The Communist Party uses e-rulemaking to maintain its popularity.
For decades, notice and comment rulemaking and other forms of public consultation have been fundamental, democratizing components of the regulatory process in the United States and other advanced industrialized democracies. Surprisingly, the otherwise authoritarian, party-driven Chinese government is also increasingly adopting “e-rulemaking” as a vehicle for soliciting public input into regulatory decisions.
In 2008, the State Council, the preeminent executive organization in the Chinese state, announced
its intention to use the Internet as a primary vehicle for circulating and soliciting public feedback on draft laws and regulations. Over the past three years, the central government has publicized and received comments on proposals in a wide range of policy areas, from the diagnosis of mental illness to foreign direct investment in the Chinese economy. One of the most salient applications of this system occurred when the National Development and Reform Commission, a macroeconomic planning agency under the State Council, posted on its website the draft of a plan
to reform the nation’s health care system. During the one-month comment period that followed, the commission received nearly 30,000 public submissions.
Why has the Chinese Communist Party become interested in informing its citizens about upcoming regulatory actions and using the Internet as a means of gauging public reaction? What are the characteristics of the individuals who submit feedback in response to proposed rules, and to what extent do comments express support for, and opposition to, government plans? Does online consultation offer Chinese citizens an authentic mechanism for influencing government decision making and the outcomes of policymaking processes?
Although it is not yet possible in this early stage of China’s implementation of e-rulemaking to answer such questions definitively, preliminary assessments can be offered and expectations for the future can be developed.
Despite ever-present challenges such as government corruption, degradation of natural resources, and rising inequality in the distribution of income and wealth, the Chinese Communist Party maintains relatively high overall levels of support
among Chinese citizens. As part of its ongoing effort to cultivate that support, the party has in recent years initiated a number of reforms oriented toward improving governance and the provision of public goods. These reforms range from public discussions of budgetary priorities to adoption of social welfare benefits and sustainable energy policies. Taken together, governance reforms, of which online regulatory consultation is a significant manifestation, constitute a calculation on the part of Chinese leaders that changes in process and policy are a means of preserving one-party rule in a rapidly changing and highly uncertain environment.
I have collected from participants in the health system reform’s notice-and-comment process suggests that online regulatory consultation holds promise as an instrument of incremental reform in Chinese governance. Individuals who offered feedback on the government’s proposal were, in the aggregate, educated professionals who occupy relatively well-established places in Chinese society. These participants expressed both support for and opposition to the plan, and they held modest overall expectations about governmental responsiveness to the information transmitted during the feedback period.
To the extent that such patterns hold in general, online regulatory consultation offers to provide China a forum in which public opinion, including views dissenting from government positions, can be openly expressed inside official policymaking processes. Such expressions, however, occur in a context in which participants, who are for the most part drawn from segments of the Chinese population that have benefitted from the economic reforms and growth of the past several decades, are not inclined to challenge the legitimacy and continued rule of the Chinese Communist Party.
The patterns and parameters of public participation in China’s health care reform are illustrative of the potential of online regulatory consultation, and governance reforms more broadly, to foster the gradual, limited emergence of mutually beneficial exchanges between policymakers and citizens and, therefore, to induce a measure of stability in the Chinese political system.