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When East meets West. A view of Participatory Budgeting (PB) from the Far East

A guest blog by Susan Ritchie, describing her recent visit to China to exchange learning on PB.

The Invitation

Li Fan of the World and China Institute addresses the workshop on ‘lived experiences of PB’ in Edinburgh, Oct 2016.
Li Fan of the World and China Institute addresses the workshop on ‘lived experiences of PB’ in Edinburgh, Oct 2016.

PB Partners supports Participatory Budgeting as a method of improving democracy, community engagement, and wider social justice across the UK.  PB in all of its forms (of which there are many emerging) enables communities or organisations to make decisions on public budgets (and budgets in the public interest) through a system of dialogue, engagement and, ultimately, voting.

PB Partners were approached by an organisation called The Rights Practice, an organisation whose programme targets the protection of rights of the most disadvantaged and those in conflict with the law. Working on behalf of Professor Li Fan, Director of the World and China Institute, they were seeking people able to go to an academic conference in China this summer.  The Professor wanted an experienced practitioner to speak about how PB was developing in a long-standing democracy such as the UK.    The PB Partners asked Susan Ritchie, Acting Chair of the PB Network, to attend.  This blog provides an overview of the discussion.


The conference was held over a day and a half and was structured around keynote speakers and presenters who shared their views and experiences; both academic and practical.   The majority of those attending were academics and students mainly from Northern China, along with some who work in the charity sector.  PB Partners were the only international speakers invited.  D21 shared their experience of developing a multi level tool to support PB with their local Chinese volunteer sharing their learning to date.

Interpreting Research and Practice

The first day revealed a high level of interest in PB, and a great deal of experience within China – they have been doing PB as long as we have in the UK.  As is often the case in China, their research into PB started by looking overseas towards more traditional forms of democratic states: Chicago and New York.  Many of the speakers and attendees had attended conferences or PB events in those two very well known centres of PB. They had reflected on the research to establish how it might be possible to deliver PB in a communist country that is adopting increasingly western economic policy.

PB in China is growing with some powerful long standing examples of it being embedded in the political governance structures, particularly in Chengdu and Guandong provences.  The theories, structures and systems of PB were clearly being converted into practical processes at a very local level.  However, there seems to be a tension in the extent to which China adopts representative democracy, deliberative democracy or participatory democracy (in theory) – with each having their own merits.

From a UK perspective, the representative democracy element is essential, and is indeed one of the original values adopted by the PB Unit (a forerunner of the UK PB Network), but we often find that it is those elected representatives who can stall or prevent PB in specific localities.  We need to build on all the strong local representatives that have adopted PB and see the value in greater participation to support their role as representative.  There seems to be a view that deliberative democracy is safer for existing power structures, and that academics and practitioners would like to go further to elected representatives.

Perhaps of equal interest was a presentation from Mr. Shou Huisheng in which he outlined his research in Africa that identified that between 2012 and 2014, the numbers of countries using PB in Africa has risen from 14 to 25.  Mr. Shou gave evidence of learning from his research in Africa, demonstrating how PB can help shape not only communities, but countries as they develop new ways of enabling citizens to have a say in how budgets are spent with, by and for the benefit of communities.

The UK Experience

From a UK perspective, there was a lot of interest in the Scottish development, and some examples shared of how PB values and principles can be used as a commissioning and deliberation tool, such as the Outer Hebrides transport experience, and Commissioning Cubes model used in mental health and youth service budgets.

Interestingly (we take this for granted in the UK) there was a great deal of interest in the fact the PB is being increasingly considered as a method for engaging communities, and is particularly good at engaging the ‘seldom heard’.  With fifty-six ‘minority’ Chinese communities and a growing international workforce, there was a fascination about how PB can encourage greater community learning and cohesion and develop localised networking across communities.

Startling for the Chinese was the extent to which we in the UK have been developing the way in which the police use PB.   There are significant differences between policing in the UK and China, not least of which is the role of the state in controlling the way in which policing is delivered: our 43 Chief Constables in England and Wales, and one in Scotland are able to independently interpret government policy, and experiment with different ways in which they can democratise policing at a local level.    We shared how Greater Manchester Police and Durham Constabulary have achieved excellent evidence based results when using PB to work in areas of complex need (including serious and organised crime, and domestic violence).

Moving Forward

What is perhaps lacking in China is an established network of PB practitioners with an infrastructure that enables them to share experiences on a formal footing.  It was for this reason that the development of the PB Partners and the UK PB Network structures was of interest to the attendees, and there was a commitment to examine whether such structures could be developed in the first instance within China, with the possibility of then globally sharing thoughts and experiences.

It is fair to say that this would be something of a challenge for the Chinese attendees to manage, as international travel is not as free and easy as it is in the West (particularly when you are promoting democracy!).  However, what is undeniable is the drive for learning and experiencing PB first hand: it was refreshing to hear academics speak of their commitment to turn the theories into practice for the benefit of their communities.

It became clear that the different ways in which the UK and China have pursued PB in their relative political environments was in itself a great source of shared learning.  In the UK we have been pushing for PB to become a way of working – not fancy, novel ideas that are a bit of fun, but a serious and valuable way of doing democratic business together within our representative democracy: we know it allows for greater learning and local, often unheard, voices to be better understood.  Our public services use public funds: and so brings the participatory elements of democracy together with the elected few.

China has embedded PB within their communist political structures and, perhaps because its link to democracy is not explicit, it doesn’t appear to be controversial.  It is part of the existing ‘party’ structure but does allow for some locally elected representatives to participate in the PB process.  In Chengdu small grants are made through a PB process of idea generation, and topped up with loans from the State (see research by Cabannes). There was, however, some doubt from those in the room as to whether the state would agree to PB on a wider, inclusive scale, but it was evident that some provinces were making progress.

If China can learn from the UK, we can certainly learn from China.  How can they adopt PB as an inclusive tool for voice in the absence of democracy?  How can we adopt some of the embedded practice they have achieved, within our longstanding democratic institutions?

The day was closed with an invite to all to attend the 2016 UK PB Network conference that is being held in Scotland on 20th and 21st October.  Their attendance would provide a wonderful learning opportunity – East meets West indeed. And they did attend. Li Fan and a number of his colleagues, working through the Rights Practice, travelled all the way from China and so presented, albeit briefly at the International PB conference in Edinburgh.

For more information on PB in China: