Chinese Village Democracy

The Organic law on Village Elections was passed by the national People's Congress in China in December 1987. Western and Chinese observers and specialists in political science or sociology still debate over the reasons the Chinese government had when adopting such a solution that was supposed to sustain democracy in the rural life in China as an established fact. A closer look at the various aspects of life in the villages throughout the country previous to the implementation of the Organic law will show some of the reasons that might have determined the regime to adopt such measures against its deepest convictions, according the socialist ideology. According to some observers, like Anne F. Thurston the process of reducing the collective farming till it was completely wiped out of the rural map of China, started in the mid seventies, provided the conditions for a void of power that increased the potential of chaos. The villages were susceptible of falling in the wrong hands of opportunists, usually people interested only in their own well fare and that of their close circles, so called cliques.

Consequently, the Chinese government might have adopted the Organic Law that was destined to reform the economic and social life in the rural areas by allowing the villagers to elect their village leaders directly in open, free, fair elections, in order to reestablish order, regain control and find new resources to successfully implement the state policies, such as taxation, birth control and other unpopular policies. According to the new law, the Villagers Committees were to be directly elected by the villagers and be separate entities from the Township Government. Until 1990, the law was poorly implemented, especially that the Tiananmen events delayed such manifestations of any measures destines to reinforce democracy by its two powerful aspects: distinction between the state and the society and the right to self-governance. The huge economic changes in China during the last two decades produced important changes at the level of society and inevitably the forming of social groups with different interests that incline the balance toward a pluralistic society. The degree of separation between society and the state proposed by many Chinese scholars towards the late 1980s was put in practice in the form of grassroots politics in the 800.000 villages in China in the early 1990s and there are significant indicators that it will take the reform up to the next level of the city life..

The degree of success or failure of the organic law in terms of teaching the democracy to the peasants, as some prominent personalities of the regime hoped its implementation in the Cines countryside would mean, is yet to be determined. According to numerous surveys, studies, papers, articles, case studies and books of Chinese and Western scientists, specialists in politics, sociology and anthropology that have researched the real aspects of self-governing in the Chinese villages after the implementation of the Organic law, its effects were significant and not to be underestimated in the light of political reform. According to Yijiang Ding, at the beginning of the 1980s, the regime that had among its leaders Deng Xiaoping, Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang acted in the spirit of a reform, attacking the principle of centralism. Ding sees the change in views when it came to socialist ideology determined by the shift in the functions of the state. The state's interests that were equivalent to those of the society, were directed, according to the Leninist doctrine, to fighting the enemy class. Once the regime officially declared that there was no enemy class left to fight, its main role had to change. The ideological debates among scholars were accompanied by the economic reform started in the 1979. The state began to work more towards the management of society's affairs and less in the spirit of dictatorship. The economic changes brought by the gradual withdrawal of the state from the economic life were also manifested in the rural economy. Before the early 1980s, every decision in the village life was taken by the centre. The villagers were allowed to seed only what the leadership decided it was best for them at some point, regardless that those leaders were not even aware of the climatic conditions and the real necessities down in the fields. Once the economic reform started, the decision making was left in the hands of those who were implicated in the village life, closer to peasants and their real needs. According to Ding, "a realm of social and economic life that is not directly controlled by the state has developed, which in turn has created conditions for the development of autonomous grassroots communities and horizontal social groupings." (Ding, pag 12).

The complexity of social life in the rural areas of China is huge. After having merged into bigger villages, there were approximately 800.000 villages with an average of 1000 people, by the late 1980s. The implementation of the Organic law for the village self-government varies greatly from one region to another and even from one village to another.

According to the surveys conducted by John James Kennedy in 34 villages, in the Shaanxi Province of China, between October and November 2000, in the villages reporting to have had democratic elections, according the law, the degree of villagers' satisfaction with the results of the election process depended first of all on the methods used to nominate candidates. Kennedy indicated three methods of selecting the candidates for the available positions: by direct nominations of the villagers, nominations made by the party local representatives and nominations made by the township government.(Kennedy, 2001, pag 465). The percent of farmers who reported having had candidates nominated by the first method described was the largest: 35. It was followed by 21%that reported having had to vote among candidates selected by the party locals and 26% of those questioned reported having had candidates appointed by the township government. (Kennedy, 2001, pag 466). Among the conclusions Kennedy reached after the survey, based on the fact that "the most open the nomination process, the higher the level of uncertainty," the results showed that the amount of satisfaction regarding the election process was directly dependent on the degree of openness of the elections. This indicates a certain degree of political awareness. Kennedy's conclusion, after having conducted a complex survey that linked the political process of choosing a village leader and the villagers' Committee to variables like economic development, party membership, presence of clans in a village, land ownership, types of land etc., was that: "villagers in this sample display a high level of voter sophistication. They can identify the difference between real and cosmetic elections. Moreover, villagers are able to separate economic factors from political institutions and evaluate each on their own merits."(Kennedy, 2001, p 482) Kennedy's findings support that the experiment the Chinese regime started in the late 1980s tends to rich one of its declared goals, namely the process of teaching the peasants the lesson of democracy.

On the other hand, some skeptics argue that the democracy in the Chinese village is far from being on the right way to its accomplishment since the data is still based on researches and studies that are restricted to a few small areas in the Cines countryside and respondents are often offering contradictory answers. Jens Kolhammar is writing in his case study Democracy Outmanoeuvred: Village Self-governance in China about the numerous facts that make the implementation of the Organic law of Villages Committees first passed by the end of 1987 and then revised after a decade to be far from taking democracy on a superior level. Conclusions that China is on a path towards changing its system on a national scale, starting with its almost one billion farmers are put under the magnifying glasses of studies conducted in areas where the grassroots politics are malfunctioning or not functioning at all. Kolhammar indicated a survey among 8,302 peasants, conducted by O'Brien and Li that showed how almost a half of the respondents expressed disbelief in the fairness of the electoral methods used in their villages. The author of the article published this year on the China Elections & Governance Website writes in conclusion that: "the village election reform is lacking in many areas and that many rural dwellers are losing faith in the reform.[7] Consequently, the quality of the village elections is not certain and it seems that much effort is needed before all the villages in the Chinese countryside have genuine self-governance."(Kolhammer, 2008)

Kolhammer's main concern when it came to the role of the Organic law in spreading grassroots democracy all over the country consisted in the degree of knowledge of the "actual rights"(Kolhammer, 2008) they, as electors had, according to this law. This logic seems similar to those analyzing the degree of manipulation in the spiritual leaders of a community who take advantage of the high percentage of illiterates who cannot read the holy books and thus can be easily manipulated in believing anything the religious…