By John Ruwitch
BEIJING Nov 12 Chinese Communist Party leader
Hu Jintao's opening speech at the ongoing 18th Party Congress
was a disappointment to many listeners, offering no major
signals that the leadership is willing to advance political
The 64-page keynote speech he delivered was couched in the
usual conservative and Marxist terminology, but one paragraph
buried deep in the text was just what proponents of a
long-running experiment in public policy consultations have been
The section in question urged the ruling party to "improve
the system of socialist consultative democracy".
Academics and officials say the mention of "consultative
democracy" is the first ever in such an important document, and
it is seen by some as a strong endorsement of the long-standing
experiment with this form of democracy, in Wenling, a city of
1.2 million in Zhejiang province, south of Shanghai.
The city has formalised public consultation on public
projects and government spending at the township level, although
there is no voting and decisions remain the preserve of the
Xi Jinping, almost certain to be named the next party
general secretary on Thursday, was party boss in Zhejiang in
2002-2007, as the Wenling project deepened.
The congress report is the most important political speech
in China. Delivered once every five years by the party's general
secretary, it sets down political markers and charts a
development course for the coming five to 10 years.
"Of course this is a good thing," said Chen Yimin, a Wenling
propaganda official who has been a driving force behind the
system of open hearings, where citizens can weigh in on things
like proposed industrial projects and administrative budgets -
providing at least a bit of check on their local officials.
"This shows that the democratic consultations... that we
have been doing for 13 years since 1999, have finally gained
recognition and approval from the centre. It opens up space for
further development. It says our democratic consultations are
correct," he said by phone from Zhejiang.
Chen Tiexiong, a delegate to the congress and party boss of
Taizhou, the city that oversees Wenling, which itself has rolled
out Wenling-style consultations in recent years, agreed.
"I looked at that part of the speech closely because in
terms of promoting democratic politics Taizhou has done a lot,
and it has been in the form of consultative democracy," he told
Reuters on the sidelines of the congress.
The reference to "consultative democracy" was a tiny signal
in a speech that paid lip service to both political and economic
reform, but stressed the Communist Party must remain in charge.
Scholars say Wenling's model goes farther than other
attempts in China to include local residents in government
decision-making, and has promise as a mechanism for defusing
social tensions - a problem Hu's report acknowledged as growing.
"If every place could use consultations or discussions on
major issues like Wenling, the localities would achieve
stability and many issues could be resolved," said Sang Yucheng,
a professor at Fudan University in Shanghai.
"There wouldn't be situations like Shifang and Qidong," he
said, referring to rioting in the provinces of Sichuan and
Jiangsu this year by people angry at their local government.
Hu has been criticised for neglecting political reform
during his decade in office, and the mention of "consultative
democracy", while important, still points toward a cautious
approach. It is a politically palatable way to listen to the
voice of the people without ceding power.
With tensions on the rise across China over corruption and
misuse of power by local government and party officials,
authorities will need to move quickly to douse unrest.
"Especially for the next government, I think political
reform will be a very important topic that they must face," said
Jia Xijin, an associate professor at Tsinghua University's
School of Public Policy and Management.
"If for the next 10 years still we have no reform in the
political formal structure, there may be more and more social
tension and social problems."
Xi Jinping, who is set to take over from President Hu, seems
likely to continue the tradition of caution, but Wenling-style
consultations now look set to expand.
When he was party chief of Zhejiang, Xi visited Wenling to
learn more about the consultation sessions at least once,
according to He Baogang, a scholar at Australia's Deakin
University who has acted as an advisor to Wenling officials.
In 2008, when he visited Zhejiang as vice president, Xi
invited the head of one of the townships in Wenling that
pioneered the consultations to give an eight-minute progress
The official was the most junior to brief Xi during the trip
and when the discussion was over, Xi was quiet, said He.
"He didn't say this was a good thing, and he didn't say it
was bad. But the fact that (the representative) was selected to
give a briefing is already a sort of recognition," said He.