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Is China’s Government Becoming More Open?

China’s blazing economic growth continues to grab headlines as the world’s fastest-growing country races headlong toward the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Yet despite the stunning social transformation of the past two decades, to many observers China’s policymaking process remains opaque. Is this beginning to change? The China Law Center held workshops in late July in Guangzhou and Beijing to discuss recent innovations to open up the decision making process. The following Q&A with Deputy Director Jamie Horsley highlights the most recent developments in the Center’s work with scholars and officials in China to bring "notice and comment"-style public participation to China’s administrative rulemaking system.

YLS: What does “public participation” mean in China’s political context?  

JH:  China’s government has traditionally been closed and secretive, and in many respects this hasn’t changed.  But in recent years China’s central government and the ruling Communist Party have endorsed greater public participation in legislation, rulemaking and policymaking as a mechanism to help better manage social change by making government more efficient, transparent and accountable to China’s citizens. This policy shift has generated numerous experiments with various forms of public participation, including limited public hearings and the publication of drafts of proposed laws and regulations for public comment. These forms of public participation, while now sanctioned as a general principle in law, have not yet been made a standard practice in decision making throughout China—which remains largely shrouded in secrecy. In a country that does not provide for the direct election of government officials (the only direct elections are for people’s congress deputies at the township and county level and for villager committees in villages and urban community counterparts in the cities, which are not considered part of the official government structure), the introduction of this new channel for direct citizen participation in government decision making is proceeding cautiously.

YLS: How is The China Law Center involved?

JH: The Center has been working since 2003 with Chinese counterparts in the central government and local governments in Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai to help further develop and standardize these new mechanisms for public participation, particularly in the administrative rulemaking context. We have been especially interested in helping China develop what in the United States we call "notice and comment" procedures that provide avenues for widespread public comment on draft regulations and require government responses to those comments, as well as procedures to make public hearings more effective.  

In the last three years, we have worked closely with Professor Wang Xixin of Peking University Law School, one of China’s top law schools.  We helped Professor Wang, a leading administrative law scholar who is also a Center fellow, establish China’s first academic and advocacy center focused on public participation.  

We have also involved a number of U.S. experts in our work.  Visiting Chinese officials and scholars like Professor Wang have explored issues of public participation with YLS professors such as Susan Rose-Ackerman.  In addition, we have recruited other scholars and practitioners engaged in this field such as Neil Eisner, Assistant General Counsel for Regulation and Enforcement at the U.S. Department of Transportation, and Professor Jeffrey Lubbers of Washington College of Law at American University to assist with our public participation projects.  Both Eisner and Lubbers attended our workshops in late July…

To read the interview with Jamie Horsley in its entirety, please visit The China Law Center news pages.