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Newsletter, December 2006

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Public participation in China

Some things come out of the blue. Dialogue by Design is off to China to help some tentative moves towards greater public participation in decision-making. Yes, you read that right: it seems that the most populous nation on earth - and one of the most politically rigid - is not quite as rigid as we all thought.

It seems that there is a growing awareness in the Chinese government that with its surging economy will come increasing calls for political pluralism. There is no suggestion that a Western-style democracy at national level is on the cards yet, but recent State and Party statements indicate an understanding that non-democracies survive by allowing and engineering limited forms of public participation. New laws, for example, allow public hearings on administrative issues, and some local governments have even encouraged public assessment of service providers.

Dialogue by Design's initial role will be to describe our experience of public participation in the United Kingdom at a seminar in early December. We may also be meeting government officials to explore further the role of public participation in the delivery of good government.

This is all very exciting, but it is also potentially awkward for those of us who believe in public participation as an addition and complement rather than as an alternative to a true democracy. So while we will certainly be supportive, we will also be cautious and wary of the dangers of being co-opted into endorsing something that falls short of what democracy really means.

There is another edge to this foray into dangerous waters. In western Europe and North America, where we do most of our work, there is always the sense that the great epoch-making battles of political ideas are largely done and dusted. In eastern Europe, in Africa, Asia and South America, where our work takes us from time to time, political ideas are still evolving and history is still being written.

Who knows: maybe in China we will be able to make a tiny contribution to history. We'll let you know what happens.

This article was followed up in the January 2007 newsletter here.


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