Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 1, Number 9 (Summer 1997): Innovative Human Rights Strategies in East Asia: Articles: Popular Demands for Village Elections in Rural China

Jun 5, 1997

In 1987, China’s National People’s Congress passed the Organic Law of Villagers’ Committees. Since the law came into effect the following year, efforts to implement it have been largely driven by popular grassroots demands. And, while the law has the potential to increase the accountability of local leaders and establish meaningful democratic reform, its implementation is moving ahead only slowly.

The Organic Law applies to rural villages ranging from a couple of hundred to a couple of thousand residents. It provides for the establishment of a system of self-government based on elected villagers’ committees through which residents can voice and meet their own needs. In many places, members of these villagers’ committees are elected in competitive elections. The committees are responsible for public welfare services, dispute mediation, maintenance of public order, communication of villagers’ opinions to township governments, and management of village lands and collective property.

Financing of villagers’ committees can come from ordinary taxes and fees, from profits withheld from collective enterprises, and from public donations. The villagers’ committees are not formally under the leadership of local Communist Party or state organs and are subject only to government “guidance, support, and assistance”; however, the committees must coexist with the village party branch, which is either appointed by the township or elected by village party members only. The Organic Law does call on committees to help the township government carry out its work. Needless to say, the working of the system varies widely among villages.

Why would an authoritarian regime promote grass-roots democratic reform? The law reflects the party elite’s desire to construct “socialist democracy”; village autonomy allows a sort of democratic training while also possibly preventing social unrest by improving relations at the local level between the Communist Party and the masses. Under the law, all adult registered villagers have the rights to vote and to stand for office. Estimates of how many of China’s one million villages have held elections ranges from government ministry officials’ claims of at least 80 percent to the estimate of an editor of a magazine on township affairs of no more than 10 percent. Remaining realistic about what can be achieved under the new system, villagers fortunate enough to participate in elections seek to rid themselves of corrupt, biased, and incompetent leaders, but generally do not go so far as to vote for candidates who openly oppose the state.

The Organic Law has encountered opposition, especially from township officials who are inclined to prevent elections unless the appointed party cadre—for whom this is his or her first contested election—is likely to be returned to office, or unless there has been a collapse in the workings of village government. Demands by ordinary villagers have done much to stop township officials and local opposition from thwarting elections. In some cases villagers have refused to cooperate with village cadres who oversee revenue collection, grain procurement, and family planning in order to pressure the township to hold villagers’ committee elections and get rid of inept cadres. Residents of a village in Hebei in northern China withheld their taxes and fees to protest the corrupt mismanagement of the township appointees. Even the local police could not pressure the recalcitrant villagers to pay up. The township party secretary resorted to calling an election only after two reshufflings of the village leadership had failed to appease the residents. The election resulted in a new leadership team that had the confidence of the local population, that investigated financial irregularities, and that sought to promote economic development.

There are numerous accounts of villagers lodging complaints at the county—and sometimes higher—level concerning violations of the Organic Law. In another Hebei village, for example, a group of farmers were at the township’s offices complaining about the corruption and ineptitude of the township-appointed village cadre, when one of them stumbled across a copy of the Organic Law. The farmers then lodged complaints with the county against the township government for “violating the Organic Law by not holding democratic elections.” In the face of mounting pressure from angry villagers, the township government convened an election. In subsequent balloting, the villager who had originally discovered the law was elected villagers’ committee director. In a Shanxi township, also in northern China, farmers from two villages conducted a sit-in at the township office until officials agreed to uphold the Organic Law and make their villages a “special zone” where free elections would be conducted and unpopular cadres could be voted out. Increasingly, township officials are recognizing that failing to permit free elections produces a flood of complaints and the risk of collective action.

Villagers’ committees, where successfully implemented, have improved local leaders’ accountability to village residents without generally reducing their responsiveness to the state. To win popular support, local leaders are more open to advocacy and more motivated to implement state policies impartially and use legal means to secure funds for public projects. Greater community provision of the funds and labor needed for development projects has resulted, as have material benefits for the community such as schools, roads, and running water.

In two remote villages in Fujian, for example, newly elected committee members raised funds and mobilized labor to complete a fifteen-kilometer road that had been started and abandoned on three occasions under township direction. And in a Hebei village, appointed cadres could not repair a rundown school because many villagers suspected their “donations” would end up in the cadres’ pockets. After free elections were held, the new leadership team collected nearly 40,000 yuan, with which they promptly rebuilt the school. These moves have allowed greater fulfillment of villagers’ basic needs and social and economic rights. Overall, popular desire for development is increasingly driving village governance reforms from the ground up.

Village-level elections have also resulted in demands to restructure relations between villagers’ committees and village Communist Party branches. Where a party branch enjoys little support, villagers have begun to dispute its right to nominate individuals to run in villagers’ committee elections. This restructuring is not recognized at the national level, but it has been put into practical effect in some villages: in one Shanxi county, all villagers can now vote in party primaries, and party members who do not win over half the votes are barred from standing for membership in the local party branch.

Even though grassroots democratic reform in China is occurring only at the village level and not spreading to township leadership elections, it is changing the relationship between village and township officials. Villagers’ committees have limited autonomy from the township officials directly above them. Elected village officials are more willing to confront township officials and their policies in the name of their constituents’ lawful interests. An elected committee member in Hebei, for example, proudly said he would resist township meddling in the management of a village orchard because “this is the masses’ business and it falls within the scope of villagers’ autonomy.”

Prime Minister Li Peng’s Government Work Report, delivered at the 1997 National People’s Congress, reaffirmed Beijing’s commitment to “grassroots mass autonomy.” Provincial people’s congresses continue to enact legislation detailing election procedures. And in Fujian, a provincial pace setter, primaries became mandatory in 1997; for the first time elections for all villagers’ committee positions are slated to be competitive. Restructuring of local governments has not occurred on a national scale and the process is apt to remain a torturous one. But rural-based democratic reforms are likely to continue building momentum.

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