May 28

Shenzhen aims for major political reforms

Written by Buxi on Wednesday, May 28th, 2008 at 10:29 pm
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Many in the West appear unaware that the Chinese political system is reforming itself… (it might be more accurate to say many in the West see the political system in China as old Communists waving their hands and issuing imperial edicts.) The truth is, although the pace of this reform is painfully slow compared to economic reforms, it is happening.

One of the more significant chapters in Chinese political reform might be opening in front of us.

The city of Shenzhen has recently released a document providing an overview of political reforms over the next few years. It’s not detailed enough to be called a plan, but it’s a strategic road-map of what Shenzhen hopes to achieve. It doesn’t look like Western (or Taiwanese) democracy, but it’s a step towards finding compromise reforms without risking instability. And at the end of this road-map lies competitive elections for the position of mayor. Other positions to be competitively elected along the way include district-chiefs, bureau-chiefs, and representatives to the People’s Congress.

First, a little background on Shenzhen. It’s one of China’s economic engines; originally designated as a Special Economic Zone, it was the true catalyst for the entire capitalist explosion throughout Guangdong province. For more than a decade, entry into Shenzhen was only possible through a special permit. Many trace China’s surge in economic reforms back to the visit Deng Xiaoping paid to Shenzhen back in 1992. And partly as a legacy of this economic reform period, Shenzhen was given extensive legal powers to set laws as needed.

It’s fair to say that Shenzhen was probably the first to try most social and economic reforms attempted on the mainland. The Shenzhen city government has recently said it wants to become a “model city for socialism with Chinese characteristics”.

Today, it’s a modern city with a population of 8 million. It lies right across the “border” from Hong Kong, and has a sizable population of Hong Kong ex-pats who prefer the cheaper cost of living on the mainland. Shenzhen prides itself as an “immigrant” city; since 20 years ago it was little more than a fishing village, the vast majority of residents in Shenzhen are from elsewhere in China. Partly because it has absorbed so many skill-driven immigrants (something like the United States in this sense), it is one of the youngest and best educated cities in China; many in Shenzhen brag about the fact that it has the most bookstores, per capita, of any city in China. Many of Shenzhen’s senior officials have studied overseas.

As someone who’s visited Shenzhen on and off for 15 years (and I remember when it was just a dusty construction zone), I really admire this city. It’s beautiful, filled with (free) parks and green-spaces, laid-out well, and modern in many senses of the word. It’s one of the few cities in China that I personally would dare to drive in.

The full name of the document is: Shenzhen Near-Term Political Reform Overview (Comment-Seeking Draft).

It was published by the Shenzhen Structural Reform office, which links the release to related regulations requiring “government release of information” (see previous blog post). The office set May 22nd through May 26th as the days for public consultation (sorry folks, missed the deadline for anyone that wanted to provide feedback). Two telephone numbers, an email inbox, and a street address were provided for anyone who wanted to submit comments and advice. Comments could also be submitted through the typical Shenzhen government websites.

Here is a translation of a Caijing article on this issue:

—————————————— begin translation ——————————————

Following previous reforms (including government bureaus + work units), Shenzhen is continuing to push forward on reforms. The newly released Overview is asking for open comments from society at large, and asserts that the Shenzhen government is “trying to be a pioneer, working to investigate and improve the structural model of our model city”. Within around three years, it hopes to construct a democratic, law-based, clean, efficient, service-oriented government.

The Overview reveals that the next step will be competitive elections for the mayoral spot. In order to build experience, the Overview calls for “competitive elections at the district leader and vice-district leader spots, with candidates participating in open campaigning and debates, within limits.” (Ed note: keep in mind the population of a district is more than a million people.)

In addition, Shenzhen is also proposing that the district-level legislature be partially directly elected, in order to better understand the people’s demands. The government will also set aside funds to establish legislator work offices, where the people can communicate with and make demands of the elected legislature.

In response to the corruption issue, which has generated the greatest concern from the public, the Overview proposes adopting Hong Kong’s supervisory model, and creating a new work structure and operating model in order to fight corruption. It will also speed up the review process on the “Monitoring Law”, in order to better preserve the news media’s rights to freely interview, and the media’s management autonomy.

The Overview also says Shenzhen hopes to learn from the Hong Kong and Singapore experience, and establish a system that separates the law-making, executive, and supervisory arms of the government while still allowing them to mutually cooperate.

