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In Rural China, Democracy Not All It Seems

By John Pomfret, The Washington Post, Friday 25 August 2000; A01

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QIUBAI VILLAGE, China - By Chinese standards, the election for village chief that took place Aug. 2 in this picturesque hamlet of 444 voters deep in the mountains of southern China's Fujian province was exemplary.

The Communist Party apparently was not involved in picking the candidates. The three declared candidates in the first of two rounds were allowed to address villagers and make campaign promises. Voters questioned them, and they had to respond. And when the villagers lined up to vote in neat rows on a dirt playground outside the elementary school, there was nary a sign of pressure from party officials.

But 1,000 miles to the north, the village of Liubu in Hebei province staged a very different election.

In the campaign leading up to the April 2 vote by Liubu's 2,700 residents, party officials disconnected a public address system, blocking an upstart candidate from talking to villagers about the $210,000 debt the village leadership had accumulated. When someone gave him a hand-held loudspeaker, authorities grabbed that as well. And when it came time to cast ballots, anointed successors of the team that has been running the village since the 1960s were elected.

The tale of contrasting elections in two villages goes a long way toward explaining the debate inside and outside the country over a 13-year-old experiment to grant China's farmers a small measure of self-government through election of local leaders. The debate revolves around the experiment's real goals--opening the political system or solidifying party control--and what the uneven record of voting in many of China's 1 million villages says about hopes for greater reform in Communist Party rule.

The Beijing government has used village elections as part of a public relations campaign to burnish a messy human rights image, saying 60 percent of China's villagers vote in competitive contests. Their first emotion is to feel astonishment, a Chinese government report says of foreigners' responses to seeing Chinese citizens vote. Then it dawns on them that this is real democracy . . . and then they praise it to the skies.

Some Westerners, eager for good news from China, have seized on the village elections, in which all men and women 18 or older have the right to vote. President Clinton and former president Jimmy Carter have lauded the votes in discussions with ranking Chinese officials. In a country where hundreds of political prisoners languish in jail, the village elections have been among the few encouraging signs of potential political openness.

But a trip through Fujian province, organized by the Ministry of Civil Affairs and the Atlanta-based Carter Center--combined with travel into two other areas where elections have been banned or allegedly rigged--highlighted issues that are often overlooked in Western observers' discussions of the electoral experiment.

First, according to the most exhaustive study of the quality of the village elections, fewer than 20 percent of villages appear to have held competitive polls. Two Western-trained scholars, Kevin O'Brien of the University of California at Berkeley and Li Lianjiang of Hong Kong Baptist University, concluded in a paper published last month that, at best, 17 percent of the elections allowed voters to choose candidates in a primary-type vote. In the vast majority, they said, candidates were chosen by the local Communist Party branch or officials in the township, the next-highest level of government.

Their figure was based on interviews with 8,302 farmers in seven provinces where elections have been considered successful. Our conclusion is that in other areas, the situation is actually worse, O'Brien said.

Opposition to free voting comes from all levels of government. But it is especially fierce in the townships, because self-government in surrounding villages means a loss of power for the towns, which function as administrative centers.

At a higher level, a recent revision of the national law on village elections improved their openness but also stated that the Communist Party's village branch, which is not elected, remains the leadership core in the village. That was taken to mean that no matter how democratically the village committees are elected, the party maintains the last word.

Experts are at a loss to explain why some Chinese provinces have embraced local self-government and most have not. Wealth does not appear to be a factor. Guangdong province, China's richest, did not implement the election law until last year, 12 years after neighboring Fujian, which is almost as wealthy.

Fujian's proximity to a democratizing Taiwan, which directly elects its president and legislature, may have played a role in making the province a leader in self-government. It was the first province to require secret balloting, primaries and open nomination for village committee posts.

Hebei province, just south of Beijing, is another story. In numerous areas across the province, townships and counties have moved to stop farmers from exercising their right to choose village leaders.

