Public hearings need to regain public trust

14:33, July 22, 2011      

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If deprived of the right to know, to participate, to express opinions and to supervise, people will not be interested in participating in public hearings that are not intended to protect their interests.

A retired elderly woman surnamed Hu in Chengdu recently rose to fame as a "professional attendee of public hearings." It turned out that she applied to attend over 40 hearings and was "luckily" picked at random for 23 hearings covering more than 20 fields, including tourism, education, and transportation.

Admittedly, a main reason for familiar faces at hearings is that there are too few applicants. For example, a hearing on roadside parking fees had a quota of 11 representatives of local residents, but only seven people applied. A hearing on banning high-polluting cars from the road needed four representatives and five people applied. If it continues like this, familiar faces like Hu will continue to show up at public hearings, and certain public hearing conclusions will not be able to reflect the true will of the people.

Even if people are legally allowed to attend hearings multiple times, there are a few questions for the organizers of such hearings to think about. Can the same person represent the will of the people in all kinds of issues? Can a few frequent attendees really protect the interests of the people? How can public hearings attract a broader range of participants?

Unfortunately, a long period has passed since media reported the "professional public hearing attendee," and no related department has actively responded to it.

The public hearing is an important link for discussing the necessity and feasibility of a price adjustment and also a key link for consumers and businessmen to safeguard their own interests. No matter whether it is the price of water price, parking, phone bills or heating, public hearings on price are closely connected with public interests. In an "interest-sensitive" era, the public will definitely not ignore their own rights and interests, and a public hearing ought to attract wide attention and great participation.

Information is asymmetrical; technical terms always produce a lot of obstacles; industrial costs can never be clear; procedures are defective; speeches, which last only a few minutes cannot make a speaker fully express his/her view, the veto power of the consumers cannot been fully respected. A public hearing like that could definitely not be the platform for the public to safeguard their interests. Such a hearing is a "price-rising meeting" or even a "price-rising declaration meeting." If the public does not have enough rights to know, participate, speak and supervise, the public hearing will be disconnected with the public interests. And then, how can they be interested in it?

In recent years, the fact that "the price will rise after every public hearing" once attracted a lot of attention and a case that the price declined after a public hearing once surprisingly became a focal point. Besides, about 90 percent of the representatives in a water price hearing held in Beijing once voted for raising the price, and the statuses of the representatives in a water price public hearing held in Harbin once were suspected. All these things could reflect the weakened effectiveness of the public hearing system. If the original intention of "raising the democratic level, scientific level and openness of the government in price setting" cannot be realized, the credibility of the system will be compromised. Without the foundation of the masses, the public hearing will change from an interest-safeguarding platform into a meaningless empty show.

The fundamental way of putting an end to the emergence of frequent attendees of public hearings is to restore public confidence toward public hearings and expand the foundation of social participation, which certainly needs to further improve the institution.

The government can take the force of the third party, such as an independent, authoritative and credible agency, to supervise the whole course of public hearings to avoid related price departments and monopoly enterprises forming "benefit alliance." The government can require audit departments to completely audit related products before hearings to ensure the fairness and transparency of hearing materials. In addition, the government can also strengthen the construction of consumer organizations and other social organizations to make them more representative of attendees of public hearings and strengthen the right of collective bargaining. The government can even hold online hearings to publish related materials through the Internet and launch general debate to reduce the time and energy cost of attendees of public hearings.

The public hearing is the game of interests and a kind of civil participation. If this form of credibility is damaged by various disputes over interests, the government will lose an important way to safeguard the public interest and the enthusiasm of civil participation, which is the basis of developing the socialist democracy.

By Zhang Tie from People's Daily, translated by People's Daily Online

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