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Grass-roots Election Season Faces Problems

Residents of thousands of Chinese villages are about to go to the polls to elect their local committees, but officials and experts say there are some gaping loopholes in the law governing villagers' committees.

For more than half of the country's rural areas, where the village autonomy system has been in place for almost two decades, this is an election year.

Rural people in more than 300,000 villages across 18 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions, including Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui, will elect new village committees beginning this month.

In 1998, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress (NPC) ratified the final version of the Organic Law of Villagers' Committees, which had been in pilot enforcement since 1988.

The law grants villagers the right to directly elect their local committees, which are responsible for village management and administration. It sets out basic principles of democracy at the local level, and states that any villager aged 18 years or over has the right to vote and stand as a candidate.

Committees may have from three to seven members, but in practice most have five. Members are elected every three years by qualified villagers, with election results announced immediately after balloting.

The Ministry of Civil Affairs reports that most of the 680,000 villages in China have adopted a direct election system.

Twenty-six provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions have laid out their own election statutes, and 27 have completed five rounds of elections since 1988.

"But 20 years of practice has shown there are a lot of loopholes in the law," said Wang Jinghua, a senior official from the Ministry of Civil Affairs.

Topping the list of concerns is bribery.

The cause of the problem is the lack of a clear legal definition of bribery and the absence of enforcement provisions, according to Wang.

Bribery is rife in many poverty-stricken areas, according to Ji Jianqiang, Party secretary of Shuangbei Village in Shuanggou County, central China's Hubei Province.

In some villages, candidates are even directly appointed by higher authorities at the county level, according to some experts. Yet the only way villagers can report infringements of their rights is to lodge complaints with the higher authorities.

Early this year, the civil affairs ministry released a circular emphasizing the difference between bribery and "general public relations."

But Professor Shi Weimin of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences pointed out that the circular is still deficient in terms of dealing with specific cases because "there are huge differences from village to village in terms of customs." 

Some experts say the recent moves to rescind or reduce the agricultural tax could help solve the problem of bribery as the financial power of village officials has to some extent been weakened.

But Shi disagrees, arguing that the authority to distribute land and allocate project funds is still a source of substantial power.

Another problem lies in the voter registration system, which has been put under pressure by widespread rural emigration in recent years.

"Poor villages find it hard to summon voters working far away while rich villages worry about whether migrants qualify as voters," Wang said.

The ministry has suggested that the NPC, China's legislature, begin drafting a revised version of the law this year.

"Although a lot of problems need to be addressed, the basic task is to clarify the relationship between the village committee and the Party branch, in which I think the latter should play the role of regulator while the former must run village affairs," Shi said.

China has no specific national law regulating village committee elections.

(China Daily March 21, 2005)

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