Ballot Box China
Ballot Box China
by Kerry Brown
In late 2008, a businessman and philanthropist named Wang Jinsheng announced his candidature in an election to become chief of his home village in Shanxi province against the corrupt Communist Party incumbent.
When he refused appeals, including from the police, to withdraw his candidacy for no legal reason, they arrested him for 10 days, including the date of the election, and the incumbent was chosen, despite receiving fewer votes than Wang.
This is one of many stories from Ballot Box China - Grassroots Democracy in the Final Major One-Party State by Kerry Brown, published by Zed Books in its Asian Arguments series.
Ballot Box China analyses the system the mainland introduced in 1988, to hold almost a million elections in 600,000 villages, and asks what is their wider significance for democracy in the country as a whole.
Ask most Chinese about village elections and they will smile and shrug their shoulders. 'Execute 100 officials and you may have killed one innocent person,' is a popular saying in Beijing about the people who rule them.
Brown's analysis does not disagree with this common opinion, that nothing can challenge the Communist Party's absolute grip on power and officials elected in the village must work with the party.
Brown says the government introduced elections 'to give some accountability and stability to governance' in the villages. They were also to fill the vacuum left by the abolition of communes after the Cultural Revolution, to attract new talent into the party and government, and to contract out some of the most unpopular measures, such as enforcing the one-child policy. But they were, and are, not intended as an experiment towards introducing popular voting more widely.
The best part is chapter four, The Great Debate, in which Brown summarises conversations during the summer of 2009 with academics, intellectuals, practitioners, officials and outsiders on village democracy. The chapter captures the variety and contradictions of views. 'Elected village committees reduce public expenditure. Income distribution also improves. They are better at looking at the poor. They invest more in education and public utilities,' said one Chinese professor, a strong supporter.
Another Chinese academic is against. 'Village elections have made things worse. Of course, foreign funding is ideologically driven ... Where has it led to? Some parts of the country are in complete chaos: run by thugs and conmen, all after their own gain. These elections do not fit into the pattern or traditions of rural life in China ... Letting the majority have the upper hand all the time just means pressure builds up and, one day, there will be an explosion.'
One foreign observer says that foreign financial assistance, from the EU, the Ford Foundation and the UN Development Programme, to the Ministry of Civil Affairs was important early on, creating a group of reform-minded officials. 'One of them was so important in the Ministry of Civil Affairs that he got the nickname 'Mr Democracy'. But ... in the early 2000s he was moved on and from that time the whole process lost a lot of its momentum.'
The book gives the reader an excellent exposition of the issue of rural democracy in China. But there is no indication Beijing will move it out of the villages into places of power and money; foreigners who keep telling it to do this are wasting their breath.