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Public participation

Ambivalent role

by Jörn Geisselmann, Christine Warmer
China’s government hopes that elected residents’ committees will play a part in identifying the needs of urban people and meeting those needs. In order to do so, the committees need a degree of autonomy. At the same time, however, they still serve as an extension of the state administration. Many citizens keep their distance. [ By Jörn Geisselmann and Christine Warmer ]

Public participation in China’s municipal affairs may strike many people as something of an oxymoron. Nonetheless, a growing number of organisations, academics and reform-oriented politicians have been making efforts in that direction in recent years.

According to data from the Horizon Research Group for the years 2003 to 2005, only one in two city-dwellers is satisfied with the government at the lowest local levels (the sub-districts and neighbourhoods). One of the things criticised is the formalistic bureaucratic approach in line with the “one size fits all” motto.

Public participation is a preliminary step towards true political involvement. One option is to involve citizens in the provision of social services as partners of the local government, thereby giving them some scope to exert influence. The people concerned are no longer only considered passive recipients of support, but rather given an active role in supporting themselves. This approach requires top-down decision-making processes to be linked with controlled opportunities for involvement from below.

Shining Stone Community Action (SSCA) is an independent organisation with the aim of strengthening public participation at the local level. The NGO encourages the involvement of local people in the provision of social services. It has pilot projects under way in Beijing and Anshan, testing new methods. Residents are encouraged to take steps themselves to see that their needs are satisfied, and to apply for funds from the local administration, namely the sub-district office, also known as the “street office”.

Pilot project in Beijing

The pilot project in Beijing was started in summer 2007 at the request of the Qingyuan street office in the south of the capital. This office is in charge of 28 neighbourhoods (“Shequs”), with a total of 110,000 registered residents and 20,000 migrant workers. Each Shequ has its own residents’ committee. These committees are officially considered to be self-governing grass-roots organisations, but in reality they serve as an extension of the state.

The committees’ responsibilities include household registration, public safety, enforcement of the one-child policy as well as various services for the elderly, disabled and unemployed. These services are managed in a very formal manner, and quite often do not meet the residents’ actual needs. Shining Stone wants to direct the services more towards the actual requirements by involving the people themselves.

SSCA first trained government officials and residents in participative methods and project management. They then jointly identified the need for particular services and designed pilot measures intended to show how problems can be solved cooperatively. The Qingyuan street office funds promising projects.

A second-hand clothing store, an event and training centre for domestic helpers and a cultural association were among the first pilot projects. Committed residents are responsible for implementing them and, in many cases, members of the residents’ committees are also involved. Other projects were included in a second round. Every Shequ must implement at least one such civic project by 2010.

This target may seem modest on an international scale but, for the People’s Republic of China, it is a small revolution. In the past, urban and community de­­velopment was strictly controlled from above. So far, government officials and social workers carry out the orders
of the next department up. Individual ini­tiative is not required – and quite risky.

The government knows it must satisfy the needs of the local people in order to retain the necessary degree of legitimacy and to prevent unrest. At the same time, however, it worries about being swamped by a tidal wave of dissatisfaction as soon as it opens the gates for participation and, accordingly, the public debate of grievances. Even though it is trying to anticipate people’s desires, it keeps on restricting their freedom of expression.

Neither state institutions nor the people have practical experience with managed participation. The pioneering work carried out by Shining Stone in Qingyuan is ideal for gathering positive experiences and creating examples. Two aspects of the approach deserve particular comment:
– SSCA promotes a new understanding of the roles of all actors involved. The state administration neither performs every service itself, nor does it simply give orders to the residents’ committees. Instead, it has begun to fund and supervise projects which are proposed and run by residents and committees. The committees are increasingly taking on the role of mediating between various interests.
– Modern project management contributes to more professional work. Most persons involved are now in a position to develop ideas into coherent proposals, spelling out goals, measures, timeframes and the budget needed.

There are indications again and again that this is more than mere theory. For example, the manager of the second-hand clothing store angrily gave up, because the residents’ committee was trying to tell her what to do.

Collective action by decree

Although there has been progress in Qingyuan and other areas where SSCA projects are underway, the road to substantial public participation remains long. The central government is in favour of “strengthening public participation”, but experience indicates that many local bureaucrats interpret that slogan primarily as increasing participation in “mobilisations”, that is, decreed collective action. Forms of involvement which transfer decision rights and empower citizens to true co-determination remain rare exceptions.

This is due not only to a lack of political will, but to a host of other reasons as well. Appropriate methods for systematic and controlled involvement by citizens are basically unknown. Most important, however, deeply entrenched mistrust between the people and authorities hampers dialogue.

Many people avoid contact with residents’ committees and street offices. Not so long ago, the party-state was prone to intervening in their private affairs and mobilising masses for its power interests. Many people regard their street office and its residents’ committees as a single entity which acts in an arbitrary manner with little concern for their needs.

In actual fact, the residents’ committees have an ambiguous role. On the one hand, they are expected to act auto­nomously on behalf of the people. On the other hand, they are an extension of the government. About 80 % of the committees’ work is administrative duties carried out under street-office order. All too often, the committees do not understand what issues are really bothering residents in their area. Tacit non-cooperation is widespread, and there are even occa­sional outbreaks of spontaneous protest.

The government still does not have a consistent and detailed programme for community involvement, even though it is using the term “public participation” (gongzhong canyu) in ever more policy documents. In general, the slogan is not defined precisely, nor is there any specific strategy.

With very few exceptions, residents’ committees have been elected in all Chinese cities since 1999. Indirect elections by delegates in three-yearly cycles are typical. Voter turnout is low. The local party and state administration have considerable influence on the candidate list.

In the late 1990s, the Ministry for Civil Administration began an ambitious programme to restructure urban administration with the main intention to encourage social participation and self-organisation. The need is great. In the past, work units (danwei) were in charge of social security. But the downfall of the danweis in the course of the economic transformation along with the individualisation of lifestyles (and the corresponding erosion of family support) have resulted in a huge number of needy people, including the elderly, unemployed, disabled and migrant workers in particular.

The idea that residents’ committees and active citizens should rise to such challenges together makes sense. This is indeed a way to provide services in a citizen-friendly manner. In practice, however, citizens who are mobilised to care for the elderly, tidy up neighbourhoods, collect rubbish or do simple repair jobs in apartment buildings are hardly granted any scope for influence.

Many of these people, who are called “volunteers”, are members of the Communist Party and fulfil obligations they have as comrades. Beneficiaries of welfare must also take part in the activities as demanded by residents’ committees, as they would otherwise lose their entitlements. It is usually people above the age of 50 who are found in the “volunteer” registers. The residents’ committees are often given targets for how many “volunteers” must be registered in a district. These persons are hardly motivated and do not tend to work effectively.

In contrast, services performed by residents after free deliberation with committees and street offices could certainly be a step towards substantial political involvement. The people concerned are interested in quality and efficiency. After all, they are personally affected. Moreover, they normally understand the local situation better than outsiders. People involved in citizens’ initiatives also tend to develop a political identity.

The participatory model of service coordination could therefore be exemplary for governance reforms at the lowest administrative level, in which local governments serve as enablers of citizens, instead of considering them merely as managed objects.

However, street offices and residents’ committees under their control still dominate decision making. That is in line with what the Ministry for Civil Affairs wants. Certainly, there is a desire to encourage civil-society activism and civic commitment to some extent, but the party and government want to stay in control at all times. The more self-confident the citizens’ initiatives become, however, the greater the likelihood that differences of opinion and conflicts of interest with the residents’ committees and local government will be openly expressed.