Issue: 2007: Vol. 6, No. 1, Articles

Assessing China’s Villager Self-government: Are Elections Leading to Democracy?

Article Author(s)

Yawei Liu

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Yawei Liu is Director of The China Program at The Carter Center, Atlanta, Georgia. 
2007: Vol. 6, No. 1, Articles
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Assessing China’s Villager Self-government: Are Elections Leading to Democracy?In 1988, China began allowing villagers to elect their leaders in an experiment that democracy advocates hoped would eventually lead to more pluralism throughout the political system. Today, the Communist Party is still in firm command of the high ground and villages are still holding elections. So, what has the experiment accomplished?

This article will offer an assessment, first looking at the various discourses on villager self-government and trying to determine if there is a consensus on the significance of this undertaking. It will then examine how this political act is transforming the political language, culture and landscape in China and aim to decide if villager self-government indeed constitutes an opening crucial for China’s long overdue political reform. Third, it will address the questions: What is democracy? What is democracy with Chinese characteristics? And will the current village democracy lead to a fundamental transformation? – from a government of choice but little accountability at the lowest rung, to one of choice and accountability at each and every level, secured by institutions rather than by moral coercion and ideological purification. The article will then take a brief look at what the grassroot Party officials are saying and what Chinese peasants are doing in the era of relative freedom and self-management.

While it is hard to separate the past, present and future of a development that is so young, this article will focus more on the period from November 1998 when the Organic Law was amended, to September 2005, when Premier Wen Jiabao repeated Peng Zhen’s famous remarks to visiting foreign dignitaries: when villagers learned how to manage the village affairs they would then try to manage the township affairs.

When the National People’s Congress was debating the Organic Law, Peng Zhen, chairman of its Standing Committee, remarked that introducing villager self-government was in line with the Chinese Communist Party’s goal of making common people the masters of their own affairs. It was a very effective way to conduct a democracy seminar for the peasants. When they learned how to govern their own affairs, they would then try to learn how to manage the township and county affairs. In 1989, there was a coordinated effort to discredit the Organic Law and label it as a sinister plot derived from Western ideas of democratization. Peng Zhen and his supporters withstood the assault, stuck firm to the need for rule of law and said that a way must be found to allow peasants to hold local officials accountable. With almost a decade of persistent effort by the officials of the civil affairs apparatus, the Organic Law was finally amended and officially adopted. Another eight years have passed. What is the current discourse on villager self-government?

There seems to be little change among the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in their view of the nature of villager self-government although there is a detectable shift of emphasis and priority. Jiang Zeming called villager self-government one of the three crucial reforms in China’s countryside, as important as the beginning of the household responsibility system and the launch of village and town enterprises. In the political reports of both the 15th and 16th CCP National Congresses, Jiang identified villager self-government as the point of breakthrough for China’s political reform. Since the ushering in of the Hu-Wen New Deal in late 2002, growing attention has been given to the solution of economic woes of the peasants and social instability in the countryside. From the campaign to promote open administration of village affairs to the elimination of taxes and fees, to the emphasis on increasing the income of the peasants, to the call to build a new socialist countryside, we see a pattern of devaluing rural democracy and accelerating pragmatic measures to create better conditions for peasants’ access to education, healthcare and wealth.

This shift of emphasis at the top is indicative of which arguments among the watchers of villager self-government have found more responsive ears among the national leaders. Like the current divergent assessments of reform and opening up, the views of villager self-government are also sharply divisive. There are those who perceive villager self-government as a miracle prescription to the chronic diseases of the Chinese countryside and the stepping stone to the eventual modernization and democratization of China. For those who are less friendly to villager self-government, they see the alarming reemergence of the clans, the susceptibility by the broad masses of peasants to small materialistic incentives and indirect anti-government appeals, and the interruption of the development of village enterprises.

Those who are opposed to the expansion of village self-government have been aided by two factors: 1) the lack of linkage between the institution of village democracy and the growth of village wealth (and the misery among tens of millions of Chinese peasants who increasingly sense that they are actually victims of the economic reform that has made China such an integral part of the world economy), and 2) the CCP’s concern that popular choice and strict accountability could undermine the Party’s legitimacy, and its insistence on being the paramount decision-maker on all aspects of rural life.

