Democratisation in China: Professor Chen Kang visits ACELG

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Democratisation in China: Professor Chen Kang visits ACELG

On Thursday 5 February ACELG and our fellow UTS organisation, the Australia China Relations Institute (ACRI) headed by Professor Bob Carr, will host a visit by Professor Chen Kang from National University of Singapore (NUS).

The visit will culminate in an evening seminar titled 'Local Government in China: The experiments in Democracy at a City Level' to be held at Ariel Function Centre, UTS from 5.30 pm. The seminar is free of charge and you would be most welcome to attend. To RSVP follow the link here.

Professor Kang is currently Director of the Master in Public Administration and Management (MPAM) and Chinese Executive Education programmes at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy. 

Kang graduated from the University of Maryland specialising in macroeconomic modelling. As such, while his recent work has focussed on processes of democratisation and engagement in China, the breadth of his professional competencies reaches beyond this to the 'big picture' macro stage. So his work is of intense interest both to us in local government, and to those that play in the big picture space – like the Australia China Relations Institute. Not that the two spheres are necessarily mutually exclusive – indeed that they ought not to be is precisely the point.

Professor Kang's doctoral dissertation was published as the ground-breaking book The Chinese Economy in Transition: Micro Changes and Macro Implications (1995; Singapore University Press). The text details the political struggles between conservative, democratic and reformist blocs inside the Chinese state and party apparatus and – most importantly – the evolving role that sub-national government generally and local government in particular have played in the reform process.

The role of local governments in China has evolved – to use the court nomenclature from Kang's (1995: 88) book – from being vassals of the central state to being "dukes" or "princes" in their own right. The crucial role of local government in the reform process is difficult to overstate, as Kang identifies:

The political importance of local governments in the reform process is well understood by reformist central leaders such as Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Ziyang. When wholesale reform plans met strong resistance at the central level, they encouraged local governments to engage in partial, incremental, and experimental reforms, and granted coastal regions preferential treatments and special autonomy (Kang 1995: 87).

So despite its status as a single-party state, governments at the municipal, prefectural and town levels in China have exercised a significant degree of autonomy to be at the forefront of incremental, yet systemic change.

In his recent work Professor Kang has documented examples of citizens increasingly engaged in processes adjacent to traditional party structures at local levels. The examples he will draw from on Thursday evening include deliberative democracy in Hangzhou City, participatory budgeting in Jiamusi (Heilongjiang Province), 'community courts' in Henan Province and the Water Users Association in Guangxi Province. Some of these examples feel very similar to types of engagement in the Australian setting – indeed more generally – and it will be interesting to see to what extent this is the case.

Our Director, Associate Professor Roberta Ryan, will introduce the event. Professor Kang will engage with Professor Bob Carr in a Q&A-style presentation with plenty of time for questions. 

Again, you would be most welcome.

Dr Bligh Grant is Senior Lecturer in Local Government Studies at the UTS Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government.