Academic journal article China Perspectives

Village Elections in Contemporary China

Academic journal article China Perspectives

Village Elections in Contemporary China

Article excerpt

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Twenty years after the promulgation of the experi- mental "Organic Law on Village Committees", the implementation of Chinese village elections and their impact on rural governance has lost, as it seems, quite a bit of the attention it formerly generated among scholars both in the PRC and abroad. One reason for this observa- tion is disappointment: Although the direct ballot promised the institutionalisation of more transparency, accountability and democratic awareness in China's villages, regarded as necessary prerequisites for the gradual extension of elections to higher administrative levels in the near future, this initial optimism has hardly been translated into reality. Today, elec- tions are fairly well entrenched in China's vast countryside. Moreover, many scholars have stated-albeit cautiously-that at least in those places where elections are conducted regu- larly and in accordance with the stipulations of the Organic Law, which was promulgated and made effective nationwide in 1998, they have become a meaningful part of village life by elevating peasants' political efficacy, giving them more in- fluence on village politics and helping to restore strained cadre-peasant relations.((1) However, all local efforts to push direct elections to the township level have so far failed, as the central government has made it repeatedly clear that such a move-though part of the long-term agenda-is not to become official policy in the foreseeable future.((2) At the same time, reports on village riots caused by local cadre cor- ruption and misconduct have strikingly increased in number over the last years. In many parts of China, illegal land ac- quisitions-paired with the unlawful or absent financial com- pensation of peasants, generating windfall profits for greedy local officials-have constituted the main impetus for rural upheaval and outright violence. In these places, direct elec- tions have proved an inefficient means to rein in powerful cadres, and often enough they have heightened political ten- sions by inducing peasants to use their democratic rights against law-breaking and corrupt local officials.((3) Conse- quently, those scholars who continually observe and research political developments in China's vast countryside have turned their focus to the dynamics of peasant protest and how what Li Lianjiang and Kevin O'Brien once termed "policy-based" or "rightful resistance" may be seen as cur- rently evolving into new and more proactive forms of resist- ance and peasant organisation.((4) This change in focus squares with the impression that village elections have failed as a means to enhance the quality of local self-government- the Communist Party's major objective in implementing them. Finally, the significance of village elections seems to be downgraded by China's ongoing fiscal and administrative reforms.((5) As townships and villages are increasingly de- prived of opportunities to generate income for the sake of strengthening central control over rural debts and illegal off- budget revenues, and counties gain in allocation and policy- making power, village committees are in danger of being gradually transformed into local service centres of county governments. With nothing to distribute and nothing to de- cide upon in terms of economic and political strategy, village elections would then be meaningless.

However, this pessimistic outlook may be somewhat prema- ture, as we can only now begin to discern the contours of a new fiscal regime currently being built in rural China. At this point in the debate on rural governance reforms, it is more interesting to note that village elections have never been systematically assessed with respect to their factual im- pact on stability and regime legitimacy in the local state. To achieve both of these goals has been the major motivation behind the central government's decision to promote the di- rect ballot in the countryside, besides pushing for economic development and putting more capable cadres in place. …

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