This dichotomy between perceptions of villager self-government has existed since the debate on what to do with the peasants in the wake of the abolition of the communes in the early 1980s. The discussion of whether villager self-government is empowering the rural residents or emasculating the Party’s leadership and whether it will make peasants feel happier or create obstacles for economic development, will continue in the foreseeable future and have a significant impact on the sustainability of villager self-government.

The renewal of the direct election of local people’s congress deputies in 1978, and particularly the introduction of direct election of village committees in 1988, has led to a new sense of political ownership and a new awareness of what constitutes political legitimacy. Real competition at the village level – in places where local officials believed that the most cost-effective way of providing “guidance” was direct nomination of candidates, and direct election of village committee members from among multiple candidates – has led the residents to overcome initial suspicion of whether their votes would make a difference and to begin playing the political game more seriously.

The political scientists who study this new rural political development began to paint a very rosy picture of this undertaking and have even hatched a new field of study. They call villager self-government a “silent revolution” that will lead to the destruction of old feudalistic heritage and the birth of new civic virtues and political activism. They feel villager self-government is the beginning of a new wave of the encirclement of the urban centers by the vast countryside. Further, they wonder whether if the least-informed and -educated group are given the right to directly elect those who make decisions affecting them, then perhaps the better-prepared residents in the cities should be offered at least the same opportunity.

The echoes of the Chinese scholars have not only reverberated in the capitals and classrooms of European countries and the United States, but also have been heard by the top leaders inside the Forbidden City. This new language has not only crept into the speeches of the China-watchers in the West, but also has been melded into the political jargon of Chinese leaders. While the image-makers of China have achieved the goal of using villager self-government to prove the nascent rise of political reform in China, the praise of it by the top Chinese leaders in 1998 at the 15th CCP National Congress led to the unprecedented experiment of a direct election of a township magistrate in Buyun, Sichuan.

If we measure villager self-government using Robert Dahl’s two attributes of democracy (contestation or compilation, and participation or inclusion), it seems we may call it a curtailed democracy in a restricted geographical area, always subject to outside forces it has no capacity to resist. Village self-government also seems to possess the features of both internal and external efficacy. If, however we used other criteria to determine whether villager self-government is democracy, with other universally recognized and accepted components, the answer becomes less certain and even doubtful.

In the context of Chinese political systems, both past and present, villager self-government can be described as meaningful democracy with Chinese characteristics, or, at least, as an embryonic form of a unique democratic practice that is different from other forms of democracy. First, it calls citizens’ attention to the serious problem of the Chinese political system, i.e. the justice of the systemic design and the injustice of procedures. This injustice is caused by the woeful lack of executable procedures in choice and accountability matters and the gross manipulation of those procedures that have been laid out.

Second, villager self-government is operating within the context of a Chinese system whose center of gravity is located with the Party. The fact that a significant number of Party officials feel the cost of governance is so much lower when the right to choose their immediate leaders is given to the peasants may lead to a reorientation of the belief that the Party always knows best. In fact, practice of villager self-government has already trickled upwards and led to many trials of choice and accountability at higher levels.

Thirdly, direct village elections, with their competitiveness and their real impact on political legitimacy, governance and the initiatives of those who run and get elected by the ordinary voter,s are a reminder to those who are contemplating political reform in China that real reform does not have to be wholesale adoption of the Western system of multiple political parties and parliamentary supremacy. The Chinese system on paper is sufficient if the Party superstructure does not interfere with direct elections of township and county people’s congress deputies and indirect elections of local officials such as township and county magistrates by the directly elected people’s deputies.

Lastly, it appears villager self-government is conducive to solidifying the Party’s legitimacy and likeability in the countryside. This may reduce the fear that is constantly on the lips of Chinese officials: that allowing the lowly common Chinese people to engage in democratic elections and decision-making at higher levels will lead to chaos and eventually break the back of the Party.