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Grassroots Democracy—Not All It Seems
Translated from Zhengming
Written in spring 1997, the article below describes
clearly and vividly the significance of the direct elections for village committees
and their limitations as exercises in grassroots democracy. But the authors
pessimistic evaluation of the likelihood of Jiang Zemin allowing direct elections
for government above the village level and for positions of real authority has
to be qualified by more recent developments, namely the assurance he gave in his
report to the recently held 15th Party Congress that there would be direct elections
at the district level for both rural and urban areas. This indicates a change,
albeit slight, in the policy in force since 1989.
For the last few months, with new elections for village committees taking place in many localities throughout the country, the Communist Partys propaganda organs have been in high gear. Not surprisingly, they have been making the most of the exercise to show that the socialist system is one which is continually developing and improving. Overseas, there has been a lot of interest in the emergence of this democratic seedling in the dictatorial context of China, and much congratulatory back-slapping from some Western politicians. The fact that tens of millions of peasants can now cast their vote using a ballot paper free of pre-printed names is, undeniably, a step in the right direction compared to what happened in the peoples communes in Maoist days. Yet in their uncritical endorsement of this process, Western media and politicians betray an almost complete ignorance as to the precise nature of these village committees, which they consider to be grassroots political organisations of substance. In fact these so-called village committees are, as everyone should know, nothing more than grassroots self-governing organisations of the masses, roughly equivalent in their powers to the board of directors convened by the director of a large corporation in the West. More precisely they are akin to the tenants associations which, in the developed worlds big cities, allow tenants to elect a management committee for their building. But for all their limited powers and despite the kudos the Party might reap from their existence as an expression of the peoples will, the Party is distinctly uneasy about the emergence of these organisations, which it sees as a threat to its own authority at this level.
Village committees, not organs of government
According to the countrys Constitution, neighbourhood committees in the cities and village committees in rural areas are self-governmental organisations of the masses; their chairmen, vice-chairmen and all other members are chosen by direct election. By analogy with its urban versionthe neighbourhood committeeanyone familiar with China can easily understand what a village committee is, even if he has not lived in the countryside.
According to the latest figures there are now more than one million village committees and 4.2 million locally elected cadres. From the time the peoples communes were done away with right up to 1987, village cadres were appointed by Party secretaries or government officials at the county or township level. In 1987 the National Peoples Congress passed a law relating to the organisation of village committees which, in academic and legal circles, became known as the peasant autonomy system.
By 1993 all village committees were the product of this first electoral process. In another 20 or so provinces and urban regions, notably Fujian, Liaoning and Shanghai, a second round of direct elections had already been held by 1988. Fujian province is now into its fourth direct elections for village committee members. In April 1994 the Ministry of Civil Affairs issued the National directives on the models to be applied in relation to village self-government. These mandated that by the end of the century the four administrative levels of province, district, county and township should have set up, at the level below them, a self-governing unit in line with the norms of the village self-government model. Thus each district would set up a county-level unit, each county a township-level unit, etc. The ministry puts the current total of model self-governing counties at 60 and claims that implementation is forging ahead almost everywhere.
The norms referred to are: management of village affairs by the masses; direct election of committee members by the villagers themselves; democratic consultation on all major issues affecting the village; and allocation of labour by democratic process.
Chinese intellectuals give two explanations for the centres infatuation with self-government:
The first is that, just as Deng before him, Jiang Zemin is using the same propaganda approach for external and internal consumption, i.e. political reform in China has to take into account the reality of China and must therefore be expedited if it is to be compatible with the pace of current reforms, the countrys level of economic development, and the degree of political stability.
Hence, for the leadership, reform of the political system cannot be avoided, and yet at the same time has to be restricted to the lowest possible level of decision-making. This is the thinking behind Deng Xiaopings statement that by the fourth decade of the 21st century conditions might be ripe for the development of direct elections.
Direct elections for below the bottom rung only
The second is that since the end of the peoples communes, lack of effective government has become a real problem for rural villages. In collectivist days only the communes leading cadres enjoyed the rank of national cadre and the salary which went with it. Commune members who were appointed production brigade or team leaders were allocated cadre work points and an annual cash and cereal allowance equal to or even higher than that available to the rank and file. But with the introduction of the responsibility system, people had to rely on their own efforts to make a living. It was no longer possible to appoint cadres without taking peasant opinion into account for fear that the community would refuse to tolerate the incompetence of those placed over them. This being the case, the authorities were forced to allow, and even actively encourage, the development of peasant self-government.
Superficially at least, the direct elections which began in the villages in 1979 appear to have extended from county and township level to the district and municipality level. But in these last two the representatives are simply local National Peoples Congress (NPC) members with no executive authority whatsoever.
All local leaders below the district level, whether they be county leaders or township leaders, are nothing more than local NPC delegates, co-opted in the usual way. It is only at the natural village level that there are any signs that the authorities are ready to allow for genuinely direct elections, and even then lack of Party meddling might be hard to prove.
