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    Greater China
     Feb 2, 2008
One mainland, two systems
Rural Democracy in China by Baogang He
Reviewed by Sreeram Chaulia

Since the formal promulgation of the Organic Law of Village Committees in 1987, about 800 million rural Chinese have experienced semi-competitive elections. Due to the domination of communist party cadres over representative assemblies, skepticism about village elections is justified. Yet, the experiment of participatory institutions within the Chinese authoritarian state tests cynics who insist that the two cannot coexist.

Using extensive data gathered in 12 years of field research, political scientist Baogang He argues in a new book that progress has been made in China's grassroots governance and power structures. In the same breath, he cautions against exaltation of village democracy's benefits, since it is "an instrumental mechanism for the continuation of Chinese resilient authoritarianism". (p7)

The Chinese government's theory of village democracy combines authoritarian ideas of self-government under tight party control with liberal ideas of free and fair elections by secret ballot. He reminds readers of an alternative "Chinese folk theory" that expects tempering of the rich and caring for the disadvantaged groups in the village. This is the normative ideal against which he juxtaposes the actual practice of grassroots democratic experiments.

The 1987 Organic Law took three years and over 30 revisions of drafts before being passed. After several rounds of contested debates over whether rural China needs elections, it was converted from "provisional" into final law only in 1998. Attempts to legislate an independent electoral commission have so far run into determined obstruction from various layers of the government. The state "ensures its significant presence in the whole process of elections" through its point persons on the ground, the village party secretaries.

While these structural roadblocks remain, they are being resisted by villagers who often do not vote for candidates handpicked by the party. Beginning in Jilin province in 1993, villagers invented and practiced haixuan, or direct nomination of candidates, a move that proved to be highly successful in solving administrative problems such as the common rural refusal to pay taxes and fees. Since 1999, the dismissal by recall of corrupt village heads and committee members by majority vote before completion of their terms has risen in frequency.

The question of who is a "villager" and an eligible voter has become increasingly problematic in the context of China's rapid economic growth. Fighting for villager status implies staking claim for a share of the collective wealth and welfare provisions. Large-scale migration in and out of villages has generated a floating population that is not recognized as part of the electorate. If decisions of voter eligibility are left to village assemblies, it can lead to discrimination against minority groups. This type of iniquity has increased the need for local courts to "intervene and counterbalance the majoritarian tendencies of democratic institutions". (p51) The author sees in these developments the emergence of a "rights-based political morality".

Progressively, the competition of village elections has shifted from single to multiple candidates. In some cases, the competition is so stiff that no candidate is able to win an absolute majority. The rate of re-election of incumbents is declining and the names of winners are no longer foregone conclusions before voting takes place. Although Chinese officials denounce election campaigning as "bourgeois", villagers express a desire for it in order to make better choices.

Political marketplace
Generally, He finds greater electoral competition in richer villages because they allocate handsome salaries and allowances for holders of posts. In these villages, "different groups with their interests are able to compete for power, thereby forming a political market". (p64) However, wherever the communist party branch has the keys to economic resources, competition is low. Wealthier villages also score better in degree of political participation since the economic prize of obtaining power is bigger. Village committees also function more efficiently in prosperous villages because of their healthier budgets. The main policy inference from He in this context is that "for village democracy to work, the rural economy needs to be improved". (p174)

Although voter turnout in village elections has been high, it could be the result of rewards between 5 to 60 yuan (US$0.70 $8.30) as compensation for lost labor or of inducements of government officials anxious to achieve quotas. A 2005 survey found 25% of the respondents to be apathetic to the electoral process. This is in sync with the government's predisposition for "orderly participation" so that discipline and obedience are not upturned.

A majority of villagers cast votes for candidates who can develop the local economy. Rural entrepreneurs and directors of private enterprises frequently get elected as village heads. Quite a high percentage of voters also choose candidates considered to have high moral standard and character. The author notes a movement away from kinship ties as a basis of vote choice, heralding "modern village citizenship". (p79) This is occurring despite the post-Mao resurrection of lineage identities in a milieu of looser ideological supervision.

Local officials and party secretaries looked at villager representative meetings as threats to their own power, but these have grown more active since 2000. In parts of Guangdong province, representative assemblies are the highest village power institutions that are impervious to manipulation by party cadres. Fears held by critics that representative assemblies were undermining the ideal of direct democracy are being answered with innovative solutions like "village opinion cards" and weekly dialogues.

Private capitalists and the new rich invariably run representative assemblies like exclusive elite clubs. Township authorities "take pains to train the rich man into a politician, name him as candidate, and help him get elected". (p106) The nouveau riche who get elected have to balance pressures from above (party officials) and below (voters). Some village heads even put the villagers' interests before those of the township authorities. However, He's survey reveals that only 15% of village heads think they have more power than the party secretary. The party maintains its hegemony through its legally defined "leading role" and by its grip on the economic resources of the village.

Thanks to China's patriarchal family structure, women's participation in village democracy is relatively low. Democratic methods are regularly used to deny women who marry into other villages the rights to vote and receive economic benefits. The number of female village committee members has been decreasing since 1998. The few who do get into office are allocated secondary roles that match alleged "female qualities". In the face of societal prejudices against women in public affairs, affirmative action policies of the Chinese legal system have not gone far.

Township leaders play a complex role in China's rural democracy. By law, they administer, arbitrate and oversee the conduct of village elections. Yet, some of them oppose village elections as hindrances in implementation of party policies in the countryside. The author found township officials holding beliefs that "villagers have no interest in elections because what they care most is to make more money". (p148) A number of them are evolving sophisticated ways of manipulating village elections from behind the scenes, prompting He to coin the label, "democratic Machiavellianism".

The author concludes with the big question of whether village elections could extend to townships through a "moving-up process". The answer is relevant to the issue of democratization of the Chinese state organization itself. Village elections raise doubts about the legitimacy of appointed township leaders, reflecting "internal tensions between the electoral logic and the authoritarian logic". (p201)

Sporadic incidences of direct voting for the positions of township heads and party secretaries have been occurring since 1998, but with serious deficiencies. A small "leading group" of the party organization usually manufactures the outcomes of these events. Among the central leadership, former premier Zhu Rongji and Premier Wen Jiabao have expressed support for township elections but the National People's Congress and the Central Party Organization have shot down the balloon owing to fear that they could "threaten a rapid unraveling of CCP [Chinese Communist Party] authority". (p211)

In He's judgement, most Chinese villagers today enjoy formalistic democracy but are a long way from substantive democracy. Village democracy is distant from "state democracy" and has had little impact on the Chinese state's governance at the macro-level. Using the comparisons of the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan, which also introduced local elections within authoritarian states, He predicts that it will take several more years before a national election can happen in China.

The author characterizes Chinese authoritarianism with limited democratic elements as a "mixed regime" that, despite contradictions, fortifies the CCP's supremacy. "One Country, Two Systems" has been applied in Chinese legend to offshore territories Hong Kong and Macau. He's study does not use this particular formulation but allows it to be employed to describe the mainland's political system as well. His book offers a salutary check on tendencies to assess China solely on the basis of national level trends.

Rural Democracy in China. The Role of Village Elections by Baogang He, Palgrave Macmillan, New York, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-230-60016-4. Price: US$74.95, 277 pages.

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