Shenzhen to test-run political reform

By Stephanie Wang

CHANGSHA, China - China's first-ever special economic zone (SEZ), in Shenzhen city, has long been regarded as a touchstone when it comes to reform. In the past three decades, many economic reforms have been tried in Shenzhen first and then, if successful, promoted to the whole country.

Now it seems Beijing wants Shenzhen to pilot a profound restructuring of government, which could herald a nationwide reform of the political system. According to a report in the Beijing News, Shenzhen's master plan to pilot comprehensive reforms was formally approved by the State Council early in May.

The most prominent and ambitious item in the package is reform of the administrative system, which will divide the municipal government departments into three categories, namely, decision-making, execution and supervision. The reform has been wildly tagged as an experiment in "separation of powers", something new and definitely challenging for the Middle Kingdom.

Historically, and at present, a government department is normally the policymaker, executor and supervisor in its jurisdiction. But some say this is a major cause of red tape, abuse of power and a lack of transparency and oversight.

From this perspective, any reform that separated administrative powers would bring fundamental changes to the government system - but it is by no means expected to lead to democratization.

Beijing News said the Shenzhen municipal government had a three-year plan for a step-by-step "separation of powers", with the main idea having a single mayor and a deputy. Under the mayor, there will be "policymaking commissions" under which there are "policy execution" departments. The existing Supervision Bureau and Audit Bureau will be incorporated into a single body, which will take over all supervision functions now exercised by various departments.

Yue Zheng, president of the Shenzhen Municipal Academy of Social Sciences, has said the details of the reform plan are still being revised and that nothing has been finalized. But one thing is for sure, the current government structure will be broken down and some departments canceled or incorporated into others.

The economies of China's coastal cities, including Shenzhen, have been severely hit by the global financial crisis. It has been reported that in the first quarter of this year, the gross domestic product of Guangdong province (of which Shenzhen is a part) was 768.7 billion yuan (US$112 billion), with a growth rate of 5.8%. This figure is 4.7% lower than the province's growth rate for the same period last year, and 7.9% lower than the average over the past 30 years.

Against such a backdrop, the central government quickly gave a green light to the planned administrative reform in Shenzhen - it took less than six months to approve the city's blueprint. This has prompted media at home and overseas to speculate that this ambitious reform might mean more than what has been publicized.

Shenzhen municipality, which has long been regarded as an economic miracle, can well be called the brainchild of Deng Xiaoping, the chief architect of China's reform and opening-up program.

However, any plans for economic, administrative or political reform in China have always been a sensitive topic. Even the "small government" approach of the resolutely minded former premier Zhu Rongji was eventually scrapped.

Shenzhen considered a similar reform plan as early as five years ago. Then many described it like a storm that "started out with thunder and ended in a drizzle" and it was abandoned due to political sensitivities. In the wake of the global financial crisis, Beijing could feel that now it is a good time to start piloting "separation of [administrative] powers", in response to the growing calls for political reform.

In the pre-financial crisis era, when neo-liberal economics prevailed, the idea of "small government" was praised by scholars and political leaders alike (including former premier Zhu). Unfortunately, the idea failed together with many a financial institution during the crisis. Now, the neo-leftist idea of "strong and democratic government" is gaining the upper hand.

Strong government has been recognized as a key part of China's economic boom over the past two decades.

"China is disciplined, single-minded and dynamic in pursuit of its goal in a way that a democracy cannot be," said Charles Powell, a former foreign policy adviser to former British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, said at a recent debate on India and China at the Royal Geographical Society in London.

"China has a strategy to own the future, to reclaim what it regards as its rightful leading place in the world. And it has a system of government that is geared to achieving just that," he said.

At the debate, 421 members of the audience voted against the motion, "The future belongs to India, not China," and only 261 voted for. Speakers on both sides agreed that in an ideal world, the future would belong to India's democracy, but Powell told the audience that that was just "wishful thinking".

"It may be what ought to happen, but it's not going to happen," Powell said.

Most people recognize that a powerful government without supervision could lead to persistent abuses of power. Sadly, there are plenty recent examples, such as last year's tainted-milk scandal. In a nation with no substantive press freedoms, judicial independence or democratic elections, it is fair to say that any plan to introduce checks and balance through administrative reform is a step in the right direction.

Good examples for Shenzhen to follow are the Hong Kong Special Autonomous Region and Singapore, though, in Western eyes, these examples - especially the latter - are not democratic in the strict sense.

Hong Kong and Singapore are executive-led models, meaning the governments are very powerful. But both governments are also known for their integrity and efficiency. The secret of their success lies in the design of the separation of powers. Shenzhen has drawn a lot of its ideas from Hong Kong, for instance, from the Hong Kong Independent Commission Against Corruption and Audit Commission.

But a cloud of suspicion still hangs over the city's reform plan. Qiu Feng, a well-known liberal scholar, has pointed out no matter how the structure is designed, the mayor will always be above the three branches. Then comes the tough question - who will oversee the mayor? The reform can also be interpreted as giving the administration all legislative, executive and judicial powers.

The question raised by Qiu as to who will oversee the mayor is legitimate.

Five years ago, Yu Youjun, the former Shenzhen mayor, who advocated the original reform plan, helped a Hong Kong company run by his relatives win a municipal project with enormous profits. Yu stepped down later on the exposure of the corruption scandal. On June 11, the state-run Xinhua news agency confirmed that the mayor of Shenzhen, Xu Zongheng, had been sacked over "serious corruption".

If anything goes wrong, Shenzhen's plan to focus powers on its executive have a good chance of ending up as neither fish nor fowl. The division of powers could limit the executive's powers, or it could become too strong and encroach on other institutions, such as the People's Congress.

Despite the suspicions and doubts, the Shenzhen reform could revolutionize the existing power structure. As such, it is hoped the Shenzhen will once again lead the way, only this time in administrative reform.

Stephanie Wang is a freelance contributor based in Changsha, China.