What must be realised is that neither the village headstrictly speaking the person in charge of the villagers committeenor the members of the committee themselves, have any executive power at all. Outside observers, especially certain Western academics with expertise in the field of Chinese political institutions, do not seem to have cottoned on to this basic fact. For them the holding of direct elections for district-level NPC delegates as well as for villagers committees is an indication of a shift in the authority wielded by grass-roots officials. In fact, even when Party organisations abstain from meddling, those elected are not officials. In China organs invested with real executive power stop at the county or township level, not the village level.
Recent foreign reports citing authoritative sources, have claimed that Jiang Zemin has promised to hold direct elections at the county level within three years. But whoever concocted this story has simply overlooked the fact that as direct elections are not even allowed at the township or sub-township level, it is highly improbable that they would suddenly be allowed at a higher level. All the more so, as in 80% of the villages which have already held direct elections, peasants took the exercise very seriously and in many cases rejected the candidates put up by the Party, which is now extremely worried that if it loses control of grassroots organisations it will lose control of the rural masses. So it is hardly likely that Jiang Zemin would relax his guard to the extent of allowing citizens to vote in direct elections for county level officials.
Little prospect of county level direct elections
Authorisation to hold direct elections for neighbourhood committees in the towns or villagers committees in the rural areas was first given in a decree dated December 1982 and issued by the Standing Committee of the National Peoples Congress, recognising the existence of grassroots self-government organisations of the masses. But in the ten years following its promulgation, county and township authorities persistently intervened in village affairs, reducing the election process to a mere formality with villagers electing the official candidate by a show of hands.
Discussing constitutional reforms at the 8th National Peoples Congress, legal experts raised this issue and suggested that the Constitution should include specific provisions to safeguard the electoral process by prohibiting higher authority from interfering and by prohibiting it from designating candidates, etc. But for fear of undermining its hold on power in the countryside and of sidelining its own grassroots organisations, the leadership rejected all such proposals. Pluralism is the last thing the Party wants in the countrysidewhat it does want is to maintain the status quo and ensure that the successful candidates in village-level elections are its own people and no one else.
In recent years the Party has seen Chinas vast rural population slipping from its grasp. Mainly responsible for this state of affairs are the many new problems thrown up by rural economic development, such as the increasing power of family clans and the pressures influential peasant families can exert on local government. Faced with this challenge, the authorities had no option but to revamp the system hitherto used to elect villagers committees. Foreign pressure helped also. To maintain its image abroad and to show that China was not averse to some democratic development as long as it was gradual, the authorities were only too happy to let foreigners see how the rural masses were now their own masters.
Over the last six months, in an effort to advertise the fact that socialism is gradually democratising itself, the Ministry of Civil Affairs has been pushing ahead with its village democracy programme, and even allowing western observers in to monitor the process. In 1994, the Rockefeller Foundation gave its active support for such missions by providing funding, and in March this year the Carter Center sent seven North American experts to Fujian and Hebei provinces. In the words of one of them: Whatever you think of the Chinese regimethe only communist power left in the world that still countsthere is no denying that this exercise in village democracy is a welcome development. And while the Chinese Communist Party, at all levels, is dragging its feet, it may yet learn something from the very enthusiastic reception the peasants are giving it. It may have to recognise that putting off political reforms will have a harmful effect on the economy, not only in the rural areas but also in the cities.
What most pleased the Western observers was the fact that about 40% of directly elected village officials were not Party memberswhich is precisely what the top echelons fear the most but can do little about.
Here is what happened in one village in Henan province: just before the election the county authorities sent in the usual election task force with the usual list of pre-chosen candidates. But at the very first election meeting an 18-year-old senior high-school graduate got up on the platform without asking permission and rejected the official list, which had his own grandfathers name at the top, and gave a detailed account of the errors the old man had committed when he had been secretary of the local Party cell in the village. He concluded that his grandfather was an ignoramus; that he was quite incapable of doing the job; and that he would cravenly follow the orders of higher authority, no matter how ridiculous these were. This explained why the villagers had not been able to improve their standard of living, despite his grandfathers good intentions.
He then went on to give his own ideas on how things should be handled and found himself elected by a 90% majority on a show of hands before the task force sent in by the county could get a word in edgeways.
While it is true that, to date, the county and township authorities have frequently interfered, whether directly or indirectly, in elections for village committees, their level of control is far less strict than for elections of representatives to the NPC at township level and above. For instance, a directive issued by the NPCs Standing Committee stipulates that for village committees the number of candidates should be more than the number of positions to be filled. In well-run provinces such as Fujian and Liaoning, there are even regulations stipulating that local authorities should not impose their own candidates. This way several candidates for one post remains a valid safeguard, which would not be the case if all were official candidates. As a result, genuinely free elections have been held in a number of localities. In Tieling in Liaoning province, 40% of those elected in the first village committee elections were independent candidates. During the second elections in the region, genuinely free elections were held in 606 villages, with candidates vigorously defending their platforms in their bid to win a seat.
