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Public hearings system needs improvements
( 2003-10-04 09:16) (China Daily)

Legal experts are calling for further improvements to the system of administrative hearings so that the government can increase impartiality in decision making and ensure the transparency of the process.

Zhao Xiaoping, head of the Pricing Department under the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC), listens to opinions from representatives of a public hearing on the price-adjustment scheme for Chinese airlines July 15, 2003. The NDRC, which organized the hearing, proposed airlines be allowed to raise ticket prices by a maximum of 25 per cent or cut them by up to 40 per cent. The benchmark price for every passenger is 0.75 yuan (US$0.09) per kilometer. [newsphoto.com.cn]
"The law should clearly stipulate that recorded hearings be made the sole basis upon which administrative bodies make decisions on issues that require public hearings,'' said Yu An, a professor of administrative law with the School of Public Administration at Tsinghua University.

He said the current legislation does not rule out the possibility that administrative bodies use information other than that put on the record in public hearings to make final decisions, even though the Law on Administrative Licensing says decisions should be made based on the records of such public hearing.

The Law on Administrative Licensing, which was passed in August this year, says that hearings must be held prior to the granting of administrative licences when there are conflicts of interest involved to ensure transparency and fairness. The issuance of administrative licences, which grant formal legal permission to conduct business or business-related activities, is a major government function.

Yu said it is important to expand the practice of using hearings in China.

The administrative hearing system was first introduced in the Law on Administrative Punishment in 1996 by national legislators. The law says administrative bodies should organize hearings at the request of interested parties before making decisions to close businesses, revoke licences or impose heavy monetary penalties.

"Such punishments can be devastating for the parties involved, so public hearings should be held to ensure just decisions by administrative bodies and to ensure impartiality,'' Yu said.

The Pricing Law, which was endorsed in 1997 and took effect in 1998, also stipulates use of the hearing system, requiring administrative bodies to hold hearings when setting prices for public services, public welfare undertakings and for commodities produced by monopolistic enterprises.

Hearings, a legal procedure in which the opinions of parties who have conflicting interests are heard, have been playing an increasingly important role in the country's policy-making processes, especially in price hikes since the Pricing Law took effect in 1998.

Qiao Zhanxiang, a Beijing lawyer and one of the most zealous proponents of the country's hearing system for price increases, regards the hearing system as a positive step in the development of democratic government and an effective tool to protect public access to information and the right to voice opinion.

Qiao took the Ministry of Railways to court in 2001 after train ticket prices were increased during the traditional Spring Festival holiday period without holding a hearing.

Though Qiao failed to win his case, clearer stipulations on the use of the hearing system have since been issued,partly as a result of his case.

The then State Development Planning Commission worked out a provisional measure for government decisions on price adjustments in August 2001. It stipulates that when the government attempts to raise the price of water, electricity, coal, telecommunications, railway tickets or other items essential to the daily life of the Chinese people, public hearings must be held beforehand. The most significant public hearing was held in Beijing in January 2002 concerning the price increases for railway tickets during the Spring Festival that year. The hearing, televised by China Central Television, attracted widespread national attention.

The commission's measure was amended in November 2002 to include procedures for selecting consumer representatives.

The National Development and Reform Commission (new name of the State Development Planning Commission mentioned above) organized a hearing on airfares in July this year, which involved representatives from a wide range of interest groups, including government authorities, the aviation industry and the general public.

However, despite these advances, legal experts agree that the hearing system still needs improvement.

Zhou Hanhua, a researcher at the Institute of Legal Studies under the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said only an independent, impartial and authoritative chairperson at such hearings can guarantee that the hearings do not retreat into mere formality and make sure that reforms are carried out.

He said it is also important to ensure that participants are selected from as wide a range of interest groups as possible.

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