2017-10-06 11:22:58

In a rare move of direct accountability, seven Party and government leaders involved in the planned megacity Xiongan New Area have shared their personal mobile phone number online for citizens to ask questions and air grievances.

The official to take the initiative was Liu Baoling, deputy Party secretary of Xiongan, who on Thursday publicized his number in response to a local resident who had posted concerns about land acquisitions on social media.

Liu told Sixth Tone on Friday that he had already received more than 1,000 text messages, which he said he had “categorized and read,” and that had “moved and inspired” him.

On April 1, the central government announced that the mostly rural counties of Xiong, Rongcheng, and Anxin in northern China’s Hebei province would be developed into Xiongan, a city that will eventually be 30 times larger than Manhattan. Local residents stand to profit, but the ambitious plans also bring other changes. After property speculators rushed in, the government banned real estate sales. Businesses have expressed concerns about whether they will be able to keep up with the coming influx of outside companies.

Together with Liu, the Party secretaries and government heads of all three counties also shared their cellphone numbers Thursday in a post by the provincial publicity department on messaging app WeChat. “Please text us and keep calls to a minimum,” the article pleaded.

Wang Zhanyong, county head of Rongcheng, told Sixth Tone on Friday that he had received more than 200 text messages — mainly concerning a partial ban on coal use that was implemented recently — and ten to twenty phone calls.

Wang said he would reply to urgent queries, and that he would forward other messages to his underlings. He wasn’t worried that having his number out in the open would make him a target for unscrupulous callers. “I think those people will avoid calling me if they know who I am,” he said.

Except at the lowest levels of government, Chinese citizens with grievances commonly cannot directly contact leadership officials. Instead, city governments are required to set up “12345” complaint hotlines, but a study earlier this year showed that only in one in five cities were these as responsive as regulations require. Government websites were citizens can leave messages aren’t always seen as effective, and lower level governments often shirk open information legislation.

Some localities have found creative methods to increase accountability, such as Xi’an, capital of northwest China’s Shaanxi province, where a popular TV show regularly exposes government negligence. Three environmental officials were sacked earlier this year after a broadcast put their lax oversight on display. Social media can also be a way for citizens to interact with government, and some state-run accounts have millions of followers.

But Liu prefers talking to citizens directly. “In my experience, if we set up a hotline, the public won’t have confidence in it,” he said.

Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

(Header image: An aerial view of Duanzhuang Town in Anxin County, one of the three counties that are to become Xiongan New Area in Hebei province, July 24, 2017. Chen Youzhu/VCG)