Special zones of parallel political experimentation

Special zones are laboratories for experimentation with new policies that, if successful, can be introduced to other parts of the polity. Generally this has meant experimentation in more ‘free market’ policies with the aim of creating an economic environment attractive for investment and enterprise. In this way special zones have been used for gradualist reform and have been focused on development of economic institutions ahead of political institutions.

In this post, I’d like to explore a new kind of special zone: the special political zone. The SPZ is a space in which the form of governance is both modern and democratic, but also undercut through non-territorial formations of citizens in overlapping political units. It is a laboratory for experiments in non-territorial polycentric democracy.

Aerial view of city

Since the mid-1980s, policymakers appear to be increasingly attracted to economic zones and the number of new zones has grown rapidly; there are now somewhere in the vicinity of 4,000 zones in over 130 countries. This proliferation has been driven by the unprecedented era of trade and globalisation beginning in the 1970s, and the attendant fragmentation of production into geographically dispersed global networks. Given this, the special zone has been operationalised in many diverse forms and is a remarkably heterogeneous institution.

Looking forward, it is important to actively explore new margins for institutional experimentation, to push past the low-hanging fruit of economic reform that have so far been harvested. I suggest that special zones could advance in the following directions: (1) democratisation, and (2) non-territoriality.

That is, firstly seeking out new political institutional innovations, which for most emerging economies will mean experiments in democratisation (e.g. China). Secondly promoting cooperation and integration in wider and novel geographical contexts, thus bringing together heterogeneous peoples, and then applying non-territorial governance within the zone.

To this end I propose a new form of special zone: the ‘special political zone.’ The special political zone (SPZ) is similar to the special economic zone in the sense that it seeks to: (1) foster international connectivity (e.g. foreign investment and talented migrants); (2) act as an experimental laboratory for application and testing of new policies and institutional rules; and (3) support a wider reform strategy for the country as a whole. The principle difference is that, as the name suggests, special political zones are focused on political reform not economic reform. And moreover, the wider reform strategy that special political zones are supposed to support is a transformation from whatever prevailing political-institutional system (e.g. generally centralised and undemocratic) to non-territorial polycentric democracy.

In this regard special political zones should indeed conduct experiments in political rules, but each SPZ should conduct multiple experiments in parallel. In doing so each special political zone would also be an experiment in non-territorial polycentric democracy: its viability would be tested, and could then be replicated elsewhere if successful. This is the ethos of political gradualism and experimentation in special zones applied to the knowledge problem of the nation-state.

One of the most pressing outcomes of modernisation and development generally is a growing demand for political representation and democratisation. The modernisation hypothesis claims that as societies become wealthier the likelihood of democratic transition increases. Consequently the special political zone is a natural successor to the special economic zone; once economic development has taken place, conditions are ripe for citizens to demand political reform.

Countries that have used special economic zones successfully to promote growth could therefore use the same blueprint to introduce political reform. Moreover, the cities in which special zones are located would likely be the sites of special political zones. As forerunners of modernisation and development these cities sit on the leading edge of the social and political challenges attending rapid economic development; it is likely that here future reform to extend political representation and democratisation will be first pronounced.

Because special economic zones generally expedite inter-regional (international and also rural-urban) integration and mobility, they have become sites of heterogeneous and intermixed populations. Globalisation continues to fragment economic activity into geographically dispersed patterns of interaction, coordination, and exchange. The upshot is that special zones are not limited to integration with interior or bordering regions (e.g. Shenzhen-Hong Kong) but are increasingly coupled to territorially-disparate partners (e.g. Suzhou-Singapore).

Thus another important outcome of economic integration and citizen mobility is that special zone cities have come to be even more highly concentrated crucibles of heterogeneous customs, languages, and traditions. This means that the problems and conflicts associated with homogenous political institutions are likely to be particularly acute in these locations. Hence there is a robust case for non-territorial polycentric democratisation: transitioning to a special political zone in which groups with significantly different political preferences are allowed to self-govern in multiple overlapping political sub-units (i.e., low intra-group social distance and high inter-group social distance).

The special political zone is a new political formation in which the form of governance is both modern and democratic, but also undercut through non-territorial formations of citizens in overlapping political units. It is a laboratory for experiments in non-territorial polycentric democracy: permitting both democratising political rules and non-territorial jurisdictional rules. But it is not simply a means to gradually introduce democratic institutions or resolve the tension of homogeneous governance in heterogeneous cities. It also presents an alternative to the conventional idea of democratisation.

Democratisation is generally couched as transition from an authoritarian political system to a semi-democracy or transition from a semi-authoritarian political system to a democracy. In contrast, the special political zone facilitates polycentric democratisation, which is the transition to a polycentric democratic political system, not a unitary one. That is, not transitioning from a one-party state to a multi-party state, but instead transforming into a multi-state party. Furthermore, non-territorial polycentric democratisation does not end in the plural-party system (i.e., citizens signal political preferences by voting) but is instead a process whereby the state transitions to a plural-jurisdiction system of non-territorial political units governing in parallel (i.e., citizens signal political preferences by switching between units without moving location).

This is an alternative democratic ideal in the vein of Vincent Ostrom that is defined in terms of self-governance and exit (cf. voting and voice). In light of the knowledge problem of the nation-state, there could be merit in experimenting with non-territorial polycentric democracy in special political zones.


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