Home / News Type Content Tools: Save | Print | E-mail | Most Read | Comment
Self-Government in Rural Areas Well Underway: An Interview
Adjust font size:

November 4, 2003 marks the fifth anniversary of the enforcement of the Organic Law of Villagers' Committees. The Guangzhou-based Nanfang Weekend recently interviewed Zhan Chengfu, deputy director in charge of grass-roots government construction under the Ministry of Civil Affairs, on issues of the villagers' autonomy system and rural grass-roots democracy in China.

10 years of pilot implementation
Nanfang Weekend: November 4 marked the fifth anniversary of the enforcement of the Organic Law of Villagers' Committees, which has quite significantly promoted democracy at grass-roots level in China. What are the changes that the villagers' autonomy system has brought about?

Zhan Chengfu (abbreviated to Zhan): Villagers' autonomy has actually witnessed three phases in its development. It burgeoned around 1978 and gained much needed impetus as a provisional version of the law was implemented on June 1, 1988. The law was further amended and formally took effect from 1998.

Nanfang Weekend: Where did the buds of the system first appear?
Zhan: After the political-economic system of the people's commune was abolished and the "household contract responsibility system with remuneration linked to output" was adopted for rural economic administration in the late 1970s and early 1980s, rural families won their own decision-making power. In contrast, a system for public affairs administration was not yet in place in villages. Meanwhile, in some villages in Luocheng, Yishan County in southwest China's Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, something naive emerged: village people coordinated themselves to manage their public affairs such as fire prevention and guarding against theft. They put their thumbprints on documents of all kinds of village regulations and civil contracts, and groups of contractors gradually developed into village committees.
At that time, the Committee of Political and Legislative Affairs of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was in charge of civil affair departments at various levels in the country. The committee's then secretary Peng Zhen thought highly of the happenings in Luocheng and dispatched people to rural grassroots there and to other places to carry out investigations. Afterwards the investigators found that the villagers' self-government/help system in Luocheng adapted well to the "household contract responsibility system with remuneration linked to output". That is to say, this kind of civil management system matched the acting economic management system.
Nanfang Weekend: Then how did the then central authorities view the changes?
Zhan: After the investigations were finished in 1984, the then central authorities ordered the Ministry of Civil Affairs to take the lead in drafting Regulations on the Organization of Villagers' Committees. In view of this, unlike the situation in cities, rural reform featured concerted reform in both economics and politics from the very beginning. Later the authorities concerned thought that the emergence of villagers' committees involved changes in the organization of grassroots political power and thus relegated the instrument in the making to basic laws and advised to change its name to the Organic Law of Villagers' Committees.
The law was tabled to the National People's Congress (NPC), the top Chinese legislative body, in 1984 and was approved by it on November 23, 1987. There were four rounds of discussions -- one by an NPC plenary meeting and three others by the Standing Committee of the NPC.
Living long under, and accustomed to, the people's commune system, quite a few people found it at first hard to accept and even objected to the radical shift to self-government by peasants themselves. As a result the law was only promulgated in a "provisional" form nearly four years after its first draft, and its amended -- or present version was at last formally brought into effect on November 4, 1998. Ten years and five months elapsed from the law's pilot implementation on June 1, 1988 to its formal implementation in 1998.

Nanfang Weekend: What were the major problems the new system has brought about?

Zhan: Many cadres, especially those at the township level, previously had the power of appointing village cadres, and with the (Provisional) Organic Law of Villagers' Committees they no longer enjoyed that power. According to the law, they could only give unenforceable directions to official organizations at village level; and village officials "would listen to them if they thought the directions were right and would not if they thought them wrong."
The other major conflict arose after 1989 as some people blamed the law as a product of "bourgeois liberalization". They put a political label on the law whereas Peng Zhen insisted that the law was by no means a child of "bourgeois liberalization" but a result of following the mass line.
In October 1990, the National Symposium on Village Organization Building, the first of its kind in the history of the People's Republic of China, was convened in Laixi County, east China's Shandong Province. Song Ping, a top-level official of the Communist Party, made an important speech at the meeting. Soon afterwards the CPC Central Committee issued a writ ordering each county and city to select several villages as pilot sites experimenting with and accumulating experiences of the villagers' autonomy system. The decision ended the blurred understanding of the system after 1989 and put it in high gear.

