Talk of democratic reform sometimes focuses on talk. The aspiration of ‘deliberative democracy’ is for the mass public to influence policy making through public discussion. The common presumption is that this is an advanced version of democracy, possible only in established democracies. Even there, there are doubts. Some contend that ordinary citizens cannot deal with complex policy issues, others that their deliberations will be distorted by gender or class inequalities, and yet others that they will be ineluctably polarizing. In less fully democratic societies like China’s, the prospects may seem slimmer.
Yet China has now been home to four Deliberative Polls. Here, we report on the first, in Zeguo Township in Wenling City. This was a local public consultation that attempted to affect policy choices, while fulfilling some ambitious criteria from democratic theory. We consider how well it succeeded.