Call the mayor!: Chinese officials use hotlines to take the public’s pulse | The Economist

IN 1375 a secretary in the justice department wrote a long petition to the Ming emperor. Bored by the endless preamble, the Son of Heaven had the functionary dragged to the court and flogged. That night he read to the end of the petition and discovered four sensible proposals crammed into its final page. He ordered them to be enacted the next day.

Xi Jinping, China’s president, is less attentive to petitions (called “memorials to the throne” in imperial times) than was his Ming predecessor. China still has bureaus where citizens can appeal against official injustice, but the government discourages people from using them. It often locks up those who try, putting them in “black jails” without trial. But if appeals to the emperor now fall on deaf ears, humbler forums for complaint are encouraged. The two main ones are known as “mayor’s mailboxes” and “12345 hotlines”.

There are mayor’s mailboxes on the websites of every municipal government, usually indicated by a button next to a biography of the official with an exhortation to “write me a letter” (or, in practice, send an e-mail). The hotlines allow people to be put through to a local bureaucrat. The first one was set up in 1983. Since then they have proliferated, creating an unco-ordinated tangle. But the past few years have seen rounds of consolidation. Shanghai announced a single hotline in 2013. Guangzhou, in the south, did so in 2015. The unified ones all use the same number, 12345.

Such services may sound parochial, but they play an important role. Chinese officials find it hard to gauge what citizens are thinking. There is no free press and no elections to give them clues. Internet chatter is censored automatically, often before criticism reaches officials’ ears. So e-mails to the “mayor” and hotline calls provide rare and valuable guides to public concerns about a wide range of issues: local governments handle everything from social housing to education and health care. The Communist Party hopes that the hotlines and e-mails will make local administrations more accountable, more efficient and—perhaps—more popular. But do they?

In recent months state media have been promoting what they call a model example—the 12345 hotline in Jinan, capital of the coastal province of Shandong. It was launched in 2008, has about 60 operators on duty and gets nearly 5,000 calls a day, rising to 20,000 on busy ones. In 2014 Wang Zongling of the Standardisation Administration, which sets national standards, looked at the hotline’s impact on the government in Jinan. Before it was set up, the city had 38 hotline numbers for contacting different departments. That was “chaos”, the administration said.

The single hotline brought some order. The average time for handling a complaint fell from 10-15 days before it was set up to five afterwards. The share of calls put through to the right person rose from 80% to 97%. Partly because it is now possible to call city hall without wasting your time, enquiries rose from just over 4,000 a day between 2008 and 2011 to almost 5,000. Since the 12345 operators were better trained than before, they processed calls more quickly and the cost per call fell.

But Jinan is a special case. A survey last year by Dataway Horizon, a consultancy in Beijing, found wide variations in the quality of service. In Beijing, Shanghai and Chongqing, which are among the richest cities, all hotline calls were put through right away. In Yunnan, Tibet, Shaanxi and Qinghai—less-developed provinces in the west—only a fifth of calls were even answered on the first attempt. A meeting last July to introduce a hotline in Wuxi near Shanghai reportedly degenerated into a squabble between a deputy mayor and district councillors who argued that it would waste money. In nearby Hangzhou the hotline crashed last month when parents flooded it with calls complaining that school exams were too difficult.

In an attempt to improve widely varying levels of service, the central government recently laid down rules for running 12345 hotlines. Starting in July, calls must be answered within 15 seconds, at least one person on duty should be able to speak a language other than Mandarin and the line should be open 24 hours a day.

Perhaps because they are often poorly run, hotlines do not seem to be making local governments any more popular. These form the most despised tier of authority in China: many of the most egregious face-to-face abuses of power take place locally. In Jinan, despite all those efficiency gains, the survey found that “enquirer satisfaction” was only 1.3% higher after the hotline was established than before it. The spread of hotlines has had no discernible impact on the rise of anti-government demonstrations, most of which are aimed at local governments (see chart).

But it is possible that there would have been even more protests without the safety-valve of hotlines. State media say one of their roles is to help with “stability maintenance” by alerting officials to potential flashpoints. Many public protests relate to bread-and-butter issues, such as the ones a local newspaper said were most frequently raised by callers to the 12345 hotline in Nanjing, a southern city: the management of apartment blocks, the water supply, illegal construction, violations of consumer rights and shoddily built housing.

The same topics flood mayors’ mailboxes (both virtual and real). Diana Fu of the University of Toronto and Greg Distelhorst of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have trawled through over 8,000 letters and e-mails sent to mayors’ offices in nearly 300 cities. They found that environmental problems headed the list of concerns. Four of the top 15 involved various kinds of dispute over property.

Arguments over property are among the most frequent causes of unrest. Local government is largely financed by selling land, which is often seized without fair compensation. Very few people dare to protest explicitly about political issues, but all politics is local—and in China local politics is all about land.

Calling for the resignation of a mayor may be risky, but the correspondence read by Ms Fu and Mr Distelhorst shows that complainants are not shy about pointing fingers at lower-level officials. “Zhou’s behaviour is despicable,” seethes one writer about a civil-service examiner caught up in a bribery case in Zhaotong city, Yunnan province. Another, from Shaanxi province, asks: “Is it possible that the budget for road repairs has been swallowed up by corruption (just a suspicion)? I would not rule out reporting it to the media…”

For bureaucrats, such accusations may be a salutary surprise. Most officials spend their lives talking to one other about party business, not listening to the public. Over the next few months, party committees across the country will hold tens of thousands of meetings to discuss preparations for a five-yearly congress in Beijing later this year. As some officials admit privately, none of these gatherings will help them understand any better what most of the country is thinking. Perhaps the hotlines and mailboxes may.

Source: Call the mayor!: Chinese officials use hotlines to take the public’s pulse | The Economist

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