Authoritarians do sortition just like we do but very differently

SWI swissinfo.ch interviews Su Yun Woo, who is studying processes for citizen participation in decision making in China. Somewhat confusingly, the interview seems to be asserting two conflicting claims. On the one hand it is pointed out that the “citizen participation” processes in China are essentially the same as those in the West and have the same objectives. At the same time it is explaining that, obviously, things in “democracies” are very different as the authoritarian regimes lack “any overarching democratic conviction”.

SWI: How do these participatory budgeting processes [in China] work?

S.Y.W.: The authorities invite the local population to get involved in decision-making on a part of the budget. A group of citizens will come together to form a panel to discuss how to spend money on a project that serves the community – for instance, a library or a communal garden. Wenling’s participatory budget is well known, whereas the example of Chengdu has been less well studied.

In Wenling, citizens are selected through a lottery system. In Chengdu, the participants are volunteers. This explains why mainly older people took part there, since they have more time. In Wenling, random selection works as the participants get paid – just as they do in Switzerland for projects of this kind. They receive the equivalent of CHF7 ($7) and a free lunch for taking part. In Wenling, participatory processes are now an integral part of local budget policy-making.

SWI: So the participants do not have to be Communist Party members?

S.Y.W.: No, they are ordinary citizens. There is no denying, however, that there can be official interference in participatory projects. I was told about some party officials who were supposed to go door to door and ask people their opinions, but instead they just filled out the forms themselves.

SWI: How would you describe the discussion culture during participatory budget debates?

S.Y.W.: Some participants are very vocal in expressing their opinions, while others stay quiet and prefer to take a back seat.

SWI: This sounds rather like participatory budgeting elsewhere.
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