In terms of legal reforms, Shenzhen will borrow successful experiences from the international community. It will construct a system that allows judges to decide cases independently, while also improving the existing jury system. It will make more clear the body responsible for rendering decisions, and strengthen the system used to investigate wrongful judgments.

At the same time, absorbing the lessons with organizations involved with the Sichuan earthquakes, the Overview proposes that research must be done on laws to regulate non-profit organizations…

“In terms of creating new reform in political structures, Shenzhen’s awareness is ahead of the crowd,” according to an anonymous scholar, but there is still quite a bit of distance before achieving actual implementation of these ideals. “It’s probably not possible for these reforms to be implemented on the actions of Shenzhen itself. Often, political structure reform must happen from the top down.”

A professor at Shenzhen University also said that he’s not optimistic about the possible results of these reforms. “Democracy and the construction of a legal system, it’s really a systems engineering problem. But right now, everyone’s understanding on these issues remains confused. It’s also unclear whether some of these clauses can be implemented under the existing political structure in China.” He told Caijing that Shenzhen University would organize a special research group to focus on this issue.

What’s difficult to understand, however, is that for such an important systematic reform, Shenzhen has only given the public four days to consider and provide feedback. A worker at Shenzhen’s Structural Reform Office also revealed to Caijing, “many experts and scholars have also told us that this isn’t enough time”.


EDITOR NOTE: Although this story has been covered with great enthusiasm by major Chinese news sources (including Southern Metropolis, Caijing, etc)… English-language reporting has drawn a blank so far. The only news story I can find so far (and it’s a good analysis) comes to us from Pakistan.

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17 Responses to “Shenzhen aims for major political reforms”

  1. KL Says:

    i don’t really expect them to recognize that. they won’t be aware of that until they are the “reform designers”.
    See http://edition.cnn.com/2007/WORLD/europe/06/05/bush.europe/

  2. S.K. Cheung Says:

    Sounds good on paper, but the proof is in the pudding (and the details, and the implementation). Four days of public consultation on what amounts to a sea-change in the system of governance seems extremely disproportionate.

  3. Opersai Says:

    On this topic, you might be interested to read this article. I had left China for many years, so I find this article very fascinating.


  4. FOARP Says:

    Just as the people quoted in the article say, Shenzhen doesn’t have the power to implement these reforms itself. I doubt that central government is going to give these reforms the OK.

  5. chorasmian Says:

    In my opinion, a president election is neither affordable nor realistic in China. Perhaps the most potential reason is western democracy system can’t fit in our tradition and culture. I think the county level election for mayor who has similar social role as chief of clan in traditional Chinese society will be practical.

  6. Buxi Says:

    It’s hard for me to imagine that Shenzhen would float political reforms of this scale publicly without having central government support. Maybe not consensus support, but *some* government support.

    The Pakistani article had interesting insight. It suggested Hu Jintao is behind the entire effort, and that Shenzhen was selected precisely because it doesn’t have a political history + political machine + political faction.


    I almost agree with you. I think elections at the xian (county) level make the most sense. I’m a little concerned “clan” level elections at the village (zheng or cun) level might be very chaotic, maybe even violent.

  7. Opersai Says:

    Though, seeing how it was played out on village levels in some area, I’m not very certain about the electoral method of democracy.

    1. There are quiet a lot of news about election scandals like buying votes, blackmailing in the village level democratic elections.

    2. Even in many western countries, where electoral democracy had been running for years and years now, this method is failing too. The politicians say one thing during election and do another after they get in power. Great amount of money and energy, millions and millions of dollars, are wasted on the campaign every few years.

    This method of course has many advantages too. But I’m more interested on new experiments of different ways of governing, which is happening in many different areas in China, according to the earlier article I linked to.

    “Could we find a better way?” I’m more interested in the answer to that question.

  8. DJ Says:


    I share the same view of xian (county) level being the right place to start election.

    It’s not so big that people would have a real chance to get to know and evaluate the candidates and their ideas/policies/promises/whatever.

    It’s also low enough in the political and social structure that whatever lessons learned (both for the politicians as well as voters) and cost incurred are meaningful and acceptable (if something go wrong).

