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Rural rule & village elections

July 27, 2000

Experiments in governance

Many claims are made about the potential impact on China’s democratization of the election of village committees there. Cynics assert that these elections are nothing but show. Anne F. Thurston looks at the reality on the ground, including how village committees fit into the structure of rural governance. While there are grounds for optimism, she writes, too little is known to assess the full implications of the change, and there is still official resistance to broadening the scope of elections.



In the continuing search for signs of political reform in China, many observers have focused recently on the introduction of competitive elections at the rural grassroots. Following the 1987 passage by the National People’s Congress of the “Organic Law of Villagers’ Committees (Provisional),” legally-encouraged experiments in the democratic election of village chiefs and village committees began. In 1998, after more than a decade of trial and error, the law moved beyond the experimental stage. National law now requires that villages elect their own leaders.

Yet the very notion of village elections remains controversial. Some of China’s urban intellectuals question the ability of uneducated peasants to participate knowledgeably in the democratic process. Others note that the Chinese government has long claimed to be democratic. They wonder how different today’s elections are from those of the past, when the single candidate was chosen by the Party and the outcome was never in doubt. Some skeptics have declared the elections a scam, a public relations stunt designed to dupe gullible foreigners into believing that China is undergoing political reform when in fact the leadership continues to resist change. Many wonder what difference elections make when the power of village committees is limited to the immediate and mundane.

Whether grassroots political reform is the beginning of a long-term trend toward democratization in China or much ado about little has also become part of the ongoing debate over United States policy toward China. But little is known about the concrete nature of village elections or how widely democratic reforms have been carried out. The Chinese countryside contains nearly a million villages, which are home to some 900 million people. It is hazardous to generalize about what is happening to so many people in such a vast area. What percent of China’s villages have held elections that could be considered democratic by international standards? What power is vested in elected village officials and how significant are those powers in the daily lives of ordinary rural residents? What is the relative balance of power between the local party branch and basic level office-holders? Between the party branch, the representative assembly and the village committee? What is the logic behind elections, and does that logic similarly apply to higher levels as well—the township, county, province and nation? Will elections at the basic level spread to higher levels? If so, when, and under what circumstances?

Most of these questions have no immediate answers. Governance in the Chinese countryside is in a state of flux, with tremendous variation not just from province to province, but from county to county, township to township and village to village within any single province. Governance at the rural grassroots still runs the gamut of rule by local emperors, who are often exploitative and corrupt, to rule that is recognizably democratic. The process of experimentation continues.




The decision to experiment with democratic elections at the village level was the result of an unusual coalition between conservative party elders and younger, more liberal, reformers. The question of village governance arose as an unintended consequence of the de-collectivization of agriculture following the death of Mao and ascension to power of Deng Xiaoping. With the dissolution of the communes in the early 1980s, village leadership came to vary widely between two extremes. At one extreme, many villages faced a vacuum of leadership as former commune cadres left their positions to pursue their fortunes in the new, more economically permissive circumstances of the post-Mao era. Leadership positions were either left vacant or filled with ineffectual, essentially powerless replacements. Anomie and a sense of aimlessness prevailed, together with the possibility of social breakdown, and hence of chaos. As the story is told today, such villages were easy targets for bandits, who wreaked havoc by razing orchards, stealing villagers’ chickens and pigs, and robbing peasants of the farm oxen they used to plough the fields. Widespread lawlessness threatened the ability of villagers to earn their livelihoods. At the other extreme, opportunistic cadres seized power without restraint, often taking control of collective enterprises, running them as though privately owned, profiting both economically and politically. Daqiuzhuang’s Yu Zuomin is one such example of a local emperor.

Once a national model for his efforts in leading Daqiu Village to unheard-of prosperity, Yu was later exposed as a corrupt local dictator. The growing popular discontent over such corrupt and exploitative self-appointed officials also threatened the countryside with chaos. Higher level officials came to fear that peasants would rise in revolt. As conservative Party elder Peng Zhen pointed out, under these circumstances peasants would sooner or later “attack our rural cadres with their shoulder poles.”

