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Village Elections A Sign of Progress

By Robert Pastor

This article appeared in the March 30, 1997, edition of The Atlanta Journal and Constitution.

China's first challenge is to standardize procedures and guarantee the secret ballot throughout the country.Reports of China's attempts to influence U.S. elections, imprison political dissidents, harass Taiwan and increase arms spending have led some Americans to perceive China's spectacular economic growth - about 10 percent a year for the last 20 years - as ominous.

But that view misses a far more complex China, parts of which offer some grounds for encouragement to those concerned about the rights and opportunities of one-quarter of mankind. Not only has growth lifted the overall economy, it also has significantly enhanced living standards and expanded some freedoms of the vast majority of Chinese. And China, with little attention has been conducting an experiment in free elections at the local level.

A decade ago, the Chinese National People's Congress (NPC) passed a law calling for direct elections in the country's rural villages, where 900 million people live. Among the few who are aware of the law, there are markedly different views as to its import. In the United States, some view Chinese village elections as a sham aimed at deluding the West into thinking that the country is becoming democratic, when in fact the Communist Party is in complete control.

Others see elections as a dramatic step forward on the road to democracy.

In China, some leaders see village elections as a way to relieve tensions in rural areas and encourage new leadership and greater self-reliance. To others, they are a dangerous precedent that could undermine the party and lead to instability.

Having just led a seven-member international Carter Center delegation to observe the elections, I'd offer some different conclusions: The elections are not a sham, nor will they inevitability lead to national democracy. The elections are a positive development in themselves. Whether free elections move up the administrative ladder to county, provincial and national government will depend on decisions not yet made by the Chinese leadership.

Measured against the standards of industrialized, consolidated democracies, China falls short. But if one judges from a perspective of China's 5,000 year history, village elections signify remarkable progress.

Village elections are the consequence of economic reforms begun two decades ago by the late Deng Xiaoping. He liberated the peasants to work their own land, and the communes collapsed. After heated debate, Beijing decided to replace them with village committees, composed of a Chairman and two to six assembly members.

This goal was written into the Constitution of 1982, and five years later, the NPC passed a law on village elections that required a secret ballot and other critical procedures that made possible a meaningful election. The Ministry of Civil Affairs now organizes elections in about 1 million villages, where 75 percent of China's people live.

Although China is beginning to be seen as a superpower, its rural areas reflect a very poor, developing country that is struggling to emerge from the feudal ages. But in the past five years, economic reforms have permitted a doubling in per capita income. People have more food. Many have electricity and some have televisions. They are more independent and entrepreneurial, and the election process reflects this new spirit.

Before the villagers vote, the candidates present their backgrounds and programs briefly. Each candidate begins: "If elected, I will," and then he or she offers concrete proposals -- for example, build roads, clean the environment, irrigate the fields, invite foreigners to develop high-yield seeds and joint ventures.

The data on recent elections suggest that villagers are quite ready to replace leaders who do not perform. In half of the villages we visited, the incumbents lost the primary or the final election. The principle of accountability is developing roots. Leaders are not just talking to the voters; they are also listening.

Party membership is hardly a guarantee of election. About 40 percent of newly elected village chairs are not Communist party members. In one village, a young businessman was a candidate for the village chair, and he sat wedged uncomfortably between two party members - one was his rival and the other was party secretary. When I asked him whether he felt at a disadvantage because he was not a member of the party, the young man sat silent for a very long 30 seconds. Then, calmly, he said: "I believe the masses will support me." And they did.

There are three reasons why the elections are important.

  • First, the basic norms of a democratic process are now law - secret ballot, direct elections, multiple candidates for each position, a public vote count, a three-year term.
  • Second, as each village repeats the process, China widens and deepens its technical capacity to hold elections. This matters because technical problems in an election - for example in Haiti in 1990 and Guyana in 1992 - are often interpreted as politically-motivated and can lead to violence. In contrast, a well-conducted election permits peaceful change with stability.
  • Third, the Ministry of Civil Affairs acknowledges that nearly half the villages still fall short of the norms, but it is committed to implementing the law throughout the country. Significantly, it has invited The Carter Center and other groups to exchange views on the best way to have fair elections.

China's first challenge is to standardize procedures and guarantee the secret ballot throughout the country. If China succeeds, and if you omit India, then about as many Chinese could cast their ballots in meaningful elections as vote in all the democracies of the world put together.

In considering the long-term implications of village elections, it is worth recalling that truly significant changes in China have often started in the countryside. In that context, first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton had a point that touches China when she wrote that "it takes a village."

Robert Pastor is a Professor of Political Science at Emory University and a Fellow at The Carter Center in Atlanta. He has organized international missions to monitor 17 elections in 12 countries.

Monitoring Election The Carter Center delegation observes Village Elections in China March 4-16, 1997. ( Photo Credit: The Carter Center)
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