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Chinese Seize Upon a Chance to Sound Off

March 04, 2004|Mark Magnier | Times Staff Writer

BEIJING — When National People's Congress representative Zhou Xiaoguang took to the airwaves recently with a simple request, she never expected such an overwhelming response.

"Please tell me how I can better represent you," the 42-year-old businesswoman said in a brief television spot in the southeastern Chinese province of Zhejiang.

It's the kind of thing that wouldn't earn a second glance in the West. But in a country with a long history of top-down rule, where people are more often told rather than asked their political views, the ad hit like a bombshell.

A hotline she set up was swamped with calls from as far away as Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, thousands of miles away. Her modest gesture has set off a national dialogue on responsive governance. Journalists from all over the country have asked to interview her.

"I had no idea it would create such a stir," Zhou said.

Granted, political reform in China still has a ways to go. Few see a people-power upheaval around the corner, nor does the National People's Congress have much clout. Set up in the 1950s to rubber-stamp Communist Party decisions, the body is unwieldy and kept on a short leash. Its 2,984 delegates, most of whom are figureheads, meet only for a couple of weeks each year. This year, the proceedings will kick off Friday.

Still, new blood with new ideas is slowly creeping into the congress. There is more debate in the legislative body, which is billed as China's supreme legislature, even though the party still controls the agenda. And the days of unanimous approval are largely gone. A few representatives, including Zhou, are even questioning the traditional view that China's Communist Party is so in tune with the people that it doesn't need to ask their opinion.

"I think we can see real progress in this, especially in the change of people's mind-sets," said Wu Qing, a Beijing representative to the congress. "You're seeing a shift toward the idea that you're a representative of the people, by the people, for the people."

Zhou's hotline, staffed by volunteers, is receiving more than 100 calls a day. More than 80% of the calls come from outside her district of Yiwu, a relatively small city of 600,000 about 700 miles southeast of Beijing that is known for its wholesale trade.

Callers' most pressing concerns include corruption, the plight of migrant workers, China's energy crisis, political reform, burdensome business regulations and the need to protect private property and stem bankruptcies.

"This is social progress, although it should have been like this from the beginning," said Ji Wenlong, 26, a TV reporter in Yiwu. "Some of my friends see it as a publicity stunt, but I think it shows that representatives are becoming more responsive to the people."

Zhou has spent a few thousand dollars of her own money for her office, hotline and advertising time.

Mao Shoulong, a public administration professor at People's University in Beijing, welcomes Zhou's initiative as a small step toward a more democratic China. If copied by other representatives, the change could reduce the distance between rulers and the ruled, he said, in a country where leaders have tended to act more like parents than public servants.

But her action also has raised concerns that money politics could sweep China. "If you have money like Zhou, this is quite a good thing to do," said Wu Shaolong, a constituent working in real estate.

One solution, Mao suggested, might be to upgrade the role of representatives by giving them offices, budgets and a professional staff, thereby putting them on a more equal footing.

It's questionable, however, whether China is ready to put more resources in the hands of potentially vocal representatives clamoring for faster, more substantial change.

The reaction to Zhou's modest initiative also underscores the incipient state of political advertising in China. Although politicians in other societies have borrowed heavily from Madison Avenue to present and package themselves, Chinese officials are under little direct pressure to solicit views or curry favor with the public. Only the lowest officials are directly elected, with the Communist Party's political monopoly enshrined in the constitution.

The result is that state-controlled media, billboards and banners often provide the only "selling" required, as they admonish people to grow more grain, think righteous thoughts and support the Communist Party.

Criticizing the system, even when asked, has at times been perilous. In the late 1950s, Chairman Mao Tse-tung asked for suggestions on improving China. This resulted in the brief "Let 100 Flowers Bloom" period, quickly followed by punishment for those who spoke out. Mao later explained that he was just trying to lure the "ghosts and snakes" out of the woodwork.

Many scholars expect democracy in China to rise like a slow tide, perhaps over decades, as direct elections at the lowest levels are gradually expanded.

Zhou, who is not a party member, parlayed a start selling barrettes and brooches on the street in 1978 into a company that is now one of China's largest accessory wholesalers with more than 3,600 employees.

Yiwu's first representative to the congress says she hopes other national representatives will become more responsive. "Communication channels between representatives and the general public are still not very smooth," Zhou said.

But she's not an expert, she quickly adds. "I'm a businesswoman who doesn't know very much, so I formed a team and asked for help," she said. "I don't think what I'm doing is political. I'm just trying to help my country."

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