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Mark Leonard is Executive Director of the first pan-European think-tank, the European Council on Foreign Relations. It was launched in late 2007 with backing from the Soros Foundations Network, Fride,[…]

Mark Leonard discusses how the Chinese government is paying greater attention to public opinion.

Question: Will China vote?

Mark Leonard:  Well, there is voting at the moment at the level of villages.  Some of the elections are more competitive than others.  And it has been tried out at a slightly higher level in some places.  And when I was in China I even visited a placed called Pinchung [ph?] in the Szechwan Province, which is the first place where the party secretary at township level were elected by party members, which is quite a revolutionary change.  Normally it’s each level of government appoints the people at the lower level, and this is really trying to turn things on its head.  But actually, even though there are these sorts of experiments going on in different places, I don’t think that that is where most people in the Chinese leadership see political reform leading.  I think what they’re more interested in is finding other ways of reaching out to public opinion and bringing the public into the political process, but through ways that don’t involved elections, and don’t involved party competition.  And that’s why more and
more they’re using things like opinion polls and doing polling on a whole series of different topics.  When they appoint leaders at particular levels, they often do polling on it to see how popular or unpopular they are before they get promoted.  They are doing public consultations on big issues.  For example, ChongQing, which is one of the biggest cities in the world, they introduced some regulations where whenever there’s a major decision needs to be made, there should be an attempt to consult the public.  So, for example, when they changed the price of their light railway tickets, or they decided whether to ban fireworks, they invited the public to come along and take part in a consultation, which was then televised and people could watch it all over the place.  And then the decisions reflected what happened during those public discussion.  There are all sorts of innovative experiments like that going on which, I think, are designed not to make China into a liberal democracy, but to make it into a more resilient, one-party state, that’s better able to respond to and to predict where public opinion is going to go.