It appears that 2007 will be an important year for building basic laws and policies in China.
The much-debated and domestically controversial legislation designed to strike a balance between private, state and collective property interests was finally enacted at the National People's Congress (NPC) in March, as was a significant law on harmonization of corporate tax rates. It's also possible that major legislation on employment and competition will be passed later in 2007.
All of these items have been subject to extensive public input, from foreign businesses as well as Chinese citizens, and not just at the outset of the process but repeatedly, with successive drafts being circulated to interested groups from time to time for further comment.
While not entirely transparent, the quality of the consultation process has compared quite favorably with those found in Western Europe and the US. There is much significant debate also ongoing on key issues of public concern such as environmental protection and rural-urban disparities.
Devil is in the detail
Now, only a fool would deny that there are problems with the Chinese political process, with the drafting of laws (which often contain ambiguities) and with the implementation of laws once passed (for instance, the judicial system is still patchy). Even the Chinese government acknowledges there are significant improvements to be made in these areas, and there are of course various sensitive issues which are not so openly discussed.
But the mass media encountered by most Western citizens has largely failed to reflect the complex realities of Chinese politics.
Of the many examples that could be given, a BBC News website story from March 13, 2007, sarcastically entitled "China MPs exercise rubber stamp," is illustrative. Were the source of the piece not so eminent, it might easily be taken as the impressions of a tourist wandering around the NPC meeting and its environs looking for easily caricatured elements, with no background understanding of the Chinese political process and no attempt at balance.
"In the half-century that this parliament has been around, it has yet to reject a single party proposal," it concluded, ruing the lack of suspense. This is true so far as it goes, but nowhere near the whole truth.
Reflect for a moment on how new taxes are imposed in Britain; how the EU formulates and applies its competition law (a mixture of inter-governmental horse-trading and unelected administrative implementation with minimal legislative oversight); and how the US develops its law on the expropriation of private property (with recent developments in the judicial interpretation of a few constitutional words being key).
Comparing such examples with the current Chinese legislative projects on tax, competition law and property, is it fair to use pejorative phrases such as "rubber stamp"? Certainly not without some acknowledgement of the wider realities that would allow the reader to ask whether the legislation really has come about through a less inclusive process than those typically found in the EU or US.
Off the pulse
It is unclear why mainstream media continue to represent matters in such a one-dimensional fashion – which can result in misunderstanding among otherwise well-informed Western citizens.
Perhaps part of the problem is that Beijing's aversion to confrontational public theater is a recipe for misapprehension even by some of the foreign media who report on such things.
One wonders also whether there may not be a tendency to take the path of least resistance in preparing material for readers and viewers considered likely to prefer entertainment or confirmation of their prejudices, rather than being challenged and informed accurately about the world as it is.
So does any of this matter? I suggest that it does because it contributes to a sense of political complacency amongst Western citizens – "we're democratic, they're not" – at a time when China is improving, yet many Western countries seem to be becoming, by and large, less democratically accountable in any meaningful sense.
Sooner or later I expect this will become generally apparent to those willing to acknowledge it. One can only hope that this may eventually help reinvigorate Western political culture; a happy irony, perhaps, after so many years of one-way traffic.