While some argued that chaos could be prevented through stronger direction from above, including the appointment by higher levels of more effective village leaders, others argued that direct elections of grassroots officials was the most effective means of insuring that village leaders were not only popular, but respected. Fear of chaos and political breakdown, rather than any principled commitment to democratic reform, was thus a major impetus to the initial support for village elections. But the Maoist ideal of the “mass line” - from the masses, to the masses - was important, too. Long ignored in fact, the principle of the mass line required Party cadres to become servants of the people, soliciting views at the grassroots and passing those views up through the Party hierarchy. A selfless leadership would then forge disparate concerns into policies reflective of the general will and designed for the general good. Some Party elders ascribed problems of rural leadership to failures in implementing the mass line. Direct elections, they argued, could insure stability while restoring both the mass line and the Party’s legitimacy.

From this point of view, the introduction of direct elections also emphasized the continuity between the Maoist era and the present. Mao was seen (however erroneously) as the pre-eminent democrat, the man who insisted that neither socialism nor modernization were possible without democracy. Modernization was thus seen as a consequence of democracy rather than the other way around. Democracy would foster stability which in turn would make modernization possible. Younger, more liberal and educated officials did not dispute the Maoist arguments for political reform, and some even used them in furtherance of their goals. But they had additional reasons for supporting village elections. Many had been schooled in Western democratic principles, had studied Taiwan’s process of democratization and believed in the need for democratization in China, too. They saw the introduction of village-level democracy less as a continuation of a Maoist tradition than as the introduction of something new. Interestingly, both groups saw democratization as a means of promoting further modernization rather than as an unintended outcome of economic development. It was this unusual coalition between conservative elders and liberal reformers that led to the passage of the 1987 law encouraging experiments with village elections.








During the 11 years that village elections were promoted on an experimental basis, the Ministry of Civil Affairs was charged with promoting their implementation and setting the general guidelines for election policy. As the experiments evolved, the Ministry set out four principles as essential to a democratic election: that the chairman, vice-chairman and village committee members be directly elected by the villagers themselves; that the number of candidates exceed the number of positions; that voting be conducted by secret ballot; and that the votes of the winner exceed 50 percent. Elections were to take place every three years, though timing was not standardized, either nation-wide or within a single province. Hence elections within a single province, or a single county, could be spread out over several months.

Responsibility for drafting more concrete guidelines for the conduct of village elections rests at local level - with provincial people’s congresses and government (or Party) offices at the county and township levels, for instance. In fact, the question of who has responsibility for drafting which regulations remains unsettled, which has often allowed Party offices at various levels to usurp leadership that by law belongs to the government. Not surprisingly, then, implementation of the experimental law on village elections varied widely.

Credible estimates of how many villages have carried out elections in accordance with the Ministry’s principles are impossible to make. Short of a massive, well-financed survey, the Chinese countryside is too large and diverse for any realistic assessment, even by the Ministry. Reports from local areas are not always realistic, and norms for what constitutes “democracy” vary greatly. Local officials are not ordinarily comfortable reporting failures, and opposition to village elections is strongest among the county and township officials responsible for reporting. Chinese scholars who have studied village elections have estimated that no more than 10-20 percent of village elections have been conducted according to democratic standards, though the Ministry of Civil Affairs reports that elections have technically been held in almost all villages. A few provinces, such as Yunnan, did not even begin experimenting with village elections until after the passage of the 1998 law moving elections from the experimental to the mandated stage.



Theoretical explanations for why some villages have adopted democratic elections while others have not are unconvincing. In particular, the relationship that many presume between economic development and the evolution of democracy is complicated, at best. Some of China’s wealthiest villages in the country’s richest provinces have also been governed by the most corrupt and autocratic leadership—Yu Zuomin’s Daqiuzhuang serving as a prime example. But some of the country’s poorest areas, persuaded that democracy could promote development, were quick to introduce village elections.

The single most important factor governing the introduction of village level elections seems to be the degree of attention from higher-level officials committed to making the process work. Aside from those places where elections were initiated by the villagers themselves, most villages (and townships) have needed an outside boost from higher level authorities to get the process underway. There is nothing intuitively obvious about how to organize and administer basic level elections, especially in a country without experience in democratic procedures, where some of the authorities charged with implementation of elections are also most opposed to them. Procedures have to be taught. At present, proper training is essential to the success of village level elections, and such training must generally come from higher levels. The multiplier effect of training the trainers is vital to the spread of democratic elections.

