Contents this month
Public participation in China: one step forward, perhaps...
This article follows last
month's piece about Dialogue by Design being invited to a
conference in China to discuss public participation in decision-making.
It would be great to report that, as a result of our dynamic presence
for a long weekend before Christmas, China is now well on the way
to becoming a participative if not a representative democracy.
It may take a little longer than this, but it was very fascinating
and the likelihood is that we will continue to play a small part
in introducing the ideas that make sense to us here and which may
have some resonance for Chinese government at several levels.
The conference was organised by the Constitution Research Institute
of the China University of Politics and Law. It was designed to
enable Chinese and European academics and practitioners to compare
and contrast theory and practice.
I came away with three major impressions. The first is that beneath
the placid surface apparent to most visitors, political ideas are
bubbling away and people are clearly feeling able to discuss openly
questions that, even relatively recently, they would probably not
have done. Chief among these is whether tearaway capitalism must
inevitably lead to political pluralism.
Unfortunately interpreters can never catch the nuances of argument,
and in China it is the nuances and the subtle shading of opinions
that carry the real messages. From discussion with the Chinese-speaking
Westerners attending, however, it appears that there is quite a
struggle between ‘New Rightists’ and ‘New Leftists’ for
the political soul of Party and State.
My second impression is that we need to be careful about our use
of language when we are talking about public participation in China.
It is apparent that by ‘participation’ the Chinese
mean almost any contact between government and public. The careful
definitions of participation that we use - covering methodology
as well as purpose and representation - do not, by and large, apply.
So this conference was not so much about participation in the
sense that we understand it as about the idea and the principle
of whether, to what extent, and under what circumstances the public
should be allowed to have influence. Perhaps this was why my own
presentation, carefully illustrating different types of process
and their ramifications, was well received, particularly by the
officials who are tasked with dipping their toes into these dangerous
My final impression does not concern the conference at all. It
is simply that in the five years or so since I was last there,
the people seem to have gained a confidence and a swagger that
is both rather wonderful to see and, from the point of view of
our ageing economies, distinctly scary. I wonder if it will not
be this evolving social panache, rather than political theory,
that paves the way towards a more democratic future.