Urban elections to go national
The mainland plans to make its experiment of direct elections of urban neighbourhood committees a nationwide practice, but officials say they face political indifference from voters.
In 1999, an experiment was launched to increase grassroots democracy by allowing 26 districts in more-developed cities to directly elect neighbourhood committees.
Under the scheme, the 26 urban districts reorganised their existing neighbourhood committees, which typically encompassed 700 to 1,000 households, into 2,000-5,000 household 'community neighbourhood committees'.
Some committees, including a county in Nanning, Guangxi, used the opportunity to pick eight neighbourhood committees through elections.
In July last year those 26 districts were encouraged to take on a one-year experiment to promote local democracy in other districts, and more committees carried out direct elections.
Officials reviewing the reform have gathered information from 180 urban districts, which claimed success in the scheme.
An official of the Civil Affairs Ministry said 100 areas which had achieved 'model district' status would be selected to be promoted throughout the country to display how elected neighbourhood committees had improved people's livelihood.
On June 13, the People's Daily devoted a whole page to describing the success of the directly elected neighbourhood committees in Nanning.
The neighbourhood committee reform was part of Beijing's plans to ease social problems in urban areas, hoping grassroots grievances and instability could be tackled as early as possible at the lowest level of government.
Officials said the government was determined to expand the programme but faced difficulties.
'Many potential candidates told us they were reluctant to take part because the neighbourhood committees do not have much power but have to deal with a lot of nitty-gritty stuff like ensuring local sanitation standards, carrying out birth control measures and monitoring any suspicious activities,' an official of the ministry's urban division said.
In cities, the work units still dominate people's lives in areas including welfare, health care and education, making elections harder to promote.
'The concept of community is still immature in China,' said the official, who added that direct elections in rural villages were easier to promote because the interests of farmers rested with village committees. Village elections are held nationwide.
Despite encouragement from authorities and the drive to pick a higher calibre of candidates on the committees, officials said some provincial governments were not willing to invest time and money to promote the reform.
'In some places, competition among candidates in neighbourhood committee elections seems intense but it is more a competition for paid jobs, as committee members receive up to 1,000 yuan a month, rather than a keenness for public service,' the official said.