While no direct correlation between economic development and the introduction of village democracy can be discerned, the relationship is not unimportant. In a common formulation, one provincial level official charged with promoting elections within his province pointed out that the peasants first must reach a modicum of economic comfort - good housing, sufficient food, enough clothes to wear - before their thoughts will turn to improving their lives politically. What does seem to make a difference once elections have been introduced is the nature of ownership and economic control in villages. Democratic procedures seem to have a greater likelihood of success in more pluralistic villages, that is, villages where neither economic nor political power is overly concentrated and where villagers are engaged in a multiplicity of associations - religious, political, economic, social and familial. Thus villages where wealth is created by many entrepreneurs are more likely to have competitive elections than villages where enterprises are ostensibly collectively owned but managed by one person or a small group of people. Many villages are electing their most prosperous members to lead them, but in company towns, where flourishing community enterprises are controlled by a handful of people, the liberal use of patronage limits voter choice and corrupts the democratic process. In this sense, not the level of economic development but the nature of economic ownership and control exerts a profound influence on the nature of village level democracy. Two examples suggest the differences between such villages and the implications for democratic governance.



Sichuan’s Wugang Village is located on the outskirts of a county town. As this town has become rich, so have the villages around it. In 1982, when Wang Weidong was appointed Wugang’s first village chief, income from collective enterprises in the village totaled some 40,000 yuan. In 1995, when Wang was running for re-election as village chief, income from collectively-owned enterprises totaled some eight million yuan. Villagers were benefiting greatly from collective ownership. Each year, a portion of the collective profits went into a special bank account to be distributed to villagers as bonuses at Chinese New Year. In 1995, the pay out was 1,100 yuan per person. Collective profits also allowed village leaders to establish a pension fund—an almost unheard-of luxury. In 1995, everyone over 60 years old was receiving 70 yuan a month in retirement benefits. Collective profits had also been used to build a kindergarten, to pay for health insurance and to set up training courses for farmers who wanted to leave the land to work in industry.

As well as being one of the wealthiest men in the village, Wang Weidong was also the most powerful. He had been appointed village Party secretary in 1983 and was also on the economic management board of the collective enterprises. His challenger in the 1995 election was a 28-year-old middle school graduate and a candidate for Party membership. He was one of the few farmers left in the village. “I don’t have any particular plan if I am elected,” he said. “Other people raised my name for the election.” He had done no campaigning and had not tried to convince anyone to vote for him. He was still too young, he said, “and the current village head is very good.” The conclusion that “other people” had persuaded him to run in order to ensure a two-candidate slate and thus present the semblance of a genuinely competitive election was difficult to avoid. The Party and government, township and village-level officials were working so closely together to orchestrate the election that the divisions of responsibility had disappeared.

Some villagers gathered in the school yard to vote viewed the possibility of Wang being voted out of office as preposterous, bursting into gales of laughter at the suggestion. The voters knew they were better off since he had come to power. Whether they liked him was not the question. They were grateful that he had taken such good care of them. Wang naturally exuded self-confidence on election day, and he was certain of the villagers’ loyalty. “Elections are a test and also some pressure,” he said. “They force us to do a good job. We have to be able to do good things for the villagers or we’ll be replaced.”

Wang Weidong was not replaced, of course. And despite the fact that the trappings of a competitive election were present, the reality was different. Wang’s multiplicity of positions and his close ties to township officials made a real challenge to his leadership virtually impossible. No viable competitor could have gotten on the ballot. And his tight control over village resources and mobilization of profits for the villagers’ well-being ensured that their self-interest was best served through his re-election. But the villagers could certainly be forgiven for concluding that money buys power.



Fujian’s Guanjiang village offers a different type of example, one where the predominance of private enterprise and a multiplicity of associations helped produce a more recognizably democratic village committee. Guanjiang had become prosperous largely through the cultivation of mushrooms that were shipped as high-priced delicacies both throughout China and to many places abroad. The raising of mushrooms was a private enterprise, and the houses of the most prosperous families had several rooms devoted to their cultivation. Average per capita income was 2,300 yuan a year. Collective enterprise was a small part of village activities. Some vegetable plots were collectively farmed, and chickens and ducks were collectively raised. Yearly income from collective activities amounted to some 270,000 yuan.

Village finances had become transparent with the introduction of village elections. Expenditures of the village committee were publicly posted, and the village accountant periodically made a fuller report to the village representative assembly.

Many traditional folk customs were being revived as economic development progressed. Villagers consulted the local geomancer, the fengshui master, when constructing new homes, and the local temple had been one of the first buildings to be restored. Clan temples, too, were under renovation.

