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Last Updated: Monday, 10 October 2005, 08:53 GMT 09:53 UK
China village democracy skin deep
By Tim Luard

China's tough handling of recent protests by villagers in Taishi, southern Guangdong province, has thrown into fresh doubt its claims to be introducing genuine democracy "from the bottom up".

A villager walks past a row of riot police at Taishi village, in southern China's Guangdong province Monday Sept. 12, 2005
The protests in Taishi have been closely watched

Direct elections of local officials by almost a million villages across the country have in recent years been widely welcomed as a possible first step towards a multi-party state.

They were seen as the single most important political change in a period when China has otherwise devoted itself almost entirely to economic development.

But the arrest of dozens of villagers and their legal advisers since the launch of a petition in July to dismiss the director of the Taishi village committee have gained nationwide attention, with many concluding that the government is no more serious about grassroots democracy than any other sort of political reform.

A popular web forum was closed down after it provided coverage and debate on the continuing confrontation between village residents - who accused Chen Jingshen of corruption involving a huge land deal - and regional officials and police who resisted their attempts to remove him and hold new elections.

The lawyer who helped the villagers with their claim has reportedly been arrested, and a political activist involved in the dispute reportedly beaten up.

"The Government responded in a violent and reckless way," said Hou Wenzhuo, director of the Empowerment and Rights Institute, a non-governmental activists' group in Beijing.

"At first they reluctantly allowed the petition. But then up to 1,000 police raided the village and acted like gangsters, using water hoses on the farmers and arresting 48 local inhabitants, including old women."

A group of elderly Chinese villagers stage a sit in at the local government accounting office, at the village of Taishi, in southern China's Guangdong province 12 September 2005
Elderly citizens in Taishi tried to guard the village accounts book

Police also seized the village accounts book which the protesters wanted to retain as evidence of embezzlement. Some of those held have since been released, but only, it seems, after agreeing to withdraw their demands for a fresh election, Ms Hou told the BBC News website.

The government had previously allowed 'election recalls' - the replacement of unpopular village officials - in many other cases where there were sufficient grounds for such a move and a suitable majority in favour, she said.

"But ever since last year there has been a big move backwards. Lots of non-Party members were being elected and the Communist Party felt threatened," she said.

Ms Hou believes this has led to a major change of official policy, with provincial governments now being told that non-Party members should not be encouraged to participate in village elections, and that Party committees should ultimately control the elected village committees.

Grassroots democracy

The government began direct village elections in 1988, soon after the dismantling of the collectivist commune system.

Students mark their voting papers at a polling station in Beijing Wednesday Dec. 10, 2003.
Local elections have increased but may be limited in their influence

Every village in China - homes to some 600 million voters - is now required to hold direct elections every three years for a new village committee, with powers to decide on such vital issues as land and property rights.

The immediate aim of this scheme was to relieve tensions and help maintain social and political order at a time of unprecedented economic reform.

That need has become more urgent than ever in the past few years, as protests and other outbreaks of social unrest have been reported in thousands of villages across China. Disputes over land grabs by officials are the most common cause.

Village elections have been growing more competitive and the use of the secret ballot is not uncommon, according to Robert Benewick, a research professor at the University of Sussex University who has studied the subject closely.

"Where villagers have suffered - or at least have perceived there to be - abuses of power and mismanagement of resources, they have not hesitated in voting established and Party leaders out of office," Mr Benewick said.

But whether the elections are genuinely democratic, or are likely to lead to a higher level of democracy, is open to debate.

Some say they are often rigged, with Communist Party officials tending to retain real power at all levels, despite the trappings of democratic safeguards.

The experience being gained, however, by China's government and most of its people in organising and taking part in elections could be of huge benefit, according to Yawei Liu, who has been involved in a project by the Carter Centre in the United States to monitor China's experiment with village democracy.

"This will become the single most valuable asset in China's quest for democracy," Yawei Liu said.

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping was quoted in 1987 as saying there would be national elections in 50 years - by 2037.

Why, ask some more cynical observers, is China starting with its poorest people, when its usual excuse for not introducing democracy is that most Chinese are still too backward and uneducated for elections?

And just last month, the current Premier, Wen Jiabao, suggested to visiting British Prime Minister Tony Blair that the village elections would be extended to the next level - township administrations - in the next few years.

But few if, any countries, have succeeded in introducing meaningful democracy from the bottom up.

And why, ask some more cynical observers, is China starting with its poorest people, when its usual excuse for not introducing democracy is that most Chinese are still too backward and uneducated for elections?

Others point out that it may not matter much anyway since villages are becoming less important at a time when vast numbers of Chinese are moving to the cities.

What China really needs is political reform at higher levels, in the view of Ying Shang, a post-graduate researcher at Harvard University.

"Village officials striving for re-election can violate the law without fear," he said.

"This means that the election procedure on its own is vulnerable, and must be supported by new institutions - in particular, an independent law enforcement system," he said.

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