In response to the increasing gap between rich and poor and the rise in the number of social conflicts, the Chinese government has gradually, albeit very cautiously, begun to open up spaces for citizen participation. In 2007, Shining Stone Community Action (SSCA), a Beijing-based NGO, was approached by the local government of a sub-district in Beijing to assist them in improving their social services. After an initial training on participatory approaches and project management, residents’ committees (RCs) designed small community projects based on residents’ needs and interests. They then applied for funding from the sub-district government. Project teams that consisted of residents and community workers steered the implementation of the four projects that were approved. Impressed by the initial results, the government intends to extend their cooperation and increase the number of community projects.
Taking the particular political and social circumstances in China into account, the following innovations are especially noteworthy: 1) a bottom-up approach to community development, not a top-down, ‘one size fits all’ approach; 2) a project-based approach to service delivery instead of the sporadic organisation of one-off activities; 3) an emphasis on needs assessments prior to project design; and 4) participation of residents in decision-making processes. Among the challenges we face are the continuing dominance of RCs and the question of how to sustain citizen initiatives and the participatory governance model as a whole.