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Is the Poor Quality of Chinese Civic Awareness Preventing Democracy in China? A Case Study of Zeguo Township

By Su, Zhenhua; Le, Junjie et al. | Asian Perspective, January 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Is the Poor Quality of Chinese Civic Awareness Preventing Democracy in China? A Case Study of Zeguo Township


Su, Zhenhua, Le, Junjie, Zhang, Yongjing, Ma, Jun, Asian Perspective


(ProQuest: ... denotes formulae omitted.)

A prevailing view in China is that the country cannot democratize because of the poor quality of the populace with respect to "citizen quality," or civic awareness. This viewpoint lacks empirical support in relevant case studies and databases. This article focuses on a case study conducted using the deliberative polling process in Zeguo Township, Zhejiang Province, to determine whether citizen quality influences the effectiveness of local democratic action. We find that during the group democratic deliberation, factors such as participants' education, age, and career do not bear significantly on the success of democratic deliberation. Democratic deliberation can improve the civic knowledge of the public, public spiritedness, and civic participation, all of which facilitate the effectiveness of deliberation and the development of trust in the government. KEYWORDS: democracy in East Asia, China, deliberative polling, citizen quality.

THE SUBJECT OF CHINESE DEMOCRATIZATION OFTEN INSPIRES A DUBIOUS chorus of skepticism. One popular view is the "citizen quality discourse," which asserts,

(1) Common Chinese people receive low education and have little cultural knowledge, hence are unable to grasp the essence of political affairs and are also unable to manage public affairs. (2) Common Chinese people lack the spirit of toleration and compromise, and cannot objectively process different opinions. Divergent opinions on a same issue often escalate into disputes, failing to form a public choice of rationality. (Lai 2001)

These conditions are said to prevent China from achieving democratization without descending into chaos (Cai 2005).

In recent years, this outlook has undergone subtle adjustments, switching from "population quality discourse" to "Chinese democratization model discourse." The contention now is that democracy lacks a universal standard and instead is determined by the conditions of the region. By this notion, China cannot implement "Westernized" democracy (Fang 2009). Other democratization theorists express similar concerns.As one study has put it, "Some contend that ordinary citizens cannot deal with complex policy issues, others that their deliberations will be distorted by gender or class inequalities, and yet others that they will be ineluctably polarizing" (Fishkin et al. 2010, 435).

Can ordinary Chinese citizens engage in democratic activities? Are they ready to put the public interest first in dealing with public affairs? On the grassroots level, democratic activities in China have already been in motion. For instance, mass elections of village leaders are now required under Chinese election law, and in certain districts citizens are given the opportunity to criticize public policy. Many towns inWenling County of Zhejiang Province practice what is called "democratic heart-to-heart discussion" (kentan), where citizens gather to discuss local public issues. This very special case has already drawn widespread interest and scrutiny.

Within Wenling County, different towns have adopted various strategies of democratic deliberation. A fairly common strategy involves the discussion of the public budget by a sample of citizens. But in Zeguo Township, the incorporation of the deliberative polling method stands apart from the rest. James Fishkin et al. have already drawn important conclusions concerning its process and effectiveness (2010, 439-446). In 2005 Fishkin and his team helped the local officials of Zeguo conduct democratic deliberation, which they called "deliberative polling." Through a series of questionnaires, he surveyed local villagers' attitudes on different subjects, assembling a valuable data set.Anumber of scholars have used this data set in their empirical analyses (Fishkin et al. 2010). As Fishkin and colleagues (2010) concluded, the process of deliberative polling could significantly change the participants' attitudes and result in legitimate consensus.

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