In late 1998, the people of Shao village in southern Hebei rioted for the right to vote. They complained that village and party leaders had conspired to dish out collective property--peach, pear and apple orchards--to friends and relatives. More than 700 riot police surrounded the village, and in the ensuing chaos, they killed a villager. Shao has yet to hold an election.

In Liubu, Zhang Jianhua, a 27-year-old activist, had been writing reports to county and national leaders about corruption in his village since 1996. Zhang said the village is a haven for criminal gangs, and local leaders have saddled it with debts. For his trouble, he was beaten in 1996, and last year village authorities arrested his father for failure to pay taxes, which Zhang said was a move aimed at pressuring him to drop his candidacy.

Zhang ran in the April 2 election but said voters were pressured into supporting the Communist candidates. Other villagers tended to confirm his allegation in interviews, saying they were told by party officials that they could not vote for Zhang and that there would be consequences if they did.

I'm unusual, Zhang said, because I dared to challenge them. Most of the villagers in China are pretty passive.

But like many enterprising villagers, Zhang has recently abandoned his home for the capital, Beijing. All the best people leave the villages, he said. I wanted to stay and do something, but now I think it's impossible.

China began experimenting with village elections in the late 1980s. At the time, family farming was replacing collective agriculture. In the past, the communes dispensed cash from Beijing, and no free markets were allowed. As cash began flowing into the hands of China's farmers, however, local governments found themselves with few levers to influence their behavior.

At the time, the collapse of agricultural communes was eroding government and party authority in rural areas. The government considered upward of 40 percent of China's villages paralyzed or partially paralyzed, meaning that villagers were ignoring government orders to pay taxes, limit the number of their children and hand over grain. Other villages were being run by dirt emperors who employed gangs of thugs to extort money from farmers.

Something had to be done to bring the villages back under party and state control and to get rid of rapacious officials. The main backer of elections for village committees was Peng Zhen, one of China's most hard-line Communists. Peng saw local elections as a way to reassert control over areas that had turned suddenly into a vacuum following the communes' collapse.

It was a state-building enterprise, said Berkeley's O'Brien, who prefers the term consultative authoritarianism to limited democracy as a description of the voting. It was effectively a deal. The party allowed the villagers to throw out the old [bosses], but in exchange it mandated that the villagers toe the party line.

If anything, O'Brien said, village elections can be a way to prevent a multi-party system from coming in by drawing good people into the party and getting rid of the hacks who are hurting the party's image. . . . In the short term, you don't have to have a liberal bone in your body to support village elections.

For instance, Wang Jimin, the election committee chief here in Qiubai, said he hopes the recent vote will reinforce government authority. It will increase the unity of the Communist Party and the government, he said. It will strengthen the party's control.

Lin Zhongye, a candidate for chief of the village committee in Qiubai, agreed. The shopkeeper and 46-year-old father of three promised voters an orchard of fruit trees on land held collectively by the village.

Lin, who is not a party member, expressed eagerness to join. This illustrates a nationwide trend. Before the elections started, fewer than 30 percent of village chiefs were Communist Party members. Today that number hovers around 60 percent.

Western observers say they understand that the intended consequences of the elections are a stronger Communist Party and more powerful state, but they point to a potential for unintended consequences.

Certainly, many people in Qiubai and other villages across China are eager to vote. Among the 444 voters here, dozens of men returned home from jobs miles away just to cast a ballot.

The atmosphere here is very democratic, said Huang Zhonggeng, a 29-year-old laborer, as he waited in line. I like elections--the more open, the better.

O'Brien wonders whether views such as Huang's, and such changes as increasing awareness of law and rights, could be providing people with tools and ways of thinking that they didn't have.

Something like, ‘If you don't get me my fertilizer, I'm not going to pay my taxes’ developing into ‘If you don't let me elect you, I'm not going to obey you,’ he said. It could be setting into action events which are outside of the party's control.