A new chapter in govt transparency

Publication: ST^ST

Date: Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Page: A21

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited

DEVELOPING GRASSROOTS DEMOCRACY IN CHINA

BY GOH SUI NOI

SENIOR WRITER

THE remote, impoverished township of Baimiao in the western province of Sichuan caused a stir in China earlier this year when it posted its government spending online.

Its January accounts were posted in March, following a local government decision to make public its monthly accounts online. There were 44 expenditure items on this ledger (excluding salaries accounted for under a separate table). Entertaining government officials took up the largest share of over 65 per cent of total expenditure. The smallest item recorded was a writing pad costing 1.5 yuan.

News of this bold move spread like wildfire on the Internet after a posting on it in March, titled “China’s first naked township government”. The story was picked up by Chinese mainstream media and widely reported.

Contrary to fears of local government officials, there was little criticism of the large amounts spent on entertaining but much praise for the attempt at transparency. Wrote a netizen on popular bulletin board Tianya: “At least this is a step forward.” Another wrote that it did not matter how much was spent on entertaining so long as this was made transparent.

There was more to this experiment than merely putting government spending under public scrutiny.

Baimiao, with a population of 11,000, is so poor that 8.5 million yuan (S$1.7 million) of its 10 million yuan yearly budget comes from the higher levels of government. The township’s budget also comes under the county government, leaving the local government little wiggle room for deciding how to spend the money.

It takes a bold local leader to go down the path of budget reform, especially any reform that involves public discussion of the government budget. But that was what Baimiao party secretary Zhang Yingshang did, with the help of grassroots democracy advocate Li Fan, director of the Beijing-based private think-tank, China and the World Institute.

So it was that, on the morning of Jan 24, a detailed budget was put before 72 representatives of Baimiao’s residents for discussion. The representatives, picked by the township government, included retired and current party cadres, and deputies to the local people’s Congress.

The discussion was lively, with many representatives wanting to have their say on residents’ concerns and priorities, such as the improvement of roads and supplies of electricity and water. Residents’ views were included in the budget report sent to the county government.

The township government then went a step further by putting its monthly expenditures on the Internet. One positive effect was the gain in trust from residents, some of whom suspected the Baimiao government of corruption. By publicising the expenditures, government officials also reduced the pressure they may face from higher officials or relatives to set aside some funds for their private use, said a China Daily report.

What surprised and delighted Mr Li was the enthusiastic participation of the poor and lowly educated Baimiao residents. This showed that participatory democracy could work not just in the rich coastal regions but also in China’s poorer inland regions, he wrote in articles.

Before Baimiao, Mr Li had been working since 2005 with Wenling city in the rich coastal province of Zhejiang to promote participatory budget-making as a way to develop grassroots democracy.

China began direct elections for village committees in the late 1980s and later expanded such elections to township people’s congresses or legislatures. However, the central government has been reluctant to expand such elections further.

In such a situation, Mr Li sees participatory budgeting as another way of furthering democracy. “This type of dialogue-style democracy has taken the place of the development of elections,” he told The Straits Times in an e-mail interview. But he added that the aim was to go back to expanding elections in China, through governance reform and people’s participation in political affairs.

He also pushes the involvement of local people’s congresses in the budget- making process as a way to strengthen their roles as democratic institutions.

Together with a Chinese academic in 2005, Mr Li developed a model for Xinhe township in Wenling city that combined democratic consultation with the workings of the local people’s congress.

A preliminary review of the budget – democratic consultation – would be done by three groups looking from the perspectives of industry, agriculture and society. These groups were made up of people’s congress deputies, representatives of business associations, social organisations and other fields, as well as individual volunteers. A report would be drawn up based on these consultations.

The next step would be the debate of the budget by the people’s congress, which ordinary citizens could attend and even raise questions. Delegates would then break out into groups to discuss the budget and give suggestions for amendments. These amendments are gathered and then voted on by congress delegates.

