CHINA: Is Democracy Stirring in China?
Elizabeth Dugan

The following is an excerpt of a speech to the Young Professionals for International Cooperation, of the United Nations Association-National Capital Area, by Elizabeth Dugan, Vice President of the International Republican Institute, in Washington, D.C. on June 29, 2005.

The International Republican Institute (IRI) began working in China in 1993, and for more than a decade now, the Institute has conducted programs there to encourage legislative, legal and electoral reform. For an organization dedicated to helping build democracies in places like Ukraine, Uganda, Morocco and Mexico, our longstanding program in China is not just unique in its nature, it is innovative in its approach. In most countries where IRI works, our programs are focused on strengthening democratic institutions. In China, IRI is trying to encourage structural political reform. Improving China`s village elections is a large part of that effort.

In 1994, IRI was the first international organization to observe an election for rural village committee in Fujian Province. Since then, Institute delegations have observed scores of these local elections all across China. In 2002, we became the first to observe experimental urban elections in Guangxi Province.

When the National People’s Congress passed a national election law requiring provinces to administer direct elections for village committees throughout China in 1998, IRI began working in several provinces to train newly elected village committee leaders, and subsequently assisted provincial officials with the drafting of regulations on how to implement the new election law.

Today, IRI continues this work despite the challenges. Benefits are being realized, albeit at a slow pace. As we have seen in many places throughout history, now that these Chinese villagers have experienced something of democracy, they are beginning to demand more.

Village elections were being conducted, on an experimental basis, for at least a decade before the 1998 law, with the imprimatur of the Communist Party. It is often considered that the rationale for the creation of the law, seemingly a true step toward democracy, was in fact  to create a release valve to prevent political pressures from exploding.

It may be obvious that the ruling party in a one-party state isn’t apt to do things that it doesn’t believe are in its own interests. For that reason, many have argued that village elections are controlled by the Party and little more than window dressing.

But there is evidence of a gap between the thinking in Beijing and events in the countryside. In some places, as villagers have voted for change, officials have responded by thwarting the ability of newly elected village officials to carry out their duties -- denying them access to bank accounts, financial records or official seals. An article in The New York Times in April 2002 describes the story of 57 village chairmen in Shandong Province who resigned their posts in protest over corruption and
nepotism by county and township officials, only to discover that their pleas for help fell on deaf ears in the provincial capital and in Beijing.

Fast forward some three years to find a story in last week’s Washington Post that recounts the efforts of a small group of farmers in a village outside Jinan to regain land lost to them in the 1990s. Their allegations against the perpetrator –- the Communist Party secretary –- include vote buying in the most recent election.

The would-be sole player in these dramas is the Communist Party, and the oft-heard criticism of China`s village elections is that the guise of local democracy serves only to solidify the party`s control over rural society. But the fact remains that elections have now been held in most Chinese villages –- nearly a million –- and peasants have found themselves empowered to organize, criticize authorities and in some cases even dismiss corrupt or incompetent leaders.

The two news stories perhaps don`t surprise many observers, but they do beg some critical questions: Is Beijing`s attempt to avert political eruption by fostering grassroots electoral democracy actually feeding the fire of popular dissent? The exercise of voting by Chinese villagers may have originally been conceived as harmless and non-threatening by the central government.

But are village elections now having the unintended consequence of giving rise to a new kind of rural citizen –- one who is increasingly aware of his legal rights, accustomed to democratic participation and unwilling to be bullied by arbitrary and illegitimate authorities?

This desire for democracy is now beginning to spread to urban ommunities. Cities in China are holding elections for residents committees using laws that are based on and almost identical to the 1998 Village Committee Organic Law. Direct popular elections with such procedures as open nominations, secret ballots, more candidates than posts, and open vote tallying now exist not only in rural villages, but in urban areas as well, and this is a significant step forward.

There are important things to bear in mind at the same time: China is a huge and extremely diverse place, which makes it difficult to draw overall conclusions about where all the elections are heading.

Elections in some parts of China approach `free and fair` while in others they are weak. A lot depends on local conditions -- the quality of local officials and their approach to solving local problems for example.

The Chinese government is also fond of suggesting that China isn`t ready for democracy, claiming the country is too big, too rural, its people too poor and too uneducated.

And yet, in some of the very poorest parts of China, people are electing their own leaders and they’re doing it successfully. This I have seen with my own eyes.

What can we conclude? A phenomenon that started in the countryside is moving to the cities and to higher levels. It is moving in small, experimental ways, but the seed has been planted. That is why it’s necessary to look at these grassroots elections as building blocks. They have introduced the element of free choice into the political process. It is a slim portion of the process, to be sure, but in order to drive a wedge, one only needs the slightest crack. The whole concept of an election starts the cycle of choice. Chinese people today are enjoying a remarkable degree of freedom of choice in their personal and economic lives, and they are increasingly looking for channels to express their choices in the political sphere as well.

The Chinese government may have endorsed village elections as a way to release some steam, but the state is not always able to dictate the results and the people`s demands for greater accountability are not always so easy to control. The Party may crave the rule of law for economic and stability reasons, but at the same time it wants to exempt itself from the rule of law in order to maintain its own monopoly on political power. Ultimately this contradiction is unsustainable.

There are two important reasons to remain focused on electoral reform.

First, rural village elections are the only legitimate `training ground` for democracy within China and the only direct elections currently in practice throughout the country.

Dissidents may be routinely jailed for their courageous activities, but the elections have been ongoing in an official capacity for more than 15 years. The experience villagers and officials gain through credible village committee elections could prove invaluable when direct elections are enshrined at the township and county levels.

Second, we at IRI believe that although direct elections will not necessarily mend the relationship between party cadres and villagers, they can redefine that relationship.

There is much talk recently about the need for the Chinese system to develop into a “Public Service Oriented Government.” We believe that direct elections are the most efficient manner of ensuring that public officials are responsive to the needs and interests of their constituents. And we believe that elected leaders will use their popular mandate to enact policies that will be beneficial to the citizens who elected them.

There is widespread recognition within China that the Chinese system needs to reform itself in order to better represent the rights and interests of its people and give them legitimate channels to express themselves. It is too early to tell what form of democracy will emerge from this process of experimentation currently under way –- no reform process is inevitable or pre-ordained. But the Chinese people are increasingly fed up with abuse of power, and as the villagers outside of Jinan showed last week, they are willing to demand and fight for change.

That more than anything suggests potential `stirrings for democracy` in China. The need for change is there. The pressure to change is there. What is missing is the will of the Chinese government to change.

Elizabeth Dugan is the Vice President of the International Republican Institute