Participatory budgeting (PB) is a democratic process where community members directly decide how to spend public funds.  First introduced in the late 1990s in China, the process has been piloted in several Chinese cities, but the direct participation of citizens had been limited.

In spring 2016, we coordinated a study visit to New York City to give Chinese advocates of PB a chance to observe New York’s PB model in action. All residents over the age of 15, regardless of citizenship status, can both propose projects and vote on them. The Chinese observers also saw how local civil society plays a critical role in NYC’s process.

Since then, the Chinese observers have drawn on NYC’s model to advise on the development of PB in Haikou, Hainan province and Nanchang, Jiangxi province.  During Haikou’s second round of PB, from February-May 2018, citizens submitted around 40,000 ideas for funding.  These were whittled down to 10 through community roundtables that any resident could join.  An estimated 200,000 people, drawn from four districts, voted for their top five projects during the last week of May.   

In addition to mobilising citizens, PB is also helping government see the benefits of interacting more closely with the public.  When a citizen’s budget proposal does not make it onto the final ballot in Haikou or Nanchang, a local government representative calls or sends a letter to explain why.  Similar pilots are being considered in Guangdong and Jiangsu provinces. 

On June 1, 2018 a Wall Street Journal article entitled “These Lucky Chinese Citizens Get to Vote—on How Their City Spends Its Money” highlighted the significance of the evolving process, noting: "On a recent day, Chen Zejin, 76 years old, was buying lettuce at a local market when he saw government officials asking residents for ideas on how to spend public funds. He filled out a form, suggesting the creation of more youth after-school programs. “Before, the government would decide!” he said. “This is a big change.”