Public interest hearings leave out the people, prompting growing mistrust

Consultations over proposed increases in areas that affect consumers, such at subway fares, are too often rigged in favour of the companies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 21 September, 2013, 3:18am

The clamour surrounding an upcoming hearing on fare adjustments for Nanjing's subway has put the system of public consultations into the spotlight.

Introduced in the mid-1990s, the hearings were meant to give the public some say in decisions regarding their livelihoods, especially water and electricity charges and public transport fares. But, to most people, these have become simply "meetings to raise prices" because community representatives nearly always vote in favour of authorities' proposals to do so.

The Nanjing subway fares hearing, to be held in the middle of next month, grabbed headlines after the municipal pricing bureau announced that people who voluntarily applied to attend the hearings would only be entitled to sit in on the sessions but not voice their thoughts.

Nanjing officials said nine of the 21 attendees would be representatives chosen by the local consumers' association. The remaining individual attendees could send their opinions in writing to the authority, the local government mouthpiece Nanjing Daily reported.

Citing national regulations on price adjustments by authorities, the Nanjing pricing bureau said the consumer representatives could either be chosen at random from the people applying on their own accord to join the hearings, or who had been recommended by the consumers' association. It also promised to name all attendees 15 days before the hearing.

The public, however, appeared unmoved, claiming the consumers' association had little to do with the public, and that most people had never been involved with the organisation. People also ask why the government prefers representatives recommended by the consumer association, instead of choosing people who sign up individually.

The Nanjing hearing is one of scores of such meetings across the mainland that operate in an opaque manner, keeping secret such details such as costs or their procedures for adjusting prices.

The only rules that are made public seem to help authorities manipulate prices easily, and avoid genuine public debate. For example the quota for consumer representatives is too small: the 21 attendees at the Nanjing hearing comprise seven government officials, two academics and one representative each from the subway, taxi and bus operators - leaving just nine consumer representatives.

A national hearing on mobile roaming service charges held five years ago included just five consumer representatives - in a nation where the number of mobile phone users had reached 500 million at that time.

Many questions have also arisen over how participants at the hearings are chosen. Some appear to have made a career as "hearing specialists" as mainland media have taken to calling them. One retired woman in Chengdu was selected to attend 19 hearings, while a middle-aged worker in Changsha took part in 17 meetings, both in the period from 2004 to 2011. Neither one ever opposed proposals to raise prices.

Few price hearings are broadcast live and only a small number permit media representatives.

Officials have also ignored suggestions to extend the scope of public hearings beyond charges for utilities and public transport to more contentious public interest issues, such as the approval of large industrial projects which affect the environment and public health. If public hearings are discussed early on, people are less likely to protest later.

As long as authorities continue to restrict access to these hearings, and game the proceedings in their favour, the public's mistrust will only grow.