Chinese city opens its books in a step for reform

作者:CHARLES HUTZLER 发表时间:2010-5-18 16:30:12

WENLING, China — In front of a roomful of government officials, businessman Zhou Jusheng took the mic and made a simple demand: finish paving and landscaping the industrial park that houses his drill-bit factory.

His request at a public hearing was modest by Western standards. But in China, where the communist government muscularly guards its political monopoly and where people mostly defer to authority, Zhou"s assertiveness points to a telling change.

"You could say that I was just wasting my breath," he said later at his factory. "But as a citizen, I should speak out."

The people of Wenling, a prosperous city of 1.7 million, have an opportunity few Chinese citizens do: to take part in hearings on local government budget plans and suggest ways to spend the money.

As society grows richer and individuals pay more taxes, authoritarian China is slowly being forced to make space for people to participate in government affairs.

"Ordinary people have the right to ask, how are you spending my money? Are you spending it on me? What are you doing with it?" said Li Fan, who runs a private think tank in Beijing that promotes political reform and is advising Wenling officials.

It"s a switch from 30 years ago when government revenues came from state enterprises, not from taxing citizens, who were generally too poor to pay anything.

In a tentative response to the shift, Beijing has promised that all central government departments will publicly release their budgets within three years; four ministries did so this spring, publishing rough outlines of their budgets. Some cities are also releasing spending plans, while others are holding public hearings on particular projects. Li is working with a poor village in Sichuan province that is putting all government spending online for the public to see.

Wenling"s approach goes much further. The public and members of local congresses get a chance to amend spending plans before they become final — unlike the norm elsewhere with legislatures rubber-stamping budgets and people having no say at all.

A place of brash entrepreneurialism, the city first held budget hearings in one town five years ago, and the practice has since spread to all but two of the city"s 16 towns and communities.

Lying just off the East China Sea, Wenling bursts with activity. The property market is booming. Christian churches vie with Taoist temples and Buddhist shrines. Everyone seems to run a small business. Amid the hurly-burly, sharp rifts have opened, especially over farmland requisitioned for development.

"Our village is very typical. It"s pretty hard to manage. People don"t listen to the government," said Liu Shenghua, who runs a sports shoe factory in Chenshan village. In front of the brick and concrete building that houses his factory runs a road that drew protests from older displaced farmers.

Officials in Wenling began experimenting with public meetings a decade ago to smooth these frictions and then to deal with prickly matters such as the closing and merging of schools.

By late 2004, Chen Yimin, a Wenling propaganda department official and admirer of Western democracy, said he and his colleagues wanted to make the meetings permanent fixtures.

After consulting Li, the Beijing scholar, they decided local budgets were the best fit; the budgets are not huge — around $10 million for a town — and the outlays directly impact people"s lives.

Mindful that their superiors might block a reform that could upset Beijing, Chen and his colleagues decided not to tell them. "We thought there would be all sorts of opinions. They would think it"s risky and they wouldn"t want to do it," Chen said.

In Xinhe, the first town to give it a try, officials balked over making public the $190,000 allocated for entertaining officials, even though the sum was just 1 percent of the total budget.

""If you make this public, then the people will be angry because they already think that all government officials do is eat and drink for free,"" Li recalls the town chief telling him.

In the end, the town chief relented, and no one at the hearings brought it up, focusing instead on bigger parts of the budget.

As the reforms spread, government officials made further accommodations. At one meeting, legislators defiantly walked out when officials refused to discuss education spending. Wenling later gave its township congresses the authority to amend the proposed budgets. People"s own sense of entitlement grew, Li said, as they realized that "that the money in the budget is theirs."

Reformers often had to persuade reluctant local officials to give the hearings a try. Their superiors in the provincial government and higher have not publicly endorsed the reforms or applied them outside Wenling. The leadership in Beijing periodically rails against anything that smacks of a Western-style democratic separation of powers. And when foreign journalists recently showed up in Wenling to witness the hearings, officials had the reporters tailed and nearly canceled the meetings.

The slow rollout and limited scope shows how ambivalent Wenling leaders remain about the changes.

"It"s at a crossroad," Li said. "They"re not willing to push this any further. But they can"t roll it back. The people won"t allow it."

That"s a victory for Li, who has seen several pathbreaking elections that he engineered in other parts of China later nullified by officials. "In many places in China, one leader does a reform, and the next one negates it," he said. "In Wenling the party secretaries don"t want to do it, but they have to do it."

The skittishness is typical of the way reforms progress, inching ahead in a constant tussle between interest groups and between the government and people. Particularly nagging for officials is the growing sense of taxpayer rights, which is forcing accountability on a government used to spending with impunity.

At the recent hearings on Wenqiao town"s 86 million yuan (US$12.6 million) budget, speaker after speaker asked for more spending for their particular cause.

There was Zhou, who wants the government to make good on the $4,400 surcharge he paid for roadwork and greenery in the industrial park. Other makers of drill bits and industrial cutting tools want more money spent on brand research. Farmers complained that crop insurance did not cover the grapes and loquats damaged by a frost.

The biggest applause went to a village head who suggested that the town share with village governments the fines it collects from people who violate the one-child family planning limits.

"Every one wants more money. But how will you use it? Where can it be most effective? That"s the crucial issue," said town head Wang Yong, sitting straight-backed and trying not to let any impatience show in his soft-spoken manner.

While low-level tensions are palpable, there is little outright debate. Chen said they have tried to encourage more spirited discussion, giving legislators the right to amend the budget, but it"s an uphill struggle. "Foreign legislators like the U.S. Congress will debate an issue," he said. "But for China"s People"s Congresses from the center to local governments, it"s very simple: They basically don"t do it."