Seeking a way to curb village officials' power
The remote northern county of Jiaoling has found itself in the spotlight thanks to an eye-catching social experiment.
The experiment goes something like this: instead of the traditional system of village congresses overseeing the work of local officials, a group of elders were selected as an ad-hoc supervisory body.
The elders, composed of respected local people, businessmen and retired cadres, were given the power to monitor performance of officials, publicise their decisions and scrutinise village finances.
The experiment aims to find out if this system, which borrows heavily from the Confucian approach to social order prevalent pre-1949, is more effective at reigning in the rampant corruption and poor decision-making at local level that higher authorities fear is giving all officialdom a bad name.
The experiment is being conducted by experts from Wuhan's Central China Normal University with support off the anti-corruption commission of Jiaoling county.
It is widely acknowledged that the system of village supervision is broken beyond repair. The system places far too much power in the hands of local officials, and there is little local people can do to restrain them. This has been one factor behind the growing number of petitioners and mass protests in recent years.
When approving the experiment, Jiaoling's anti-corruption commission conceded it was difficult for them to monitor village officials, as they lived too far away from administrative centres.
At the heart of the supervisory problem is the system of mass meetings known as the village congress.
'The village congress is just not practical,' said Xie Jianxiang head of Fanqin village where the experiment started.
The congress is a mechanism which, on paper, allows villagers to vote out corrupt chiefs. According to the Organic Law of Village Committees, members of the village committee can be recalled if more than half of the villagers vote against them.
But under the law it is the village committee that decides whether a congress is called, meaning village chiefs caught with their hands in the cookie jar never need face a vote.
What is more, even if officials were to call a meeting, the number of rural people working away from their villages means it is almost impossible to get the required 50 per cent of votes.
To start with, the experiment in Fanqin was seen as a success. It then spread to 30 villages in the county - and soon ran into problems.
In neighbouring Guangyu, the 'council of elders' was stacked with businessmen, and the village head said their primary purpose was to offer new ideas for village development. In affect, the 'elders' were consultants, not supervisors.
For villagers, the experiment has provided no new answer to the conundrum of who could police local officials. In fact, it just provided another group who needed policing.
'Former cadres and veteran party members must have a close relationship with current officials, so how can we be sure they are not covering up for their corrupt friends?' said a man in his 40s surnamed Wang who runs a transportation business in Jiaoling. 'And if the elders cannot get the job done, who is going to monitor them?'
The decision to allow the experiment to proceed is a sign that the government acknowledges a new approach is needed to supervision.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs said a new draft version of the Organic Law would soon be reviewed.
As party bigwigs mull the changes, one question will dominate: how much power to give to rural people to supervise village cadres?
Much-trumpeted attempts at introducing village-level democracy have quietly faded, and the current trend for 'centralism' means it is unlikely the government will make significant political or democratic concessions to rural people.
Until an experiment like the one in Jiaoling strikes gold, the petitions and protests look set to continue.