Many in the West appear unaware that the Chinese political system is reforming itself… (it might be more accurate to say many in the West see the political system in China as old Communists waving their hands and issuing imperial edicts.) The truth is, although the pace of this reform is painfully slow compared to economic reforms, it is happening.
One of the more significant chapters in Chinese political reform might be opening in front of us.
The city of Shenzhen has recently released a document providing an overview of political reforms over the next few years. It’s not detailed enough to be called a plan, but it’s a strategic road-map of what Shenzhen hopes to achieve. It doesn’t look like Western (or Taiwanese) democracy, but it’s a step towards finding compromise reforms without risking instability. And at the end of this road-map lies competitive elections for the position of mayor. Other positions to be competitively elected along the way include district-chiefs, bureau-chiefs, and representatives to the People’s Congress.
First, a little background on Shenzhen. It’s one of China’s economic engines; originally designated as a Special Economic Zone, it was the true catalyst for the entire capitalist explosion throughout Guangdong province. For more than a decade, entry into Shenzhen was only possible through a special permit. Many trace China’s surge in economic reforms back to the visit Deng Xiaoping paid to Shenzhen back in 1992. And partly as a legacy of this economic reform period, Shenzhen was given extensive legal powers to set laws as needed.
It’s fair to say that Shenzhen was probably the first to try most social and economic reforms attempted on the mainland. The Shenzhen city government has recently said it wants to become a “model city for socialism with Chinese characteristics”.
Today, it’s a modern city with a population of 8 million. It lies right across the “border” from Hong Kong, and has a sizable population of Hong Kong ex-pats who prefer the cheaper cost of living on the mainland. Shenzhen prides itself as an “immigrant” city; since 20 years ago it was little more than a fishing village, the vast majority of residents in Shenzhen are from elsewhere in China. Partly because it has absorbed so many skill-driven immigrants (something like the United States in this sense), it is one of the youngest and best educated cities in China; many in Shenzhen brag about the fact that it has the most bookstores, per capita, of any city in China. Many of Shenzhen’s senior officials have studied overseas.
As someone who’s visited Shenzhen on and off for 15 years (and I remember when it was just a dusty construction zone), I really admire this city. It’s beautiful, filled with (free) parks and green-spaces, laid-out well, and modern in many senses of the word. It’s one of the few cities in China that I personally would dare to drive in.
The full name of the document is: Shenzhen Near-Term Political Reform Overview (Comment-Seeking Draft).
It was published by the Shenzhen Structural Reform office, which links the release to related regulations requiring “government release of information” (see previous blog post). The office set May 22nd through May 26th as the days for public consultation (sorry folks, missed the deadline for anyone that wanted to provide feedback). Two telephone numbers, an email inbox, and a street address were provided for anyone who wanted to submit comments and advice. Comments could also be submitted through the typical Shenzhen government websites.
Here is a translation of a Caijing article on this issue:
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Following previous reforms (including government bureaus + work units), Shenzhen is continuing to push forward on reforms. The newly released Overview is asking for open comments from society at large, and asserts that the Shenzhen government is “trying to be a pioneer, working to investigate and improve the structural model of our model city”. Within around three years, it hopes to construct a democratic, law-based, clean, efficient, service-oriented government.
The Overview reveals that the next step will be competitive elections for the mayoral spot. In order to build experience, the Overview calls for “competitive elections at the district leader and vice-district leader spots, with candidates participating in open campaigning and debates, within limits.” (Ed note: keep in mind the population of a district is more than a million people.)
In addition, Shenzhen is also proposing that the district-level legislature be partially directly elected, in order to better understand the people’s demands. The government will also set aside funds to establish legislator work offices, where the people can communicate with and make demands of the elected legislature.
In response to the corruption issue, which has generated the greatest concern from the public, the Overview proposes adopting Hong Kong’s supervisory model, and creating a new work structure and operating model in order to fight corruption. It will also speed up the review process on the “Monitoring Law”, in order to better preserve the news media’s rights to freely interview, and the media’s management autonomy.
The Overview also says Shenzhen hopes to learn from the Hong Kong and Singapore experience, and establish a system that separates the law-making, executive, and supervisory arms of the government while still allowing them to mutually cooperate.
In terms of legal reforms, Shenzhen will borrow successful experiences from the international community. It will construct a system that allows judges to decide cases independently, while also improving the existing jury system. It will make more clear the body responsible for rendering decisions, and strengthen the system used to investigate wrongful judgments.
At the same time, absorbing the lessons with organizations involved with the Sichuan earthquakes, the Overview proposes that research must be done on laws to regulate non-profit organizations…
“In terms of creating new reform in political structures, Shenzhen’s awareness is ahead of the crowd,” according to an anonymous scholar, but there is still quite a bit of distance before achieving actual implementation of these ideals. “It’s probably not possible for these reforms to be implemented on the actions of Shenzhen itself. Often, political structure reform must happen from the top down.”
A professor at Shenzhen University also said that he’s not optimistic about the possible results of these reforms. “Democracy and the construction of a legal system, it’s really a systems engineering problem. But right now, everyone’s understanding on these issues remains confused. It’s also unclear whether some of these clauses can be implemented under the existing political structure in China.” He told Caijing that Shenzhen University would organize a special research group to focus on this issue.
What’s difficult to understand, however, is that for such an important systematic reform, Shenzhen has only given the public four days to consider and provide feedback. A worker at Shenzhen’s Structural Reform Office also revealed to Caijing, “many experts and scholars have also told us that this isn’t enough time”.
EDITOR NOTE: Although this story has been covered with great enthusiasm by major Chinese news sources (including Southern Metropolis, Caijing, etc)… English-language reporting has drawn a blank so far. The only news story I can find so far (and it’s a good analysis) comes to us from Pakistan.