Authoritarians do sortition just like we do but very differently

SWI 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.

S.Y.W.: Yes, the process is similar to that found outside China. If we reflect on the role of participation in democratic and authoritarian systems, I think we must conclude that it is always about good governance. This may be surprising, but even authoritarian states have to be concerned about providing good governance.

SWI: What does good governance mean for China?

S.Y.W.: For the government, good governance means being responsive to the needs of the people. The resilience and survival of the one-party state can be attributed to its flexibility and its ability to adapt.

Local budget-making is an interesting field for participation, as it involves the allocation of resources. So instead of guessing what people might want, the authorities involve the citizens in making decisions, which can help prevent grievances later on.

This said, the opportunities for participation in China are only selectively permitted and mainly occur at the local level. They involve less sensitive topics. Citizen participation in highly political issues, such as human rights, is out of the question in China. Participatory processes are managed and controlled.

In democracies, participation in decision-making can be either top-down or bottom-up. In China, this is only partially the case. Social organisations, which depend on the state to varying degrees, also play a major role in Chengdu.

SWI: How do participatory projects in China differ from those in democratic states?

S.Y.W.: Participation in China takes place in the context of a single-party state. The authorities decide whether to allow participatory projects. They do so to pre-empt potential dissatisfaction and increase acceptance for their decisions. If anything goes wrong, the party can then say, “This is what you wanted”. Why should an authoritarian system care about participation? Because dealing with possible instability has a substantial political cost.

Stability is a priority for the Chinese government. But again, these participatory projects are limited to the local level.

One Response

  1. […] continued publishing papers and opinions on the pros and cons of sortition (unfortunately often rehashing very well hashed material) but applications of sortition have been fading in prominence since the […]


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