Triumphant advance
Nanfang Weekend: Can we say that grass-roots democracy spontaneously burgeoned and grew from 1979 to 1988 and was artificially experimented with from 1988 to 1998?
Zhan: Yes, exactly. The former Party chief Jiang Zemin proposed "four democratics" in his report to the 15th National Party Congress in 1995, namely, democratic election, democratic decision-making, democratic administration and democratic supervision. China's rural democracy advanced greatly for a period of time following the 15th Party congress. There was a landmark event when he made an on-the-spot investigation of the villagers' autonomy system in Wuhe County, Anhui Province. Jiang Zemin said in a speech that the system was one of the "three great innovations" in rural China along with the "system of fixing output quotas on a household basis" and township enterprises.
Nanfang Weekend: Can you specify these advancements?
Zhan: On the one hand, the rural villagers' autonomy system won Party's backup as it was further listed as one of the new socialist goals at the third plenary meeting of the 15th CPC Central Committee. Furthermore, the Provisional Organic Law of Villagers' Committees became a regular law, which means any non-performance of it would be deemed as lawbreaking; on the other hand, the democratic quality improved.
In the past some voters scrawled on ballots, for example, drawing turtles or writing names of foreign presidents on them. This illustrated their disbelief in the elections. But villagers gradually realized the effects and benefits that ballots would bring soon after several elections. Many a villager working away from home as migrant laborers returned to cast votes and some of them even returned by charter flight.
In the meantime, bad things were happening: buying and selling of ballots, cases of farmers defrauded of ballots by opportunists through empty promises and offers of immediate effect. These farmers learned their lesson about what democracy is and how to realize it and how to improve the ability to be master of their own affairs. Farmers' attitude toward democracy has been ever changing: from ignorance to awareness, from clumsiness to adeptness, from passion to reason and from aloofness to attachment. This transformation is an ever-developing process and keeps on going.
Nanfang Weekend: Farmers must have been participating in democracy for their own sake. Do villages need to set up a new interest balancing mechanism after the people's commune as the "power of public right" retreats? (Meaning: Abolishing the people's commune system and establishing a new rural economic development mode.)
Zhan: Previously only the words of either the state or local authorities counted but a channel for ordinary people to confer or make decisions was never provided for. The villagers' autonomy system provided opportunities for farmers to train themselves in democracy. If an elected village head was afterwards found out to have deceived his supporters he would either be recalled or fail the next election. This is a mark of social progress. It's not necessary to go so far as to appeal to violence for social adjustment. This is the direction.

Some conflicts remain
Nanfang Weekend: We noticed that in recent years in some places the new rich have been eagerly running for positions as village heads. What is your comment on this?
Zhan: The motives behind the new rich's aspirations for village positions are various: some are thinking of gaining some advantage, some are thinking of bringing honor to their ancestors, some are thinking of pursuing higher ideals in lives and get more involved in affairs of public welfare after they have accumulated enough money. I would rather say it's quite normal for this to happen.
Nanfang Weekend: But in quite a few places scandals about bribery and organized crime intervention in elections have been heard. What in your mind is the most striking dissonance since the villagers' autonomy system was put in place?
Zhan: Candidates, voters and outside forces interact on one another during an entire election process and the major dissonance in recent years can be categorized in three corresponding groups:
First, work needs to be done to improve the voters themselves so as to build sound elections. There were cases where some voters upset elections at the end of ballot counting.
Second, candidates sought to win elections by foul means such as using bribes or introducing organized crime to realize self-interest. Villagers were able to see through them and better use their ballots after they received lessons on this.
Third, higher authorities at the township or county level sometimes interpose themselves. For example, those elected by village voters can only hold positions that have no real power, with the positions of actual power being held concurrently by officials at county government level. In addition, it's not uncommon that village officials elected by villagers get dismissed by higher authorities.
But the most serious conflicts happened between villagers' committees and village Party committees. Village heads and Party secretaries were often in dispute with each other about who should have the final word in decision-making, who should be entitled to approve expense account submissions, to hire low-ranking officials and to keep official seals. How to settle such disputes? How to reconcile the rule of law and the people's mastering in their own affairs with the principle of leadership by the Communist Party?
Now some places are experimenting with the so-called "dual-ballot system" and the system of "common recommendation and common election" to expand nominations and improve legitimacy of elections. In 2002 the CPC Central Committee issued its 14th writ of the year clearly indicating that nominees for village Party secretaries should be elected heads of villagers' committees beforehand in a bid to scale up a mass basis for grass-roots Party branches and organizations.
A timetable?
Nanfang Weekend: The outside world seemed to have given high praise to China's promotion of grass-roots democracy, but people also think we shouldn't limit democratic autonomy only to the village level but to expand it.
Zhan: In fact rural residents' enthusiasm in direct elections has run high since 1998 hoping that bigger steps are to be taken in the building of grass-roots democracy. In 1999 elections were pushed from the village level to the township level, for example, an experimental direct election was held in Buyun Township, Suining City, Sichuan Province. But relevant Chinese laws stipulate that elections for heads of counties and townships should be done by deputies to the people's congress at same level, so the practice was called off later.
A more pragmatic consideration is that experiences from villagers' autonomy won't fully apply to townships/towns because they are much larger than villages. One township/town on average has a population of over 100,000, which is a match for that of a small country. It's not surprising that villagers know everybody else in his/her own village. But they never know most of the residents in his/her town/township.
Both the election process and approach would have to face changes when the election moves from the village level to the town/township level. Candidates will have to hire staff, draw up guiding principles and raise funds for his/her election and so on. On the other hand, voters should be able to draw neutral information from multiple news sources. It will be a systematic project that needs to be coordinated by gradually promoted political reforms.
(China.org.cn by Chen Chao and Daragh Moller, December 16, 2003)

Tools: Save | Print | E-mail | Most Read
Pet Name
China Archives
Related >>
- Farmers' Zeal for Politics Grows
- Democratic Electoral Reform for Communities
- Assembly: Let Residents Rule
- Communal Elections to Help Promote Grass-roots Democracy
- Grassroots Communities Need More Than Just the Vote
Most Viewed >>
- World's longest sea-spanning bridge to open
- Yao out for season with stress fracture in left foot
- 141 seriously polluting products blacklisted
- China starts excavation for world's first 3G nuclear plant
- 'The China Riddle'
- Irresponsible remarks on Hu Jia case opposed 
- China, US agree to step up constructive,cooperative relations
- Factory fire kills 15, injures 3 in Shenzhen
- FIT World Congress: translators on track
- Christianity popular in Tang Dynasty

Product Directory
China Search
Country Search
Hot Buys