China's Rural Challenge

Article excerpt

Prospects for the Spread of Village Democracy

The Chinese government points to village elections as proof of its support for grassroots democracy and political reform. Yet despite a decade of village democracy, questions abound as to just how democratic village elections really are and how effective the new democratic institutions are, in addition to the obvious concern of whether Beijing will allow the extension of democratic elections to higher levels of government. The 1987 Organic Law of the Village Committee established, at least on paper, a system of village autonomy (cummin zizhi) and self-management in which village committees of about five leaders are directly elected by villagers every three years. In 1990 the village representative assembly and the village councils, which are comprised of all households, were established to complete the tripartite institutional framework for ostensible village democracy. Most recently, the 1998 Organic Law of the Village Committee mandated that China's one million villages would elect their leaders from multi ple candidates by direct, secret-ballot vote, a significant step forward designed to conform village elections to the norms of democratic procedure.

In addition to the democratic village institutions, villagers directly elect people's congress deputies serving townships, the first level of formal government. These deputies in turn elect the governing township officials. Therefore, village leaders are directly elected, whereas township leaders are not. This illustrates the extent of democratization that has putatively taken place in the last decade.

Stability's Price

This shift in attitude can be explained by the fact that in the early 1980s the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) was losing its monopoly on power due to its own economic reforms. It is ironic that a political party that came to power with the true support of the masses must now gingerly balance its claims of political reform and democratic progress with its interest in self-preservation. As a result, the CCP promulgated rural political reforms in the hopes that limited grassroots democracy would bolster the regime and preserve social stability.

The pains of economic liberalization hit rural areas hard. High inflation and tax increases eroded gains from decollectivization. Regional economic disparities and the state's continued policy of buying grain at below-market prices further angered villagers. Rural interests remain sacrificed for economic development in cities; the construction of roads and railways that resulted in loss of land and forced relocation demonstrates this trend.

Rural economic difficulties were exacerbated by and linked with official corruption. Decollectivization and marketization had the unavoidable effect of increasing cadre corruption. Before decollectivization, rural cadres were the important leaders of the local base of China's state economy. After reforms, they found themselves with fewer duties, especially in economic affairs, and more opportunities for corruption. Government statistics show a nearly 100-fold increase in the number of official corruption and bribery cases brought before the courts from 1979 to 1989, and despite numerous anti-corruption campaigns, the official numbers continue to rise. Despite much rhetoric against corruption on the part of central leaders, corrupt rural officials entrenched in their local power bases continue to levy excessive and arbitrary taxes on farmers, to charge farmers for services not rendered, and to force them to work without pay, among other abuses. Hence it is not surprising that the 1980s were marked by high lev els of rural unrest.

In an era of decentralization, cadre corruption, and villager unrest, the central government saw limited rural democracy as the way to preserve power and maintain stability. By encouraging citizen oversight and participation and clarifying the responsibilities of rural institutions, the government hoped to help rural cadres maintain social order, meet state agricultural targets, collect taxes, and in general fulfill state policy. …