Pallavi Aiyar

Are they simply a limited experiment aimed at ensuring better compliance with central government directives in the potentially restive countryside or do they hold within them the seeds of genuine political change across the system?

Deep in the countryside, away from skyscraper-filled boom towns such as Shenzhen and Shanghai, millions of villagers in China’s 700,000 villages have been involved in an ongoing experiment with democracy that grabs few headlines outside of the country but has, some experts say, been responsible for fundamentally changing Chinese political culture. Over the last decade or so, direct elections to village councils have gradually been made mandatory across China so that for the first time in the 5000-year history of this former empire, villagers are learning about filing nominations and secret ballots. In China, peasants have for centuries borne the burden of the actions of capricious rulers at the centre. The ability to elect their own leaders is thus revolutionary.

The broader significance of village elections for China’s political culture, however, remains contested. Are they simply a limited experiment aimed at ensuring better compliance with Central government directives in the potentially restive countryside, or do they hold within them the seeds of genuine political change across the system? Direct elections to village councils date back to experiments carried out in the late 1980s, but it was only in 1998 that these were formalised into law and made mandatory.

Following the collapse of the village commune system after the economic liberalisation initiated in 1978, certain leaders within the Communist Party began pushing for village self-governance as a means to counter political apathy and violent rebellion by creating mechanisms of participation and conflict resolution. Moreover, it was felt that leaders elected by villagers themselves would find it easier to implement central government policies regarding taxes and family planning.

Since 1998 elections to village councils, which comprise between three and seven members, have been institutionalised and are now carried out every three years. The council’s main responsibilities lie in deciding the allocation and use of communal land, the running of village enterprises, and the implementation of family planning directives. Councils can also decide local matters like village subscription to newspapers, the renovation of a school building, or the installation of cable television.

Jing Yue Jin, a leading political scientist at the People’s University in Beijing, says the success of these elections has been variable. Key to the village council’s ability to effect discernable change in the lives of villagers is finance. In wealthier provinces where villages have significant assets, usually comprising collectively owned enterprises, the village committee has greater power. The stakes are thus high in elections to these committees with the consequence that they are often fiercely contested. In contrast, in poor areas where villages lack an independent source of funding, the village committees are largely toothless leading to political apathy and disinterest in the electoral process.

Other than the monies derived from village enterprises, the councils are financially wholly dependent upon the township government, the lowest official tier of rural government. “For most cadres at the township level, village elections are simply a source of trouble,” says Dr. Jing.

Indeed, for township officials the elections represent somewhat of a loss of authority. Used to untrammelled power they now have to contend with elected and hence popular village chiefs with agendas that may conflict with their own. There have thus been several instances over the years where township leaders have subverted the election process, ensuring that their own yes-men are “elected.”

A further complication is the legally ambiguous relationship between the council and the village Communist Party secretary. Prior to the introduction of elections, the village party chief used to be the clear and sole authority in the village. With the implementation of the new system, however, friction between the party secretary and the head of the village council has become commonplace. Dr. Jing adds the rise of gangsterism, vote-rigging, and return of clan-based loyalties as other challenges confronting the election process.

However, the biggest obstacle to the success of the electoral experiment, he says, is the lack of a post-election management mechanism. “The villagers can now participate in electing their leaders but once elected these leaders often return to acting in traditional, non-accountable, non-transparent ways,” he explains.

Jian Yi, an independent filmmaker who recently made a documentary on the history of village democracy, agrees that “democratic management and monitoring of the village committee elected fails in most places since they are easily manipulated by party committees and township officials.”

Nonetheless, he remains guardedly optimistic regarding the broader impact of the electoral experience. “In places where village elections are better conducted, people actually do learn the rules of democracy; how to negotiate and compromise rather than to start yet another violent revolution,” he concludes.

Yawei Lu, Associate Director of the China Elections Project, a programme run by an American NGO that works with the Chinese government in monitoring elections, elaborates: “In the past the legitimacy of the government was thought to flow from the ‘barrel of the gun.’ But, in today’s China the legitimacy of the government, at least theoretically, comes from the people. Democracy at the village-level has been crucial for this.”

From the very beginning, village elections have been seen by democratic reformers within China as a starting rather than endpoint. The hope has been that the electoral process would eventually be extended vertically, to higher levels of township and county government, as well as horizontally, to local-level party officials.

Although this hope remains largely unfulfilled, there have been some signs of the spread of elections beyond the confines of the village. Thus, for example, local party secretaries are now often appointed by a “two-ballot” process, wherein the first ballot involves a popular vote on potential candidates with the second ballot restricted to party members. The importance of popularity even for party officials is thus gradually being recognised.

Moreover, some experiments in direct elections at the township level have also taken place. However, these elections have been held without the formal consent of the centre and, although Beijing has on occasion chosen to ignore them, technically they remain illegal.

Dr. Yawei is of the opinion that if China were to seriously attempt to expand elections across the political system, the experience of village democracy would prove to have been “an excellent learning ground.” “All the challenges facing the electoral process at the village level will also exist at other levels and so they [village elections] would be very valuable.”

But Dr. Jing says that despite 20-odd years of experimenting with elections most scholars in the field are disappointed with the results. “The village councils have not been as responsive to the needs of the people as we had once hoped so that the link between elected leaders and improved life for villagers is difficult to establish,” he asserts.

Electoral democracy in China, Dr. Jing continues, has never been an unquestioned, a priori goal. It has rather been looked upon as a practical tool. “The Chinese government today has a problem solving attitude. Their main concern is thus whether or not something works. Elections in villages have not been shown to directly increase the living standards of villagers. Thus the leadership has gone from being optimistic to less optimistic about these elections,” he says.

Dr. Lu agrees that Beijing is showing signs of giving up on grassroots participatory mechanisms as a way of developing rural areas and focussing instead on top-down funding for projects pre-determined by the Centre as necessary to create what is being called a “new socialist countryside.”

Ultimately it is clear that the real significance of village elections will turn on the outcome of elite contestations over the direction of political reform in China.

According to Dr. Jing, these contestations have begun to heat up of late. There are two main contending frameworks for political reform within the party, he says.

The more traditional of the two follows the line of thinking espoused by Deng Xiaoping and argues that democracy is a linear but gradual process, so when the time is ripe direct elections should be extended upwards until they reach all the way till the central government. Thus Deng had predicted that China could expect to hold general elections by 2050.

The other competing framework for reform focusses less on elections and more on non-electoral means of participation. “Some scholars believe China does not need to copy the west for a political model but can forge its own way, creating a ‘deliberative democracy’ that stresses dialogue rather competition,” says Dr. Jing. While the details of how this ‘deliberative democracy’ would function remain hazy, it is a concept that meshes well with the current Chinese leadership’s emphasis on “harmony” and is accordingly finding favour in Beijing.

The ultimate course that China’s political reform will take is still far from obvious. Dr. Jing predicts that it may become clearer after an important twice-a-decade party congress is held later this year. “In the run up to the congress, stability is paramount and no leader is willing to experiment boldly with reform. Afterwards, we hope the situation will become more flexible,” he smiles, concluding, “In China it is not only economics that’s cyclic, but also politics.”