Chinese democracy: the neglected story

The evolution of new forms of governance in rural China is an important if often hidden part of the country’s major transition, says Kerry Brown.
Kerry Brown
6 April 2011

The Chinese government continues to react uneasily to the spread of news about the waves of popular protests and near-revolution in north Africa and the middle east. This meant that the usual nervousness around the convening of a major meeting in Beijing was even more in evidence during the annual meeting in March 2011 of China’s parliament, the national people’s congress (NPC).

Teng Biao of Beijing University and other academic lawyers were detained without explanation; more controls were imposed on websites, with any news of potential demonstrations that could be interpreted as echoing events in the middle east quickly blocked; foreign journalists trying to cover some of the small protests that have broken out within China were manhandled, and in one case badly beaten.

The current Beijing leadership's term in office is approaching its end. In 2012, the eighteenth congress of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) will ratify the choice of the elite whichreplace Hu Jintao (president) and Wen Jiabao (prime minister) and govern for the next five years. What is striking is that during the Hu-Wen years it seems that things have become more, not less, repressive (see Li Datong, "China: democracy in action", 19 March 2009).

China has in the last decade grown both richer and far less at ease with itself. The country’s wealth has not made its governing elite feel secure with even the mildest forms of public protest. Local officials in particular react vigorously to the possibility of petitioners ending up in Beijing, humiliating them in front of more senior leaders by pressing for their cases to be resolved. At some places and times, the “countryside” in China is far from a place of tranquillity and natural peace. It is instead tough, rough, and frightening (see "China: inside strain, outside spleen", 25 March 2010).

This year’s NPC heard the politburo’s seemingly most liberal voice, Wen Jiabao, talk with almost staged precision - both in his government work report and press conference afterwards - of the need for deeper and quicker political reform. He had made almost exactly similar remarks in 2010. A few days before, however, a fellow politburo member, Wu Bangguo, had offered a very different political prospect. Wu spoke of the need to resist political reform, refuse any talk of multi-party democracy, and preserve stability at all costs. The fact that he is one of the body’s most conservative figures, and in fact senior to Wen, indicates the extent of the ideological fissures at the top of the party.

The electoral test

Yet it may be precisely because of these divisions that one of the bolder political experiments of the last thirty years, village elections, has stayed relatively static. Elections in which there was a choice of candidate, and secret ballots, have been held since the mid-1980s in China. A formal law in 1988 allowed for their expansion, and the final law in 1998 prescribed their role for the rest of the country. The experiment has not been a complete success: one activist I interviewed in summer 2009, recalling a celebration the previous year of the tenth year of countrywide village elections, said it felt more like a funeral than a party.

In the late Jiang Zemin era, there had been hopes that village elections were about to be extended up to the next level of government, towns. A few townships in developed areas, and in the western region of Sichuan, held open elections. Much like with village ones, there was no question of these involving multi-party candidates. But there was at least an awareness that these elections might improve the governance of particular areas by holding officials accountable, and giving the public some say in their removal if they proved no good.

After all, at its earliest inception the belief was that village democracy would help deliver more credibility and stable governance to parts of the country that had suffered near-anarchy during the cultural revolution from 1966. It then proved a means for officials elected by public ballot to acquire a certain mandate in collecting unpopular taxes and imposing unpopular measures like the “one China” policy.

But elections did not extend to townships, and the few that had occurred were halted a year or so after Hu Jintao replaced Jiang Zemin. For Hu, the main objective was for the party to deliver accountability to itself through the mysterious concept of “intra-party democracy”. But there is widespread scepticism that the Communist Party can be its own policeman; and in 2010, talk started again of the more developed areas on the coast in particular introducing elections for mayors, and even for party positions.

So far, nothing has happened. That is probably because, as one commentator in China told me in 2010, to introduce democracy this high up in the governance system would have serious ideological implications, and would be vigorously opposed by the more conservative elements of the elite. Wu Bangguo's comments reveal the persistent deep unease over even the role of the non-state sector in China’s economy. Any move to introduce popular mandates for town leaders would risk this spreading up to the provincial level, and then to the central government itself.

The impact in turn of such a process on the CCP's monopoly on power would be profound. In the current environment there is no figure in the party’s leadership, not even Wen, ready to promote a policy that might have an unpredictable outcome. So for the moment, the status quo reigns (see "Victory in miniature", Economist, 22 March 2011).

The political risk

The repression of the last few months is on the surface disheartening. But it does also show this is a society undergoing huge growing-pains, but very much in a major transition. Things can’t stay as they are forever. Some kind of accountability and mandate needs to be available for local, and national, officials. Lawyers have an increasingly important role in Chinese society, and jailing the ones that deal with sensitive cases is as much an admission of panic and defeat as anything else.

Village elections might be interrupted, but they still play a big role in the way that the Beijing government brokers governance deals with perhaps the most difficult sector of the population - farmers. Moreover, at least half of these elections have been successfully conducted even amid massive restraints, which gives pause to those who continue to say that China is a society without any potential for or tradition of democracy.

Most media attention continues to be on the elite leaders in Beijing, and their condoning of the attacks on civil-society leaders and legal activists. But this leaves the real story out of sight - in the vast swathes of rural China, where the impact of high growth has been divisive, uneven and in many places destabilising. The economic battlefront more often than not remains the Chinese cities, but the political one remains as it was in the Maoist period - the countryside. Here, the need to develop forms of governance that move away from coercion and repression towards consent is one of the biggest challenges facing Beijing’s governing elite.

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