Jailings highlight local resistance to political reforms, says scholar

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 06 February, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 06 February, 2003, 12:00am

The jailing of the two village chiefs for 'attacking state institutions' highlights the resistance that the central leadership faces in its push for grassroots democracy, a US-based scholar says.

Shi Tianjian, an associate professor of political science at Duke University in North Carolina, said the jailing of Xia Peiliang and Qiu Guojun followed a 'repeated pattern'.

'While the local government illegally imprisoned Xia [and Mr Qiu], the central government later had to get involved to protect people's interests,' he said.

Professor Shi said a central government decree that rural residents be allowed to elect their own leaders was seen as a threat by local township officials, who felt their positions and interests were being undermined.

The central government introduced pilot schemes for direct elections in several villages in the mid-1990s. Since 1998 the elections have gradually spread to all 730,000 villages across the country.

Professor Shi believes some reform-minded central government officials are sincere about introducing democracy.

He said the jailing of Mr Xia reflected the ongoing struggle between reformists in the central government and conservative local government officials.

Last month Communist Party General-Secretary Hu Jintao issued an appeal for new measures to help the underprivileged. A sweeping propaganda campaign is now underway in an attempt to win over rural residents who feel they are being overlooked in favour of their urban counterparts.

However, Profesor Shi said reforming the rural political system was the most effective way of pleasing the people.

The central government is now expanding direct elections to some select urban areas, which will allow residents of cities such as Shanghai, Nanjing and Hangzhou to elect local community representatives.

In the meantime, the central government is also initiating more pilot schemes aimed at expanding direct elections to the township level.

But Professor Shi believes it will be a long time before further democratic initiatives are introduced to rural regions.