Notes from the Field

Xi’an Citizens Preserve and Protect Ancient Ming Dynasty Wall

April 7, 2010

When Kang Chunmin heard that a law protecting the historic city wall built during the Ming Dynasty in the ancient capital of Xi’an, his hometown, passed in November 2009, he was pleased. He was further pleased to see that his comments on the draft law had actually made it into the final legislation. Kang was one of more than 180 Xi’an residents who provided comments during the drafting phase of the Xi’an Regulations on the Protection of City Wall before it passed. During a meeting with the Xi’an Legislative Affairs Office representatives, law professors and city residents, including Kang, recommended that the regulation forbid any carving or painting on the wall, and any events or performances on or around it that could potentially cause damage.

After seeing the final version of the law, Kang said, “The government has heard the views of ordinary citizens. … Public participation in this drafting process not only helped educate the public on the value of protecting our city wall, but also helped build trust between us and the government and generated enthusiasm from the general public to participate in more government decision-making in the future.”

Other residents wondering whether their comments were incorporated and why, (or why not) could get details on the official Xi’an Legislative Affairs Office’s website, where government officials posted responses to their comments. In addition, with assistance from Xi’an’s Northwest University of Politics and Law, the Legislative Affairs Office also sent out individual letters to those who provided detailed and constructive suggestions on the draft regulation, thanked them for contributing, and explained why or why not their comments were adopted.

Student volunteers from Northwest University of Politics and Law explain draft regulation to Xi'an citizens.

Student volunteers from Northwest University of Politics and Law explain draft regulation to Xi'an citizens.

Examples of local governments working to institutionalize open decision-making practices can be seen across China, and reflect a broader trend in China’s efforts to increase public participation in lawmaking. In the eastern coastal province of Zhejiang, for example, local governments in Wenling and Hangzhou have implemented a range of open decision-making initiatives, including using technology like instant messaging, soliciting public input on important decisions and policies and inviting citizens to attend high-level government meetings. And, in May 2008, the State Council issued the decision on Strengthening Administrative Actions in Accordance with the Law by City and County Level Government, which calls for improving local government decision-making mechanisms, including new rules and procedures to promote public participation in administrative decisions, and for bringing public hearing procedures into the administrative decision-making processes. Some local governments have explored institutional innovations that go beyond the central government’s agenda. Guangzhou’s Measures on Public Participation in Formulating Administrative Regulations and China’s first-ever Administrative Procedure Regulation established in 2008 in Hunan Province, which outlined concrete requirements regarding public participation in the administrative decision-making process, are just a few examples.

While these developments are encouraging, challenges remain. For example, at a recent public hearing on water price adjustment in Harbin, the capital city of China’s northeastern Heilongjiang Province, one of 13 selected consumer representatives threw a bottle into the venue to protest against not being given a chance to speak. He was the only consumer representative to say he was against the increase of the water price. The local consumers’ association selected the other representatives, while the broader public knew little about how they had been chosen.

The lack of uniform national rules that provide standard procedures for public participation can lead to inconsistent practices at the local level. Without such uniform rules, government agencies have considerable discretion to decide whether or not to solicit public opinions on proposed legislation. Another shortcoming is inadequate feedback and response to public input. While the central and local governments regularly seek public comments on draft legislation, the public often does not receive detailed responses from the government on whether their comments are adopted, and if not, why. As a result, it’s difficult for the government to promote and sustain citizens’ long-term interest in participation. In addition, participation in lawmaking from different interest groups and professional associations needs to be strengthened so that different voices, particularly disadvantaged groups like migrant workers, can be heard.

Against this background, The Asia Foundation and its Chinese partners have worked together over the last three years to develop innovative and practical pilot mechanisms to increase participation in government decision and rulemaking, such as the feedback process on the city wall in Xi’an. The project activities also offer extensive training for officials and community groups and professional associations on the principles, practices, and benefits of public participation, and support central-level legislative authorities to develop guidelines on public participation to provide concrete guidance on methods and procedures. This is an important step to institutionalizing public participation in China and to ensuring that voices like Mr. Kang’s can be heard in the lawmaking process across the country.

Fu Xin is The Asia Foundation’s Program Officer for Law and Han Mei is the Program Associate for Law in China. They can be reached at fuxin@asiafound.org.cn and hanmei@asiafound.org.cn, respectively.

View all posts by Fu Xin

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