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Grassroots Democracy in China

Critical assessments of grassroots democracy in rural China are hard to make: have the reforms that have been undertaken created a genuine democracy that represents a significant step toward participatory government? If so, can they be implemented beyond the village level? Where does China's Communist government fit in? What role will elected village leaders play in the future?

In 1987, the Chinese government quietly launched a program of self-governance at the village level. Originally intended as a means to liberalize agriculture and stimulate economic growth by allowing villagers to freely decide what they would produce, reform-minded officials of the Ministry of Civil Affairs soon introduced local elections that allowed rural farmers to elect local leaders. Gradually, local elections spread to nearly every village and a simple decentralized system of checks and balances between the village committee chief and the village assembly was established. Rural farmers found themselves empowered to organize themselves, criticize some authorities and even dismiss their village chief.

However, democratization has been a local phenomenon limited to the village level. As a country, China remains an authoritarian regime and decision-making is highly centralized. Nonetheless, the emergence of grassroots democracy transformed village power structures by returning political power to the will of the people. As local elections and the right to freely nominate candidates becomes increasingly institutionalized, the centralized power structure of the Party will be slowly eroded by the people's growing desire for self-determination. True to its name, grassroots democracy has planted the seeds for future change.

Certainly, this scenario is at odds with the Chinese Communist Party. In recent years, the Party made determined efforts to weaken village democracy while preserving the fiscal benefits of rural economic liberalization. One strategy for neutralizing local politics can be seen in Party attempts to exert greater influence through the installation of Party officials as heads of village committees. A second method has been to actively interfere and encroach upon village government affairs through higher-level township officials. Such strategies complicate rural politics by producing a highly contentious dual power structure that pits party secretaries and village committee chiefs against one another.