    It’s not so small such as village where democracy is likely to be interfered too much by personal animosities and clan relationships.

  9. Buxi Says:


    I’m also interested in the question of whether we could find a better way. Like both you and DJ, it’s hard not to live in the West without becoming a little cynical with and disappointed about direct democracy and how it actually functions.

    Many would quote Winston Churchill at this point as a rebuttal… so I’ll save them the trouble and do it myself:

    Winston Churchill: It has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.

    With all due respect to Sir Churchill, let’s hope we can keep trying. Logically speaking, I have a hard time believing that the evolution of political systems reached its final peak in the 1950s.

    The Shenzhen model sounds complicated right now, but suggests a sort of indirect democracy that interests me… citizens directly elect a local district congress, which then elects the actual officials. And any sort of reasonable, formal restriction on campaigning is very appealing to me, as the political campaigns at the national level I’ve seen inevitably turn into an organized lying + spin session.

    We’ll definitely make sure this blog continues to monitor political reform *experiments* in China going forward… there are many such experiments, and not many other English resources doing precisely that.

  10. Nimrod Says:

    It’s not even that existing systems haven’t reached the “pinnacle” (which they certainly haven’t), but that there are so many issues unique to Chinese society (as it exists today anyway) that a evolved solution is really one that would have the best chance of success. All politics is local anyway, so I’m more than happy to support local adaptation and experimentation.

    The other thing is, I’m kind of glad that this hasn’t been picked up by the Western press in great fanfare, as their, shall we say “colored”, views on the subject will only make things worse. China can do without buffonish cheerleaders who don’t know what they’re cheering about.

  11. JL Says:

    Strongly disagree with Nimrod’s point that it’s good that the western media haven’t covered this. Chinese critics often accuse the West of only saying bad things about China, now Nimrod says they shouldn’t report positive things either? People should only read about their own country, or what?

    With regards to some of the other comments, it’s important to see that there are different models of democracy. If you live in the US, don’t think that’s the only kind of Western democracy -things work quite differently in, say, New Zealand, Germany or Japan. I wish the people of Shenzhen all the best in coming up with their own system of democracy, an endevour in which I’m confident they will be eventually successful.

  12. FOARP Says:

    “citizens directly elect a local district congress, which then elects the actual officials.”

    How is this system meaningful if the officials are all Communist Party members? How are the elections meaningful if there are no manifestos and no debating of policy?

    As for why Shenzhen was chosen for this, if it is actually going to go ahead then it will be because Shenzhen has been a testing ground for other ideas in the past – most notably as a trade/foreign investment centre, and suffers little in the way of cliques and ‘splittism’.

  13. Buxi Says:


    I’m sure Nimrod meant his comment tongue-in-cheek. He did say “kind of” glad.

    As far as democracy in other countries… I can tell you my own concern based on my limited experience, and you tell me whether any other democratic systems can address my concerns.

    The only two democratic systems I’ve observed “up close” are the ones in Taiwan and the United States. Taiwan doesn’t have too long of a history: Ma won on a practical, issue-based campaign this time, leading many Chinese to be immediately infatuated with the Taiwnese system. But Chen Shui-bian won an election on the basis of a populist, fear-based campaign.

    But the United States has been having elections for far longer… and my concerns are based on the American example. (I don’t mean this in an insulting way to our American friends; just expressing my candid opinion, and you’ve probably seen worse from other Americans.)

    – Campaigns are very rarely issue-based, and it’s become widely accepted common sense that campaign promises aren’t intended to be carried over into practice.

    – Voters are very poorly informed; vast majority vote on the basis of party lines and little else.

    – Billions are spent on the exercise. Those with financial resources (and those that pander to those with financial resources) have a far greater likelihood of winning.

    – Campaigns are every 4 years, with campaign season seeming to stretch out by a few months every time around. Everyone’s actions in office isn’t motivated by long-term good of the country, but how they’ll win their next term in office. This is precisely critical problems (like social security) facing the US aren’t being solved.

    – The final result: two parties that pander only to their electorate, and have little motivation to put into place *compromise* policies. Republican Presidents are typically Republicans first and Americans second. Democratic Presidents are typically Democrats first and Americans second.

    To me, this is incredibly distasteful. I want a “democratic government” in China that respects the opinion of informed voters. But I don’t want a government that lies to win office, that needs the support of the rich to win office, that focuses on next year’s campaign more than long-term policies, that leans towards one of two extremes rather than a compromise.

