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China’s all-answer’s ‘12345’ hotline

From China, ROGER McKENZIE reports on the nation’s remarkable 24-hour switchboard that fields everything from travel queries to feedback and complaints about the running of society

PUBLIC service cuts are sweeping across Britain. Essential services are being cut to the bone and, in many areas, have disappeared altogether.
 
A number of councils, including the largest, Birmingham, have even had to declare bankruptcy.
 
In Britain, if there is no budget to meet the people’s needs then the services have to go.
 
Meanwhile, in China, responding to the needs of the people rather than the needs of the budget is the priority.
 
Some people will read what I have just said and shout: “That it’s just Chinese propaganda!” Not so. Unlike many of those quick to disparage “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as some kind of sloganising nonsense, I have bothered to go and see it for myself.
 
As many of you will know, I worked for many years in the leadership of the country’s largest public services union. Even though I left the organisation, I am still interested in how public services are delivered, and make a point on any working visit to investigate this for myself.
 
One thing that I have always been interested in is how public service organisations respond to requests or complaints about their services.
 
Many of us have been hanging on the telephone for a public service either waiting for someone to answer or left in that hell-hole of canned, plastic, easy-listening music otherwise known as “the queue.” We are often left frustrated and wondering whether to complain about the service or lack thereof.
 
Sometimes we just need a bit of advice but get the runaround and passed to people whose main job appears to be not to add unnecessarily to their already hefty workload. A workload increasing by the year as they do the job that used to be done by two or three others before the cutbacks.
 
The Chinese dealt with all of these problems by setting up the 12345 helpline in 1987. The helpline is a phone and online system that anyone in China, including visitors, can use to ask questions or make complaints.
 
Businesses can also use the helpline to get advice on things such as relocation, name changes, etc. In fact it seems to me you can use the hotline to ask about pretty much anything.
 
At the 12345 centre, one of our Friends of Socialist China delegation was asked to call the number and ask a question.
 
Francisco Dominguez said he was at our hotel and needed to get a taxi to take him into central Beijing.
 
The operator patiently advised him what to do. The call was logged and went into a system that would follow any trends.
 
Dominguez said: “The response was very quick although they were surprised by the request.
 
“They spoke in English which was helpful. Within seconds they got back with a number and an alternative to call.”
 
He added: “It was a very efficient service.”
 
It was clear that most calls were about far more serious things than the need for a taxi.
 
Calls covered issues ranging from rubbish collection, getting a lift fitted or repaired and enquiries about official papers.
 
Some people did call in because they were concerned about the unequal distribution of bamboo shoots to the world-famous pandas at the zoo.
 
All calls are answered within 15 seconds and a guarantee is given that your concern, question or complaint, will be addressed within seven days. Calls are passed on to local authorities as appropriate to deal with the issue.
 
Anyone who calls will get a call back to tell them what has been done and be given the opportunity to confirm whether the issues have been resolved to their satisfaction.
 
Around 1,500 staff work in shifts over 24 hours. The numbers on duty can be varied to take into account predicted hotspots such as major sporting events.
 
All members of staff are part of the nearly 100 million members of the Communist Party of China — putting the party at the service of the people in a very practical way. Each call is recorded and keywords are used to help identify trends which are fed through to national and local authorities to address.
 
Delegation member Russel Harland is a public service worker in Surrey. He said: “When I saw the hotline in action I was overwhelmed because I’ve worked in a similar job for a number of years to give advice on social care among other issues but also as someone who has worked for the Alzheimer’s society as a dementia adviser.
 
“We saw something in action which was about resolving issues by getting to the crux of the problems that people were having.
 
“The intention was to solve these issues rather than avoid them but also to carry out an evaluation so the issues don’t happen again.”
 
Harland said public service workers in Britain were overwhelmed by endless budget cuts and said he couldn’t help thinking as a public servant, “How can we get our politicians and planners to start looking more closely at schemes like this?”
 
Rashida Islam, a delegation member from Halifax, said: “I was particularly struck by 12345’s dedication to serving people and was also very interested by how this platform is used to shape some of the nation’s policies.”
 
Co-founder of the Black Liberation Alliance Fiona Sim said: “I was really impressed with how the people are being connected with the government and the Communist Party.
 
“I just had to think about all the elderly people, disabled people people who are vulnerable and might not have been able to reach out for help or reach out for support in any other ways.
 
“So I feel the 12345 hotline really provides a crucial lifeline to the world not just for material needs but also for emotional and psychological wellbeing.”
 
There is little doubt that this nationwide service available to the 1.4 billion population and anyone who visits is about being people-centred rather than budget-centred.
 
It is also about making sure that the CPC does not lose sight of its mission to put itself at the service of the people.
 
This fits entirely with the view of Chinese revolutionary Qu Qubai who said in 1927 that the theory of revolution can never be divorced from the practice of revolution and that the “work of applying Marxism to China’s national conditions cannot be delayed for a day.”
 
Applied today this must mean making sure that the people have the best possible services in place to enable them to get by every day. The 12345 hotline is an important and very popular part of building the Chinese revolution.

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