Official village organizations were active as well - the Party branch, the village committee, the Women’s Federation and the Youth League - and were housed in a small office building adjacent to the primary school just off the main road. The building’s first-floor sitting room was a gathering place for old people to watch television, play chess, or otherwise while away the day. Power in the village was relatively dispersed. The Party branch secretary was not on the village committee, and the competition for leadership was balanced. The distribution of the popular vote on election day suggested that competition was genuine, and no single person or organization held a preponderance of power. There were two major clans in the village, however, and a member of the dominant one was elected village head. But the committee also contained credible representation from the lesser clan.

Leadership in Guanjiang Village had long since passed from the old collective cadres to a new entrepreneurial elite. Wealth and power continued to be linked. The head of the Party branch was one of the richest men in the village, and so were members of the village committee. But control over village resources did not appear to be the way to get and keep power, as had been true in Wugang village. There was no patronage in Guanjiang - or none that was obvious.

To say that Guanjiang was a civil society in the making is perhaps an exaggeration, but the villagers had a multiplicity of associations - religious, political, economic and familial - that together made up a community and mediated against the excesses of power that were characteristic of the Great Leap Forward or the Cultural Revolution. One could argue about the relative power of the Party, the representative assembly and the village committee, but the balance among them ensures that no single political institution can gain full control. No local emperor is likely to arise in Guanjiang. And Guangjiang’s elections were technically close to flawless.

While Guanjiang Village may serve as an example of democratic leadership at the village level, the fact remains that the power of the village committee is limited indeed. Major decisions affecting the lives of villagers are still made at higher levels, by unelected individuals and organizations that may not have the villagers’ best interests at heart. Township authorities, both Party and government, are constantly tempted to interfere in village affairs.

What difference, then, do village elections make?



Surely the introduction of competitive elections is a significant advance over higher-level appointments of village leaders or the pre-ordained outcome of single-candidate elections.

First, in those (admittedly still limited) areas where elections have been carried out according to the principles set forth by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, rural people are being given choices they did not have before. They have a real voice in selecting their leaders, and power is being transferred peacefully and without political upheaval. Communities that broke down with the collapse of the communes are being rebuilt.

The urban intellectuals’ claim that rural folk are too uneducated to participate in the democratic process is false. In all of the several dozen rural elections that I have observed, villagers behaved exactly as democratic theory says they would. They clearly understood their own interests and voted in accordance with them. Issues were local and immediate - how to improve the village road, whether to use village funds to build a new foot bridge across an irrigation canal, how to get better access to stalls at the county market town, how to introduce new cash crops, how to improve the village school. The average age of the men being elected (and they were overwhelmingly men - representation by women was minuscule) was declining. A new generation, better educated and more entrepreneurial, was assuming leadership. While the newly-elected leaders were not always the richest men in the village (because those in wholehearted pursuit of their fortunes could not afford the time to lead), they were invariably comparatively well-off, and they promised to share their know-how with their neighbors.

The majority of elected village leaders were members of the Party, which also reflected the voters’ self-interest. Party members simply had more experience and better connections with the higher-level officials who could help with the access and permissions so necessary to the functioning of village life. But a substantial minority (somewhere between 25-40 percent nationwide) were not Party members. Indeed, in some places, the Party was using village elections as a recruiting tool, inviting newly-elected leaders to join the Party. Village elections thus also sometimes serve to re-legitimate the Party, drawing into its ranks younger, more entrepreneurial, more popular leaders.

Second, participation in elections is giving villagers at least a rudimentary understanding of the democratic process. It helps villagers to understand that they have a right to participate in political decision-making, and it introduces them to notions of choice, open competition, government accountability, financial transparency and basic conceptions of human rights. The publication and circulation of the 1998 law on village committee organization has further enhanced the villagers’ understanding of their rights. Provincial level officials note a new “democratic consciousness” with the promulgation of the new law as well as more active political involvement.

Third, village elections are giving villagers a new sense of empowerment. Armed with the laws and regulations governing village life, rural people have taken their grievances to higher levels, demanding that their local authorities act in accordance with the law. Indeed, so frequent were such public demonstrations in 1999 that opponents of village democracy cited them as sources of instability, proof that democracy causes chaos. Some reformers believe that the process of democratization would already have been pushed to higher levels were it not for the outpouring of public protest over local officials who had failed to implement national policies. Fourth, with a new sense of empowerment, villagers are employing the logic of democratic election of village committee members to push for democratization at other levels as well. The Party has been one object of their efforts. Most persuasively, villagers have argued that if members of the village committee, as representatives of the village, must be democratically selected in competitive elections, then Party branch leaders, as leaders of the people, should be similarly elected.

