an effect on legislation."

Shanghai Jiaotong University professor Zhu Mang is also sceptical. "The public hearings carry no legal onus, and no laws specify how public hearings should influence decision-making," he said. "The deliberative process in Zeguo is established and organised by the almighty party committee, fitting in with China's reality. But it's up to those in power to popularise the Zeguo model and rein in official influence, and we should find incentives for them to do so."

If the CCP wants a realistic chance of holding on to power, this will be one of the ways they will do it. But can the vested interests, the local autocrats and regional despots overcome their hubris? Not likely. China does not have a tradition of participatory representation, as our next article from the SCMP attests.
Nearly half of the more than 300 Guangdong deputies to the provincial and national people's congresses are against a proposal to regularly report on their work to their constituents. The Guangdong People's Congress Standing Committee sent out more than 900 questionnaires to members of the Guangdong People's Congress and Guangdong's representatives to the National People's Congress. In an Information Times report yesterday, only 53.8 per cent of the more than 300 representatives who replied said they supported regular reports to constituents, saying it would help members do their jobs better and take their positions seriously.

But members who opposed the idea said it was just another formality and would put an unnecessary burden on them.

Dong Guoqiang, a congress member in Shenzhen, backed the proposal. "Being a deputy is not a glory but a responsibility," he said. Regular reports to constituents would be an effective way to listen to the public.

Yesterday, in chat rooms on mainland website sina.com, people registered overwhelming criticism of congress members against the idea.

Feng Ye, a Shenzhen resident, said congress members should be accountable to their constituents because it was their duty. "It shows there is a problem with our system," he said. Guangzhou resident Liang Yun, 23, also said members should report to their constituents. She Liang said members should report to their constituents at least once a year and it would be unreasonable for deputies to claim they did not have the time to do so.

Guo Weiqing, a politics professor at Sun Yat-sen University, said the key problem was that congress members were not fulltime and many did not do enough for their constituents. He pointed out that deputies seldom published contact numbers for the public.

The "people's representatives" are no such thing. Both articles highlight totalitarians grappling with accountability. While a few in power are starting to deal with the public's aspirations, the vast majority are carrying on with business as usual. And if the public can't vent through forums and representatives, they will find other ways. Regardless, business as usual no longer works.

posted by Simon on 07.17.05 at 02:58 PM in the


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