Another Wenling township, Zeguo, used a random selection process to pick some 250 representatives to take part in deliberations over infrastructure projects and to rank them in order of priority. Since then, Wenling city has expanded budget reform to three other townships, two of which adopted the Xinhe model, with some variations.

Recently, the Zhejiang provincial government instructed that the Xinhe model be replicated throughout the province, a process that Mr Li thinks will take some time to complete.

Beyond Zhejiang, participatory budgeting is being experimented with by townships in parts of China, such as the provinces of Heilongjiang, Hebei and Guangdong. There are many flaws, including only partial disclosures of budgets. Also, resistance to change can be strong as some officials try to protect their interests.

In the case of Baimiao, its government’s requests for projects and funding have met with little response. The silence is seen by some as “punishment” for the township for making the budget public. The number of higher officials who visited the township has also decreased, presumably because they did not want expenses related to their trips to be made public.

Still, in the words of the Chinese netizen, participatory democracy is “a step forward”.

As for what drives these political changes, Mr Li has said that in the inland regions, it is often ambitious government officials, who hope to be credited with making the reforms and thus getting promoted. In the richer coastal regions, particularly in Zhejiang, where private entrepreneurs have thrived – it is a combination of enlightened officials and social forces. As people pay more taxes, they want more say in how the taxes are spent.

Chinese scholar Yu Keping has written that “it is an inevitable trend for all nations of the world to move towards democracy”.

While China is still a long way from full-fledged democracy, social forces are pushing the Chinese Communist Party and the government to not only give the people more personal liberties but also greater participation in government.

Political reforms in China have been slow compared with economic reforms and the attendant social changes, leading to contradictions in society – for example, many Chinese distrust their local governments. The question is: Whether the party and government are responsive and quick enough to make political changes that will address these contradictions before they become social destabilisers.

Headline: Involving people in the budgeting process

Byline: GOH SUI NOI

Publication: ST^ST

Date: Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Page: A21

(C) Singapore Press Holdings Limited

PARTICIPATORY budgeting – a form of direct democracy – is by no means unique to China.

In Brazil, participatory budgeting was introduced in 1989 in the city of Porto Alegre as the centrepiece of reform measures to address the severe inequality in living standards among its residents.

Although the city boasted high life expectancy and literacy rates, one-third of its residents lived in slums.

Since the introduction of participatory budgeting, neighbourhood, regional and city-wide assemblies are held each year in which residents and elected delegates identify spending priorities and vote on which of these to implement. It is estimated that 50,000 residents – including those from low-income groups – out of a population of 1.5 million take part in the process.

A World Bank report on Porto Alegre’s experience suggests that it has led to improvements in facilities, including an increase in sewer and water connections. The number of schools has quadrupled since 1986. Allocations for health and education in the budget have also increased. Said the report: “Citizens’ participation ensures more people-oriented budget allocation decisions and their timely implementation.”

Since its introduction in Porto Alegre, participatory budgeting has spread to 1,200 cities – in other parts of Latin America, Europe, Africa, North America and Asia. In the United States, Chicago – noted for its lack of transparency in public finances – started experimenting with it last year in one of its wards. Some 1,600 of 60,000 people came forward to decide on improvements for their neighbourhoods. In Britain, it is seen by advocates as essential for effective, democratic and relevant local governance.

Participatory budgeting is just one of many forms of direct or deliberative democracy, which harks back to the tradition of ancient Athens. Others include the citizens’ assembly introduced in British Columbia in Canada in 2003; citizens’ parliament held for the first time in Canberra, Australia, last year; and deliberative poll, a method used in Zeguo, China’s Zhejiang province, in 2005.

In deliberative polling, a random sampling is done to obtain a representative group of a population. In the case of Zeguo, the representatives thus chosen deliberated on and ranked in order of priority proposed infrastructure projects for the township.

Deliberative democracy is a movement that is taking place in democracies in Europe and elsewhere in reaction to perceived inadequacies of competitive democracy.

In China, democracy advocates see deliberative democracy in its various forms as just a step towards full-fledged democracy, including the holding of elections.

 

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