Such arguments have sometimes borne fruit. Some villages have introduced a “two ballot system” for the selection of Party leadership at the village level. In the first round of balloting, either the village as a whole or members of the representative assembly cast votes for the person they would like to see as Party branch secretary. The branch then makes the final decision. The argument is that a Party branch secretary who has not been chosen by the people would lose so much face as to be unable to serve. The party must thus follow the people’s will.

Similar arguments are being made for the selection of township level leaders. While villages have ostensibly been granted autonomous self-governance as a result of de-collectivization, everyone knows that the township, as the lowest level of government, continues to exercise considerable control over villages. If people have the right to elect those responsible for governance at the village level, some are arguing, they should also be able to choose officials at the township level.

Indeed, experiments with township elections have already begun. The most notable was the 1998 direct election of township leaders in Buyun County, Sichuan. That election, while recognized in Sichuan, has not been sanctioned nationally, though no efforts have been made to overturn the results. The central government does not yet condone experiments in township level elections, though local proponents of such elections find support for their efforts in speeches by such leading Politburo members as Zhu Rongji and Hu Jintao. Without an official go-ahead, the experiments currently in progress cannot become a topic of public discussion. But provincial officials are admitting that the trend is definitely in the direction of further democratization at the township level, and some acknowledge that such experiments are taking place within their own provinces.

In most cases, descriptions of township elections parallel those of the two ballot system for selection of the village Party branch secretary. Usually, the township conducts what it calls a voters’ survey. Voters cast ballots for their favorite township leaders, which are then forwarded to the township people’s congress. Representatives at the township people’s congress then select the township government officials based on the voter survey. As with the Party voter surveys, the assumption is that township leaders would lose so much face without obvious popular support that they could not assume office. The hope of provincial level reformers is that such experimentation will prove successful and spread, leading eventually (many speak in terms of another five years) to the direct election of township officials. Just as the initiative of villagers themselves led to the adoption of village committees as the basic-level organization governing village life, and similar initiatives led to the requirement that village committees be directly and democratically elected, so the present experiment in township elections is likely to determine whether elections will begin moving up the political hierarchy.

Fifth, and most importantly, village elections are providing a training ground for the expansion of democracy to higher levels and could serve as polling districts once higher-level elections are introduced. By beginning with elections at the village level, Chinese reformers hope to avoid the example of the Soviet Union, which attempted to introduce democracy without prior experimentation or experience. The result, in Chinese eyes, has been chaos. Taiwan is the better example. There, democracy began at the basic levels, gradually expanding upward, ultimately to the direct election of the president.

Finally, the success of village-level elections is affecting cities as well. Many urban areas are beginning to introduce elections of neighborhood committees. While village and neighborhood committees are hardly parallel organizations, the introduction of neighborhood committee elections could well provide a training ground for education in democratic values and procedures. Just as villages could later serve as polling districts for higher-level elections, so could urban neighborhoods.




While the accomplishments of village elections have been significant, equally important problems persist. There are serious questions about how widespread genuinely democratic elections are. Party direction and outright interference are surely common, and many - probably most - elections are more form than substance. The case of Wugang cited earlier remains instructive. While the popular trend may be toward greater democratization, the power of resistance from the Party and from officials at the township and county cannot be underestimated. Until genuinely democratic elections become more the norm than the exception, democratization at the township level and higher will remain at an experimental stage.

National level leadership is also a major stumbling block for the further advance of democratic experimentation, and Jiang Zemin may be the most important impediment to more rapid change. Indeed, some Chinese reformers are convinced that he is the only current Politburo member opposed to further, immediate democratization. Some think that further reform will be possible only after the 16th Party Congress in 2002 at which point Jiang may be persuaded to leave the political stage. In the meantime, reports of ongoing protests and demonstrations—of rural instability—persist. The internal debate continues over whether democracy serves as a catalyst for chaos or is necessary for stability. One thing is sure: The major impetus for political reform is coming not from the Politburo but from the provinces, where experiments in democratic reform proceed away from the watchful eyes of Beijing.

Anne F. Thurston has been studying rural elections since 1994 and has visited some 30 villages during election periods. She is currently an associate professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies in Washington. Her study of village committee elections for the US Institute of Peace, Muddling Toward Democracy: Political Change in Grassroots China, was published in August 1998.







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