By Chen Zhouxi
Published: 2008-03-25

From Nation, Page14, issue no. 359, Mar 17, 2008
Translated by Liu Peng
Original article:

After budget reforms in a handful of towns in Zhejiang province's Wenling City were expanded last month, local representatives have begun seizing upon their newfound right to vet local budget proposals. The towns included Xinhe (新河), Ruoheng (箬横), Zeheng (泽国), Binhai (滨海) and Daxi (大溪), with four of them trying the new procedures for the first time.

Previously, these representatives had little more power than to rubber stamp proposals by the local government. Now, they have an opportunity to initiate a question-and-answer session before voting.

Wenling is a county-level city, located at the southeast coast of Zhejiang Province, 300 kilometers away from Hangzhou, provincial capital of Zhejiang. Xinhe was the first to carry out the "town finance sunshine pilot" in August of 2005.

Building a Road
On February 24th, a debate awaited the 117 representatives of Xinhe's local people's congress. The representatives were to vote on two controversial bills – one dealing with the reconstruction of a local road, and another for the rebuilding of old town areas.

Lou Jianrong, vice-director of Xinhe's local people's congress, presided over the session, which started at 2 p.m. with a mix of both mandarin Chinese and the local dialect.

First, Zhao Jianhua, the bill's sponsor, stated that the Changma stone road connected three villages and sightseeing spots. Because the important road had been seriously damaged by heavy traffic, he suggested reconstructing it with cement and increasing expenditures on rebuilding it to 1.5 million from 1 million yuan.

With his proposal on the floor, the debate period began. Fifteen seconds of silence passed, at which point the first representative urgently stood up despite having not been handed the microphone yet. Speaking in local dialect, he said: "It is necessary to rebuild the road, it is already very inconvenient for villages to travel. The road can be reconstructed in stages."

Just as his voice ended, another representative called out in disagreement. Instead, he suggested building a walking street and preserving the original cobble road. By the end, nearly ten representatives had delivered and argued their opinions on the bill.

Ultimately, the vote on the Changma road did not pass, to the surprise of many. The second bill also failed to pass, because many representatives thought education problems in neighboring villages were more important than reconstruction issues.

Wu Xiaoju, the crestfallen sponsor of second bill, said with tears: "I am sorry for my constituents."

It is said that these two bills have been revived for the past three years but failed to pass each time.

Great Changes
Li Fan, director of the World and China Institute, has followed the democratic developments of Wenling for a long time. He said that after three years of experiments, the participatory budget had become more and more standard, with the attitudes of officials, representatives and villagers, all having experienced "a transformation".

In the beginning of the pilot, the town governor answered representatives' questions only in vague terms, as if without having made full preparation for inquiry. "Do you have any more questions?" they would ask. As a result, the people's representatives would restrain themselves.

In 2006, after being more accustomed to the participatory framework, Xinhe leaders began to let go of their suggestive and dismissive answers to inquiry. Some privately admitted: "We have thought of most representatives' questions, but it is good to hear those that we had not thought of."

Today, officials are even more accustomed to being questioned, and sometimes encourage representatives to press them even more.

Still, problems have arisen. On February 24th, some representatives proposed a bill to increase investment in Tangxia's education system, which was ultimately not passed by the local people's congress presidium. Over a dozen representatives staged a walk-out to express their dissatisfaction.

"The government can spend 3.5 million yuan in building a park, why doesn't it have enough to support our education system?" said one representative.

The official explanation for this is that Tangxia School would be dismantled and incorporated into another nearby school within three to five years, thus making any large-scale investments in it pointless. Officials also say that urgent projects for Tanxia however will be approved and receive funding. After being persuaded by town officials, the representatives returned to the congress.

Faith in the Future
Guo Hailing, governor of Xinhe town, said that "democratic discussion is a great support for government work. In this way, the government' budget will become more reasonable and scientific."

Guo frankly said that after implementing the participatory budget, fewer local officials have asked him for financial support, because expenditures were open to the public.

But Guo's views are still not widespread. One official revealed that not all town governors were willing to carry out this reform, because they thought it would cause more pressures on their work. "They prefer the efficiency rather than democracy, and they are afraid that openness will lead to harsh public criticism."