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Newsletter, January 2007

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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 waters.

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.

Andrew Acland


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