Reform, or else

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 July, 2006, 12:00am

Of all the recent events in Shenzhen, nothing has polarised public opinion like the newly enacted Reform Law. It makes reform a legal requirement - which may be a world first. Under the law, officials in charge of government departments or institutes are legally obliged to make regular suggestions for reforms, and to put them into practice. At the end of the year, they will be evaluated by higher authorities on their reform efforts.

But here's the really controversial part: the law exempts people who propose reform initiatives from being held responsible if those measures fail. Critics attack this as a 'political blank cheque', and fear it will lead to hare-brained ideas.

The authorities, however, insist the legislation is necessary and crucial for Shenzhen's future: it will help battle inertia, forcing bureaucrats to improve their governance. 'Many officials don't want to have any achievements; they just want to avoid making mistakes,' said Li Shuguang , who drafted the law. 'This has led to mediocrity and hampered our development.'

To me, the most unsettling thing about the new law is not whether officials should be held responsible for their reforms, but the very reason why we need such legislation.

In a society with a representative government, the drive for officials to improve their governance comes from the people. Elected officials must, while in office, demonstrate to the public that they have the vision and volition to make changes for the better. The result of their policies, in turn, determines whether they win enough votes in the next election to stay in office.

Of course, I'm idealising this situation a bit. There are plenty of sham democracies around the world. Even in some fully fledged democracies, we see politicians getting elected simply because they are movie stars, football celebrities or people from powerful families. But, generally speaking, the political system of a representative government helps reduce indolence in governance. I think empirical evidence backs up that claim.

Lacking a representative government and accountability to the people, Shenzhen authorities are struggling to find an effective means to combat political torpor. But, as China's reforms become increasingly complicated, the inherent risks they carry also grow. Officials are more and more reluctant to try out new things for fear of making mistakes. That's how we ended up with the Reform Law.

This is a case of reform by decree rather than reform by public demand. The mainland media have hailed the new law as 'the first of its kind in the world'. Perhaps, as with most new things, we should give it the benefit of the doubt. But, without an open political system, I have reservations about how useful it will be.