    I also believe the foundation of any successful democratic system is an established, credible, professional legal system. If the United States didn’t have a respected court system for resolving the 2000 presidential election vote-counting problem… doesn’t that set the scene for political violence similar to what we saw in Kenya?

    How do we avoid that in China while our legal system is still (as discussed before) incredibly immature?

  14. Buxi Says:


    How is this system meaningful if the officials are all Communist Party members? How are the elections meaningful if there are no manifestos and no debating of policy?

    The Communist Party has 70 million people, and has a good cross-section of people from all areas of society. I believe Communist Party members, if democratically and competitively elected, can absolutely reflect the will of the public.

    And the “Overview” actually says that manifestos, campaigning, and debating of policy would be part of the election process.

  15. Samantha Says:

    Having grown up in Shenzhen ,witnessing those unthinkable changes, I would say anything is possible.

    Every week as I returned from University back to Shenzhen city center, to my amazement, there was always something new, a new building, a new road, a new shopping center…etc. Indeed, it gets cleaner and more elegant each day. I still clearly remember how scared I was standing in the empty street on new year’s day. Only four years later, the scene has changed dramatically—streets and shops filled with people that came from all over the country.

    During the years I worked for a British financial institution, we had to constantly study and follow new policies or amendments in matter of week, reporting to central bank regarding im/export on daily basis. Change is a norm in Shenzhen.

    Shenzhen has always been an experiment in terms of financial and political strategies invented by the central government. Despite there are still many problems the city faces, I have a good reason to be optimistic. As I observe the government has been proceed with care, keeping close monitor on the trial results, making constant adjustments as needed.

    Calgary is a city similar to Shenzhen that blooms in recent decade, but neither its scale nor the speed of development remotely comes close to Shenzhen.

    Even the healthcare in Shenzhen begins to catch up with the west (I mean Canada). My mother just told me that from this year on senior’s medical insurance which previously merely covers drugs now includes those expensive surgery procedures. I am proud of Shenzhen every single minute.

  16. Nimrod Says:

    FOARP Says:

    How is this system meaningful if the officials are all Communist Party members? How are the elections meaningful if there are no manifestos and no debating of policy?

    One thing I always remind people when we discuss political parties is not to get hung up on technicalities and what you’re used to at a particular time and place. Things haven’t always been this way and don’t have to be. George Washington hated parties and warned against them in his farewell address:


    … all combinations and associations … serve … to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.

    He goes on to predict pretty much what Buxi has identified as the present-day ills of the US political system as they relate to a multi-party system (although he didn’t see the influence of money).

    In fact there are many interesting parts to that speech, some of which warns against rash changes to government and specious hypotheses for innovation. He says time and habit are what determine the character of governments, and that experience dictates how things work, not theory. He also advocates a strong government in which people must abide by laws. It is definitely not a treatise that the “human rights activists” would appreciate.

  17. Buxi Says:

    To follow up on this article, there’s been more progress in Shenzhen. Last week (first week in June), Shenzhen held a number of high level meetings reaffirming these reforms.

    These meetings gave us a look at high-level officials stepping out to approve of the plans, which in China is a real measure of how likely something is to happen. Guangdong Party chief Wang Yang (who has long been seen as a real reformer), Shenzhen City Party chief Liu Yupu were all involved.


    A few key points:

    – Wang Yang requested (back in March) that Shenzhen become a leading example province-wide and nation-wide, in establishing a democratic, law-based political system. He asked for concrete results.

    – reaffirmed all of the points named above: direct, competitive elections for district-level congresses.

    – it mentioned a (previously secret?) meeting on 5/12 for all city-government level committees, mayors/vice-mayors, etc… a total of 140 people.

    These 140 people were given a name list of people who met qualifications, and then told to nominate people for four positions (Futian district party secretary, and heads for committees related to technology and the Women Foundation).

    The top 10 nominees for these 4 positions then gave a speech, and the Standing Committee (a small group of senior city leaders) then selected between these nominees for the final position.

    This is a reminder to all of us of how far Shenzhen and China still has to go… but many of us agree that democracy in China should start from the grassroots rather than top down, and this is definitely progress in the right direction.

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