Government Oversight with 'Chinese Characteristics'


Chinese people returning from abroad and passing through customs often see the following: at the immigration counter where passports are checked, there’s a small electronic panel. The panel has four buttons: “very satisfied,” “satisfied,” “taking too much time,” and “negative attitude.” This allows passengers to give feedback to customs officers while passing through the passport check.

This panel has made foreign friends who enter China with me very curious. They stare at the panel, looking it up and down as if it were an antique from the Qing dynasty. When they realize its purpose, they always seem surprised.

Once, while I was traveling over Lo Wu Bridge from Hong Kong to Shenzhen with a foreign friend, he said to me, “Everyone says that your China has no democracy, that you can’t vote and have no way to supervise officials. But here you have direct supervision over even a customs officer. You can ‘vote’ at any time and praise or complain about his work. China has democracy and supervision everywhere you look.”

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It suddenly occurred to me that this “voting machine” used to give feedback at the immigration counter is really unique to China. I had never paid attention to this “Chinese characteristic,” maybe because it’s common to see these machines at the service windows in many Chinese government offices. I have visited more than 100 countries, but I don’t remember seeing something like this anywhere else. For example, I am often subject to annoyances when going through U.S. customs. If they had these “voting machines,” I’d like to push the button for “arrogant and petty!”

Some of my friends from Western democracies really appreciate these omnipresent machines that allow for expressing public opinion. But once they come to vaguely feel the connection between their comments and whether or not the officer in front of them gets a bonus, a promotion, or even loses his job, they worry about their feedback as much as they would a vote for the U.S. president!

Once a foreign friend entered China with me and waited for more than five minutes while an officer-in-training checked his documents. He was angry, so I asked, “Why didn’t you push the button for ‘taking too much time’?” He said, “Ah, I just want to give her a chance. She’s still young.”

Some American friends told me frankly that if there were voting machines in U.S. bureaucracies and if employee salaries, promotions, and even medical insurance were tied to “public opinion,” these government agencies wouldn’t face so much criticism. I was very pleased to hear this – it was the first time that I have felt the advantages of “democracy with Chinese characteristics” and “a learning-oriented government.”

Of course, in my mind it’s clear that no matter how successfully we conduct this sort of “expression of public opinion” and “supervisory mechanism,” this is only Chinese-style petty shrewdness. This sort of cleverness is used to offset and even to resist the “great wisdom” of human beings – building a democratic vote, checks and balances, and public supervision into the political system.

I once had an in-depth discussion about this problem with several foreign scholars. They had also noticed this omnipresent method of expressing public opinions. However, unlike foreign businesspeople and ordinary tourists, they were not impressed with the “voting machines.” One scholar even argued that this practice only deepened the public’s dissatisfaction with the government. He said that these very limited, bottom-level means of expressing public opinion and “supervising” the government could not truly change the power structure of the government or the service attitudes of officials. On the one hand, the civil servants, who are not controlled by publicly-elected officials, cannot truly be convinced to change by the people. On the other hand, the public, who have become accustomed to expressing their opinions about these bottom-rung civil servants, will one day ask, “Why can we only comment on these civil servants, but cannot openly evaluate the Party and state leaders who are in charge of them?”

Someday the Chinese government will find that even if they install a “public opinion monitor” on the butt of each official, they can’t replace giving people a vote. An Australian scholar told me,“The reason that America doesn’t have this sort of public evaluation for low-ranking officers is because everyone – including those officers – can elect a new government and top leader every few years. If the bureaucracies go too far, the people will elect another president who is determined to reform the official system.”

Another foreigner, who is familiar with the Chinese system, said, “This way of seeking public opinion and ‘feedback’ is just like the petition system in China. Would you still need to petition the authorities for help if the courts judged cases in a relatively independent and fair way?”

For better or worse, the same Chinese people who cannot vote to choose the leaders who manage the civil service are told that they are the master of the nation and that they have the right to express their opinions about civil servants and officials. In the short-term, this might be an acceptable substitution. But if things continue this way, the public’s dissatisfaction with and powerlessness vis-a-vis China’s power structure will be transferred to dissatisfaction with the low-level officials who serve them directly. If the emperor and the system are good, then it must be the officials who are bad.

In addition, although there are many cases of officials not doing their jobs or even bullying and oppressing the common people, there are also cases where the common people ignore the law and create all sorts of obstacles for officials. Both of the above two phenomena have intensified the contradictions between officials and the people. As far as I am concerned, if we don’t fix the power structure, it will be difficult to find methods to relieve the problem. Petty shrewdness is not the solution – China needs great wisdom. It is really possible that the country is democratic and that you become the master of the country just because you can push some buttons?

Maybe Western countries need some Chinese-style cleverness. But it is obvious that Chinese should not refuse the great wisdom that has been developed. I appreciate and support every practice that the Chinese government has tried to improve governance and strengthen services. However, as a political scientist, I think that although this small-scale cleverness will delay great reforms, it cannot prevent their arrival.

I hope that the authorities, as a “learning-oriented government,” can use this petty shrewdness to pave the way for great wisdom — not to prevent it. What’s more, the authorities should not play tricks while refusing real solutions at an historically critical moment. They must learn from the experiences of rule of law, freedom, and democracy in different countries in the world and determinedly walk the road toward rule of law and wisdom that accords with Chinese characteristics.

This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.

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