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Professor Baogang He
In recent years consultative and deliberative institutions have been developing in China and an increasing number of public hearings have provided people with opportunities to express their opinions on a wide range of issues, such as the price of water and electricity, park entry fees, the relocation of farmers, sites of historical interest, and even the famous Beijing zoo.
In the middle and latter 1990s, some villages have developed village representative meetings whereby major decisions on village affairs are discussed, debated and deliberated by village representatives. This local public hearing system has spread into local urban residential communities. In the Shangcheng district of Hangzhou city, for example, a consensus conference or consultation meeting is held regularly once a month.
Take the example of Wenling City in Zhejiang Province. It is a county-level city with a vibrant private economy. In some townships, private tax contributions constitute more than 70 per cent of the local budget. In 2004, Wenling City was awarded the national prize for Innovations and Excellence in Local Chinese Governance. From 1996 to 2000, more than 1190 deliberative and consultative meetings were held at village level, 190 at township level, 150 in governmental organizations, schools and the business sectors. Such meetings are called kentan, meaning 'sincere heart-to-heart discussion'. Some meetings were 'one shot' discussions; that is, one session dealt with only one topic; others were continuing sessions, for example, five deliberative meetings were held to deal with the relocation of the fishery industry. Still, some meetings were just consultative without connecting with decision-making directly and others were well connected to policy decision-making through the local people's congress.
The practice of the public hearing has also developed at the national level. In 1996, the first national law on administrative punishment introduced an article for the holding of a public hearing before any punishment is taken. The famous Article 23 of the Law on Price passed by the China's National Congress in December 1997 specified that the price of public goods must be decided through public hearings. This was followed by the Law on Legislature, passed in 2000, which required public hearings as an integral part of decision-making with regard to all legal regulations and laws. More than 50 cities have now held public legislative hearings. On 29 September 2005, a public hearing will be held by the National People's Congress Standing Committee to decide whether the central government should raise the personal income-tax threshold from 800 yuan to 1,500 yuan.
Public hearings, despite offering some measure of public consultation, have inherent problems: they are vague in procedural requirements; they are easily subject to manipulation; they are subject to greatly unequal participation, insufficient time for deliberation, and they lack any scientific guarantees of representativeness nor any means of producing clearly defined conclusions. In the public hearing on the adjustment of price of transportation, ordinary citizens have been powerless in the face of the agency for public transportation, which has vested interests and expertise.
WATCHPOINT: At the moment, the Beijing leadership fears the negative effects of competitive elections, and there are many restrictions imposed on direct town elections let alone national general elections. In this context, developing and improving the public hearing system is a democratization strategy. It is important to see whether the consultative and deliberative institutions of the public hearing will empower ordinary citizens or entrench the authoritarian state.
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