Ash Center: Shanghai Conference on Deliberative Politics

October 8, 2010
Ash Center: Shanghai Conference on Deliberative Politics

By Jessica Engelman

On a Saturday in May 2010, scholars from around the world gathered in Shanghai to discuss a new strand of political theory called deliberative politics, also known as deliberative democracy. The conference on “The Cultural Sources of Deliberative Politics in East Asia” was held at Fudan University where it was organized by Melissa Williams of the University of Toronto and was sponsored by the Shibusawa Foundation of Japan. Presenters included Ash Center Professor Archon Fung and Wiener Center Professor Jane Mansbridge, both of Harvard Kennedy School.

Deliberative politics embraces the idea that there is value in ordinary citizens engaging in public discourse to air the reasons behind their differences of opinion, as opposed to simply casting a vote that reflects that opinion. Participants debate the issues and try to influence others. This process can serve to sometimes bridge the divide between opposing views and also clarify the reasons behind dissension. Occasionally, new solutions will emerge. Recently, the AmericaSpeaks organization brought together 3,000 citizens to discuss if and how to reduce the federal deficit. While such experiments are well known in the West, there has not been much discussion of deliberative politics in Asia. This conference, which is part of a series, sought to remedy this by shedding light on examples of public deliberation in the East and its origins.

Baogang He presented a paper at the conference on “Political Culture and Deliberative Democracy: The Case of China,” which examined examples of deliberative politics in China. He found that the surprisingly strong Chinese deliberative process had roots in Confucian and Maoist traditions, as well as popular lore. East Asian political cultures have rich histories of consultative practices and traditions, often associated with the Confucian ethics of minben (people-centeredness) and harmony. The Confucian influence on deliberative politics can be seen in the writing of a renowned Confucian scholar, Liang Shuming: “Where can you find reason? … when you can listen to others fully and can communicate well with others without any trouble, it is here that you will find reason.” But, the strongest influence may come from the popular conception of kentai, meaning heart-to-heart talk. Originally used in informal contexts, the term has come to describe public deliberation in China.

Perhaps most striking is the implementation of kentai in the city of Wenling. Under an experiment devised by He and James Fishkin of Stanford University, the party chair in Wenling agreed to be advised by a random selection of ordinary citizens in a process called deliberative polling. Begun in 2005, this group of citizens gathered to discuss the government’s budgeting process. The first discussion examined infrastructure projects, which comprise 30 to 40 percent of the city’s budget. The government had thought that public parks and tourism would be top priorities, but it was revealed that sewers and schools ranked much higher. As these groups were convened each year following, their voice gained legitimacy and their reach was expanded to include the entire budget. The citizenry developed an expectation that the public would be consulted on major decisions and so the government became accountable in an unprecedented manner. Indeed, peasants will now file complaints about local officials if decisions are made without first holding a deliberative meeting. And, the process has provided the Chinese Communist Party with a way to derive popular legitimacy even while exercising authoritarian rule. As Mark Warren of the University of British Columbia, one of the conference organizers, asserts, “it is easier to govern when the people are on your side.”

Another paper presented at the conference by He and Warren further clarifies, “Combinations of non-inclusive power and deliberative influence—authoritarian deliberation—are readily identifiable in China, probably reflecting failures of command authoritarianism under the conditions of complexity and pluralism produced by market-oriented development.“ Authoritarian deliberation could either stabilize authoritarian rule or become the “leading edge” of democratization in China and is therefore deserving of the West’s attention.