Deep in the countryside, away from the skyscraper-filled boomtowns of Shenzhen and Guangdong that hog the majority of headlines around the world when it comes to the ‘‘China Story’’, the mainland is quietly experimenting with local democracy in the country’s 700,000 villages and now increasingly at the township levels as well.
Over the last decade or so, direct elections to village councils have gradually been made mandatory across the middle kingdom, and for the first time in the more than 5,000-year history of this gigantic former empire, villagers are learning about filing nominations and secret ballots.
Elections are now carried out every three years and the new year will see villages in Jiangxi, Shandong, Henan and Heilongjiang provinces gear up for the only officially-permitted exercise of the vote in the mainland.
Critics point out the deep flaws that remain in the system. Village councils, while empowered to decide how a village invests any collective funds, are not officially part of the government, and council members remain subordinate to village Communist Party secretaries.
Moreover, village councils must bow to the dictates of township officials, who form the lowest tier of the official rural government.
Nonetheless, some analysts argue that village elections are gradually inspiring democratic reforms both at higher levels of government as well as within the Party. ‘‘There is still one-party rule in China but today every village must hold direct elections and this generates awareness of the individual’s democratic rights throughout the system. People think that if uneducated farmers are capable of voting, then why not everyone?’’ says Jian Yi, who works as a public communications expert on an EU-funded, village governance training programme.
And such sentiments have, in fact, led over the last few years to experiments in direct elections at the township level. These elections have taken place without the consent of the Communist Party and technically remain illegal, although the party has, on occasion, chosen to ignore them.
The first such direct township election took place in Buyun township in Sichuan Province, a dirt-poor, rural backwater. In 1998, without formal permission from the leadership, Buyun directly elected a township chief. A township leader holds official government rank and is usually elected indirectly by the members of the township people’s congress. These indirect elections are no more than a rubber stamp approval of the Party’s choice of candidate.
Initially, the Chinese government condemned the election in Buyun as a ‘‘violation of the constitution’’ but later another official statement said that the election ‘‘reflected a positive direction of rural democracy’’.
Since 1998, several townships in Sichuan, Hubei, Guangdong and Shanxi provinces have gone ahead and held direct elections for township-level posts without the formal consent of the Party. But there is now a level of acceptance and they have begun to be reported in a positive light even by official newspapers like the China Daily.
When Party committee members were directly elected in Caiji township of Jiangsu province, earlier in 2004, the elections were even televised by China Central Television.
According to Yu Weiliang, a researcher at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, and former official in charge of conducting village elections in Shanxi province, the Party’s attitude to these township elections has been studiously ambiguous.
‘‘It’s a wait and watch game to see how it plays out,’’ he says.
Says Jian Yi, ‘‘If the central government is satisfied that the elections do not harm social stability in any way, then they simply ignore the elections. Otherwise, they clamp down.’’
Social instability simply translates as any perceived threat to the Party’s policies, directives or power. The price can be high. When in August 2003, Wei Shenduo, a low-level Communist Party secretary in Pingba township of Guizhou province, took the decision to organise a direct election for township chief, the party secretary of the township cancelled the vote one day before the election and had Wei arrested and detained for two weeks. In some way, these experiments with democracy will determine the future shape of China’s polity.
A one-party dictatorship cannot co-exist with a parallel democracy without provoking conflict, as has been borne out by the numerous clashes between elected village chiefs and township heads with their corresponding party secretaries.
Nonetheless, Yu Weiliang remains optimistic. He cites Deng Xiaoping’s prediction that China would have general elections by 2050 and says: ‘‘Democracy is the inevitable direction of human civilisation. No one, not even the Communist Party can stop it and if it tries, it will destroy itself.’’
But given Beijing’s tough stand against pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, that led to mass demonstrations in 2004, its recent crackdown on intellectuals who have spoken out against the Party line and its continued censorship of the media, it appears that China’s one-party rule will continue for the foreseeable future.