“It might seem disconcerting to discuss democratic participation in authoritarian China…”

Talking about citizen participation in China may seem disconcerting. Between local traditions and the interests of the Communist Party, researcher Su Yun Woo (1) offers a critical and nuanced analysis of a multi-faceted and often understood decision-making system.

Missions Publiques. Your research focuses on local citizen participation in China. What can you tell us about this?

Su Yun Woo. My research on China has been a fruitful journey. At first, I didn’t realize how fascinating and frustrating the country would be. I have had to navigate what I call the three Cs: complexities, contradictions, and confusion.
First, the country is huge. And it’s hard to envisage just how big it is and just how many people live in it. It has the largest population of a single country in the world. Its current population is over 1.4 billion, which is 18% of the whole world’s population! Compare that to the US, whose population makes up for a comparatively tiny 4.2% and the UK, which makes up for just 0.9%. This geographical and demographic landscape makes it complex to understand how decisions are being made and the way participatory outcomes are being apprehended.
It’s also a country of contradictions, with policymakers who are eager to learn the best practices from the West while at the same time, being mindful and compatible with Chinese local history and conditions. These contradictions, with so many levels and actors involved, don’t come with coherence and consistency. Though sometimes this lack of consistency can be an advantage. For example, some party officials can decide to allow a participatory process at local level to experiment with Western methods (often localized to suit the Chinese context), without knowing where the boundaries are.

And then, there is confusion in ensuring the implementation of policies due to the interpretation of political priorities, as well as reconciling the objectives of the Communist Party versus what the different groups of society think and want. Also, because of the complexities and contradictions mentioned before, coordinating participatory processes can cause confusion. As a result, citizens sometimes become frustrated and unhappy when for example, they see that they haven’t been selected to participate, because most times local processes actually have very meaningful outcomes and the people do desire to participate.

"Participatory processes reduce the political costs of dealing with citizens' grievances.

Su Yun Woo

Postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Political Science at the University of Zurich

Missions Publiques. How do these Chinese local participatory processes operate?

Su Yun Woo. It might seem disconcerting to discuss democratic participation in authoritarian China, but participation is indeed happening on the ground, albeit with Chinese characteristics. Chinese participatory formats range from public hearings about utility prices at the national level to participatory budgeting at the local level though most of the extensive participation occurs at the local level. There are various official channels for people to provide input on selective issues, such as land development, environmental regulations, and law enforcement, but one of the most prominent forms of participation is participatory budgeting.

One prominent example of participatory budgeting is in Wenling City, in the Eastern Zhejiang province, which incorporates deliberative polling, a public opinion participatory process designed by well-renowned Stanford professor, James Fishkin, who came to advise teams of organisers. Residents participate in managing this fund by proposing community service-oriented projects and then selecting through deliberative meetings the projects that will be implemented in their neighbourhoods. This experiment has continued and been sustained because the Chinese actors acquired a reputation on the international radar by keeping to the “golden-standards of participation”, and it has become institutionalised in the local budgetary policy making process. They even kept on randomly selecting citizens to attend the meetings and paying them approximately 7 dollars for their time and contribution.

Interestingly, a lot of these participatory processes emerged as a more organic form of deliberation based on participatory processes that existed already in localities. Organisers often tap into the local culture to push for participatory experiments. For example, Wenling’s participatory budgeting can be considered an evolution from a local form of democratic talk (called ‘democratic talk in all sincerity’, Kentan 恳谈). In the West China, the participatory culture was considered to be inspired by the tea-house culture where people sit and drink tea and discuss matters. Therefore, each region has its own pre-existing conditions and factors, culture and tradition of participation and China has been able to build on that.

The most obvious difference is due to the political system and the actors involved, and they are never completely independent from the Communist Party of China. Many organisers of the participatory processes in China are either party-state actors, or even the societal actors would have to work closely with the party. It is inevitable that the organisers often have to be subject to party control to ensure alignment with the Party’s interest. I would call them the societal actors social organisations rather than NGOs, as they aren’t NGOs in the Western sense of the word, since many are directly part of the State’s infrastructure (such as the All China Women Federation for example). Some of these social organisations used to be able to operate quite independently in the past, as they were doing the government a favour by providing essential social services to the people, so authorities tend to allow them to run their operation without much interference. In the past decade or so however, the situation is a lot more restrictive and challenging because the government wants to regulate the presence and the operation of these social organisations, tightening control over civil society. This is to ensure that the Chinese government will be able to keep track of the social organisations .So, participation in the political system in China can happen, but in a party controlled and managed way.

But this doesn’t mean that meaningful impact cannot be achieved from these participatory processes, on the contrary. Participatory processes in China are not necessarily window-dressing. Although the Communist party of China is not implementing participatory experimentations for normative reasons of democracy promotion and education, at least not in the Western sense, it has its pragmatic goals in doing so. It is also in the political interest of the party to allow a voice to people in selected areas and selected levels, and far more at the local level than at national, in order to improve governance and enhance legitimacy.

Missions Publiques. It seems difficult to proceed without the Chinese Communist Party controlling the participation. Can we still talk about “independence” or freedom of expression?

Su Yun Woo. Fundamentally, China’s government is still trying to perform well despite the fact that it’s not democratic. To stay in power, the Communist party state needs to deliver good policies and appease people. For a while, the phenomenal economic growth has enabled the communist party to enjoy (economic) performance legitimacy that made the people accept its rule. However, as the Chinese economy matures and slows down, coupled with the socio-economic problems and grievances that emerged as a result of the rapid economic growth, the Communist party state in China is not able to rely on economic performance to secure its rule. Participatory processes lower the political costs of dealing with citizens grievances. Even if it’s not a democracy, people have ways of showing their dissatisfaction. Therefore, listening to the people serves a very pragmatic objective because it is a more efficient way of increasing the acceptability of the policy decisions if the Chinese government includes the inputs of the citizens. Participation can pre-empt problems and grievances that can arise later by ensuring that the opinions of the people are considered in the policy making. And this is true also in democratic countries of course. Governments don’t want to face unpleasant questions such as “why does this policy not reflect what the people want?”. Of course, more sensitive issues such as inequalities, foreign affairs like Taiwan or human rights are out of the scope of participatory because they can undermine the State’s authority. Public budgeting is a close-to-heart issue because citizens can have a say on bread and butter issues, such as the budget to improve schools for their children or road safety in their communities.

(1) Su Yun Woo is a researcher who focused on local citizen participation in China, urban governance and democratic innovations. She teaches two Bachelor courses, “Political development in Contemporary China” and “Urban Governance Challenges in Greater China,” as well as a Master’s-level course, “China’s Rise: Implications for International Relations.” She is part of the Missions Publiques fellows program.
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