In one Shandong village the whole population, including the old and sick, turned out on election dayonce they realised it was a free election. As it happened, the two candidates each got the same number of votes, or grains of maize in the bowls which stood in for ballot boxes. The problem was resolved by a wise old man who suggested that everyone should assemble at the threshing ground to hear the two candidates, one of whom would stand on the east side, the other on the west. He then asked the outside observers to do a headcount to see who had attracted the most supporters. That way the village got its village head. This and similar incidents elsewhere have apparently prompted the Party propaganda authorities to issue directives banning any reporting of free elections or grassroots democracy.
Persona non grata
In another Shandong village a man called Zhao who had made a lot of money with his fishponds and orchards under the new peasant responsibility system, and who also happened to be a descendant of the local landowner was put up as candidate for the post of village head. His sponsor came from a family of poor peasants. Over the last 30 years this man and his father had been head of the public security and head of the militia, and in the context of the class struggle had had power of life and death over three generations of the Zhao family. Nominating him, the son apologised to the Zhao family and expressed the hope that he would use his talents for the good of the village and make it rich. In the event Zhao was unanimously elected, minus one votethe village Party secretary voted against him, as he had wanted the post for himself. Surprised and touched by this show of support, Zhao announced that he was going to donate half his savings to the village for the purchase of a well drill, and emphasised that during his period of office members of his family would look after the fishponds and orchards so that he could devote himself entirely to promoting the welfare of the village. He also promised to turn over to the village the difference between his annual income and that of the next richest villager. When he had finished his inaugural speech, all the local activists who had persecuted the Zhao family in the name of the class struggle came to beg his forgiveness. A few days later, and despite his protests, the villagers spontaneously transferred the remains of his fatherwho had been hounded to death in the class strugglefrom his grave in the mountains to the family tomb in the village and made offerings in his name. A local paper which was going to print an account of the events was told not to by the authorities, and in Peking the leftist faction was so upset by the news that it lamented that after so many decades of bitter struggle it takes so little to return to the situation before Liberation.
In Henan province in particular there has been a resurgence of religious practices, especially Christian ones, which Peking finds particularly worrying. When Wang Zhen, the king of the leftists, lamented the fact that more people believe in religion than in the Party, it was parts of Henan he had mind. In the elections for village committees held over the last few years, many candidates have been believers. There is even a report of one village where all those elected were Christiansall the Partys candidates were defeated, despite official pressure to influence the result.
And with the advent of elections for village committees, village clans are making a come-back. In many localities the dominant lineage determines the outcome of elections: if the Party authorities want to keep in the villagers good books, they have to choose a Party member who is also a clan member. In one Shandong village a Party candidate by the name of Zhang garnered a mere seven votes for the simple reason that there were only seven other Zhangs (two families) in the village but over 300 voters sharing the surname Yu. It would have been unthinkable for the head of the village not to have been one of them. This was an open and shut case; elsewhere things are not so simple when two or three clans of comparable strength are contesting the election. Organising a normal election in these circumstances can be a very trying experience for the Party and even when it does manage to railroad through some kind of result, it finds it very difficult to get things done.
Jiang Zemins dilemma
Of all the Chinese leaders it is perhaps Jiang Zemin who remains the most lukewarm about grassroots democracy. As secretary general of the Party and thus predisposed to maintaining political stability, he knows that he ignores at his peril the serious consequences of cracking down on the democratic aspirations of the peasants. Some years ago he undertook a tour of Sichuan province to familiarise himself with peasant poverty at first hand (fang pin wen ku). Grilling a couple of old peasants, he finally managed to get them to accept that whatever they said there would be no retribution, and asked them to tell him what they needed the most. After much humming and hawing their reply was this: What we peasants need right now are another Chen Sheng and Wu Guang (1).
After his meeting Jiang is reported to have given strict orders that they were to be left alone, but apparently took several days to get over what they had told him once he was back in Zhongnanhai. His awareness of just how serious conditions were in rural China and how close the peasants were to rebelling as a result, goes back to this incident. From then on he has considered village elections as a safety valve. But he is also fully aware of the fact that while in the past peasant revolts have been nothing more fearful than a horde of headless dragons, once villagers committees are headed by people the local authorities can no longer control, they could well provide leadership for trouble-making peasants.
The left of the Party also knows this and has said so quite plainly: If we allow peasants to elect their own village heads they will either do what the leader who will make them rich tells them to do, which is good, or do what their own Chen Shengs or Wu Guangs tell them, which is bad.
Jiang Zemin wants to have his cake and eat it too, forced into doing nothing by the nature of the problem. This being the case it is highly unlikely that China under Jiang will do anything to encourage democratic elections at the grassroots.
1. Peasant rebels in the Qin dynasty.