Last week Guangzhou government officials forfeited their extended National Day holiday to host an unusual international event. Mayors and other municipal officials from cities in places as far afield as Iran, the Ivory Coast and Iowa came to Guangzhou to attend the annual board meeting of Metropolis. Metropolis is a combination think-tank and talk shop that brings city officials together to share information and experiences, and to discuss pressing urban development issues. Its meeting last week focused on e-government. How, in other words, cities can use information technology to improve urban governance. As hosts of the meeting, the Guangzhou officials were given a unique opportunity to present their vision of how information technology will transform their fair city. The enthusiasm with which the officials appeared to embrace the Information Revolution, and the boldness of the vision they outlined, was impressive. Aided and abetted by the international media, many westerners, Americans in particular, are wont to see governance in China as being mainly an exercise in oppression. And last week's images of security goons beating members of the Falun Gong sect in Tiananmen Square will certainly do little to change that impression. But while there can be no apologising for the brutality the Chinese Government - at all levels - is prepared to resort to whenever it deems it necessary, this view is hopelessly simplistic. At the end of the day the mayors of Guangzhou and Chicago, for instance, have remarkably similar jobs. Both are preoccupied with making their cities work. For as difficult as it may be for westerners to appreciate, broken water mains, blackouts and snarled traffic produce a public response as immediate and angry in China as they do in the United States. Indeed in many respects Guangzhou mayor Lin Shusen's keynote speech to last week's Metropolis meeting would not have seemed out of place had it been given by one of his democratically elected counterparts in the US. Mr Lin boasted that his city had penetration rates of 49 personal computers and 59 telephones (fixed-line and mobile) per 100 households. He then went on to note: 'The development of modern information technology not only changes the way enterprises operate and the way we live and think . . . [it also] enables residents to take part in the management of the city by expressing their opinions and submitting their suggestions, criticisms and questions to the government by e-mail.' Or consider this frank observation from Chen Xiaogang, head of Guangzhou's Tianhe district government: 'With the Internet in hyper growth, the traditional mode of governance has been shown to be unable to interactively access and process in real time information of the residents, and unable to solve problems with efficiency . . . our way of administrative management is being challenged by new technologies. 'Being forward-looking government officials, it hurts to see our government get lost in the virtual world while the virtual world brings together more and more individuals and communities in seamless communication and interaction. 'We don't want to see our government continue its age-old ways of providing slow and rigid public services while the pace of life becomes faster and faster . . . 'In order to resolve these conflicts and make ourselves more competitive, we made a strategic resolution to build a digital government [in Tianhe] with local characteristics . . . 'In the foreseeable future, our government will be more digital, it will be more efficient, and more adaptable to the changes of the world.' The readiness of Mr Lin and Mr Chen to accept that, in an increasingly wired world, the citizens of Guangzhou will expect better and timelier provision of urban services is far-sighted. So too is their realisation that the Guangzhou government can, by embracing information technology, meet this demand. But neither Mr Lin nor Mr Chen was bold enough to carry this logic one step further. Given that, by their own admissions, the demands and expectations the people of Guangzhou place on their government are increasing so rapidly, is it not inevitable that they will one day also demand the right to elect directly their district officials and mayors? The Chinese Government is betting that, by using information technology to improve the quality of governance, the people will be satisfied, and quiescent. China's political stability and continued economic development are riding on this very risky gamble.