2008: Chinese Focus Group Democracy Experiment in Chongqing

A novel expert-informed focus group experiment in Chongqing, China is described by Mark Leonard’s article “China’s new intelligentsia” in the March 2008 issue of the UK magazine Prospect.

Always hard to understand what democracy means in China since the word democracy is used in China as an abbreviation for the people’s democratic dictatorship 人民民主的专政  (renmin minzhude zhuanzheng) as well as in the western sense and political reform 政治改革 (zhengzhi gaige) is often shorthand for reform of structures 体制改革 (zhengzhi tizhi gaige) rather then “real” democratization.

The 4/2008 issue of Fortnightly (banyuetan), the open circulation version of the Chinese Communist Party semimonthly magazine, on p. 22 has an article on democratic reform. The article mentions that in provincial level party committee elections in the level-by-level elections culminating the selection of the delegates for the 17th Party Congress, there were 26.4% more candidates than seats, an increase of 2.7% over the previous Congress elections.  Fortnightly also mentions p. 21 the November 15 White Paper on the Chinese Political System and the precedent breaking event of a Politburo standing committee member (didn’t say who) representing the CPC at the installation of the new eight democratic parties in late 2007. (p. 21) .
In the same article, Yu Keping of the Translation Bureau and author of “Democracy is a Good Thing” (rated one of the ten top Chinese articles of 2007) is quoted as characterizing the Chinese political system since the beginning of opening and reform as “increasing democracy” 增量民主.  The Brookings Institution in 2009 published a collection of Yu Keping’s writings entitled Democracy is a Good Thing.

The idea of expert-advised focus groups is interesting. Perhaps it could work if it is about a matter that the local party boss or his extended network of family, friends and their friends do not care strongly about.

Here is the excerpt on focus group democracy from Mark Leonard’s article “China’s new intelligentsia

Chongqing is a municipality of 30m that few people in the west have heard of. It nestles in the hills at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialin Jiang rivers and it is trying to become a living laboratory for the ideas of intellectuals like Pan Wei and Fang Ning. The city’s government has made all significant rulings subject to public hearings–in person, on television and on the internet. The authorities are proudest of the hearings on ticket prices for the light railway, which saw fares reduced from15 to just 2 yuan (about 14p). This experiment is being emulated in other cities around China. But an even more interesting experiment was carried out in the small township of Zeguo in Wenling City–it used a novel technique of “deliberative polling” to decide on major spending decisions. The brainchild of a Stanford political scientist called James Fishkin, it harks back to an Athenian ideal of democracy (see “The thinking voter,” Prospect May 2004). It involves randomly selecting a sample of the population and involving them in a consultation process with experts, before asking them to vote on issues.

Zeguo used this technique to decide how to spend its 40m yuan (2.87m) public works budget. So far the experiment has been a one-off but Fishkin and the Chinese political scientist He Baogang believe that “deliberative democracy” could be a template for political reform. The authorities certainly seem willing to experiment with all kinds of political innovations. In Zeguo, they have even introduced a form of government by focus group. But the main criterion guiding political reform seems to be that it must not threaten the Communist party’s monopoly on power. Can a more responsive form of authoritarianism evolve into a legitimate and stable form of government?

In the long term, China’s one-party state may well collapse. However, in the medium term, the regime seems to be developing increasingly sophisticated techniques to prolong its survival and pre-empt discontent. China has already changed the terms of the debate about globalisation by proving that authoritarian regimes can deliver economic growth. In the future, its model of deliberative dictatorship could prove that one-party states can deliver a degree of popular legitimacy as well. And if China’s experiments with public consultation work, dictatorships around the world will take heart from a model that allows one-party states to survive in an era of globalisation and mass communications. China scholars in the west argue over whether the country is actively promoting autocracy, or whether it is just single-mindedly pursuing its national interest. Either way, China has emerged as the biggest global champion of authoritarianism. The pressure group Human Rights Watch complains that “China’s growing foreign aid programme creates new options for dictators who were previously dependent on those who insisted on human rights progress.”

About 高大伟 David Cowhig

Retired now, translated Liao Yiwu's 2019 "Bullets and Opium", and studying some things. Worked 25 years as a US State Department Foreign Service Officer including ten years at US Embassy Beijing and US Consulate General Chengdu and four years as a China Analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence and Research. Before State I translated Japanese and Chinese scientific and technical books and articles into English freelance for six years. Before that I taught English at Tunghai University in Taiwan for three years. And before that I worked two summers on Norwegian farms, milking cows and feeding chickens.
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