Behind The Scenes in Xiamen

(Southern Weekend)  The Xiamen government's first public response: The public participation and what happened behind the scenes.  By Zhu Hongjun.  December 19, 2007.

[in translation]

From the public strolling incident in June to the public participation in the environmental assessment forum in December, the citizens of Xiamen have acted more rationally even as the government's governance improved.

The environment assessment report for the Haicang district plan in Xiamen has not yet been finalized.  It is still a matter of conjecture whether the Xiamen PX project will be halted, relocated or restarted.  From December 5, the Xiamen city government took an open, fair and broad approach to procure "public participation" and it has gathered more and more approval as a result.

On December 16, Xiamen city deputy secretary-general Zhu Zilu was designated by the Xiamen city government to give an exclusive interview with the Southern Weekend reporter.  For the first time, the decision-making process behind the "public participation" was disclosed.  This is the first time that the Xiamen city government has made a public statement since the PX storm in June this year.

Zhu Zilu has the dual role as a member of the leadership group for district planning in Xiamen City.  At the recently concluded environment assessment public forum, Zhu Zilu was the only host representing the government.  During his stint, his most frequently used phrase was the famous western saying: "I disagree with your opinion, but I will defend your right to speak out with my life."

Frankly, he said that from the PX storm in June to the "public participation" in December, the citizens of Xiamen have acted more rationally even as the government's governance improved.  Here is what he told the Southern Weekend reporter:

The state has very precise regulations on specific construction projects, but it does not have anything about district-wide environment assessment.  We tried our best to follow the environmental assessment process for specific construction projects.  This time, we were facing the entire citizenry.  We did not have any laws to rely on and we did not have any other empirical cases to follow.  This case is a first for the Xiamen city government, and this type of situation has not happened often across China.  We were trying to cross the river by feeling the for pebbles one at time.

In the very beginning, we told the environmental assessment department that we have no pre-established position.  Therefore, the environment assessment department should not feel any pressure.  This was the basic theme laid down by the city government from the very beginning.

In June, we promised the citizens that the district planning environmental assessment occur within six months when we will listen to the public opinion.  By November, some people were saying on the Internet that the government would surely not dare to go public with the environmental assessment.  So we made our preparations to do so.

Since we had no precedents, our originally designed public participation proposal  was relatively simple.  Later on, many specific details were added or adjusted as the result of the number of people who signed on to speak as well as the feedback from various social elements.  Our goal was to allow the citizens to participate broadly in an open and fair manner.

There were some heated statements on the Internet.  Certain overseas media and websites egged the people to 'stroll' down to the city government building.  While we trusted the quality of our citizens, we were cautious and made some emergency plans.  This is a matter of course in public administration.

In public administration, there is the notion of a high-pressure safety valve.  When you open up a valve at the right moment by so that people can let out their steam in a public channel, the emotions will cool down.  But if you clamp down on the expression of opinion, the high-pressure pot will explode.

The team of experts was under a great deal of pressure.  All our proposals require their opinions.  On December 5, the environmental assessment summary report was released.  The environmental scientists took out their original documents yp id and compared them against the published summary report in the newspapers one word by one word.  The Internet had got them spooked.

The People's Congress and the Political Consultative Conference members signed up on their own.  We originally wanted to hold a separate session for the People's Congress and the Political Consultative Conference members.  The environmental scientists agreed at first, but then they backed out because they thought that this would be an intramural affair among people from within officialdom.

Therefore, we decided to hold the session together with the citizens included.  Since this was a Xiamen affair, we restricted attendance only to the People's Congress and Political Consultative Conference in Xiamen City and Haicang District.  We did not invite the Fujian provincial members or the national members based in Xiamen.  However, these people could always sign up as individual citizens.

The order of speaking was determined at the very end.  The original proposal was to have the People's Congress representatives intermixed with the citizens.  At the very last second, we changed it because we did not want any suspicion that we were trying to manipulate opinion.

The People's Congress and the Political Consultative Conference members were kept to the very end after the citizens had their say, because we believe that the citizens should be the major players.

For each session there were 50 citizens who were randomly selected from all those who had signed up .  There were 50 People's Congress and Political Consultative Conference members.  It was impossible to let everybody have their say in three or four hours.  But we wanted to let everyone who wanted to speak to have their say.  We looked at the trade-offs and we decided to assign positions 51 and up to the People's Congress and Political Consultative Conference members, while leaving more time for the citizens beforethem.  At the forum, a People's Congress member complained that they got less time to speak.  In my view, the People's Congress members have their own communication channels which are not available to ordinary citizens.

The reason for the 3-minute limit is to remind people that there is a time limit.  Nevertheless, some people went beyond those three minutes.  I did not stop them, but I only gently reminded them.  Otherwise, some people might say that the government has an ulterior motive.

At the time I thought that I wanted to hold an attitude that we are friends and not enemies.  If I have to make a joke, I should be able to.  I ignored all the formal rules and regulations of the meeting.  Ultimately, I had faith in the quality of the citizens.  Most of the citizens are on the same side as the government -- we are all working for Xiamen.  Only a small minority want to cause trouble.

Besides, more than 50% of the forum participants were young people who are easily excitable.  If the forum was mismanaged, it would only cause resentment.

For each step, we had several proposals to choose from.  We consulted the Internet opinion, especially the negative opinions.  We disclosed all the details so that no one can complain.  Since people accused the government of staging a show, we decided to reveal to them everything that we were doing.  For example, the selection of speakers was supposed to be done by adults; since someone said on the Internet that the drawing was fixed, we asked children to draw the numbers.  Although there was no reason to draw out all 200 numbers, we drew all 200 numbers sequentially to show that no number had been excluded.

We also invited the two most vociferous critics to the live drawing and we asked the Xiamen television station to show it live.  All the citizens could watch the proceedings, and there was no way for anyone to claim that this was a government black box operation.

But why were there seven more representatives on the next day?  That was because we had tried to notify these people previously and they could not be reached.  We needed to fill up the list, so we reached to find the reserve names.  But later on, these people called us back to say that they want to participate.  So we added them on for the second day.

We also made an exception to invite Xiamen University Yuan Dongxin to attend.  She was a reserve candidate in the back of the list.  But since we wanted to listen to an authoritative opinion, we invited her to come.

During the process of selecting the speakers at the environment assessment forum, each step has to be publicly announced before the next step can forge ahead.  For example, before we select the numbers, we had to publish the list of people and their respective numbers so that we cannot be accused of switching people.  The original list of people who signed up was first published on the Internet, and then we also published that list in the local newspapers (and that took up several pages).

The selection of the numbers took place on live broadcast during the prime time period (so that even office workers can come home to watch it).  Later on, we had to act more hastily because we took too much time to insure that every step was published.  Previously in Xiamen history, nothing (such as events, meetings or elections) has ever been so transparent and disclosed in such detail.

Will we continue to do the same in the future?  I think that will depend on the importance of the project.  For important projects that affect the lives of citizens, we would do the same.  For ordinary projects which neither the rules nor regulations require public participation, we would not so.  This is because there are so many details to deal with and it requires so much effort and resources.  But what is for certain is that this affair was history-making and it will happen again.

Related Link: PXit Strategy  Jonathan Ansfield, CDT