China is revising rural election laws to protect the democratic rights of farmers and promote village democracy in the country's vast countryside.
"Democratic management" is listed as one of the requirements of building a new socialist countryside as stated in the 11th Five-Year Guidelines (2006-2010). Delivering his government work report on March 5, Premier Wen Jiabao said: "Building a new socialist countryside must respect the will of Chinese farmers and strengthen democracy at a basic level."
"Democracy at a basic level was established two decades ago and the democratic awareness of farmers has been growing ever since," said Wang Jinhua, director of rural affairs for the Ministry of Civil Affairs.
However, he acknowledged that in some villages, there are cases of vote-buying and official manipulation in village elections. But there are no available regulations to which villagers can refer to seek redress.
There has been a spate of civil unrest in the countryside in recent years, most of which are triggered by land requisitions. Wang said this is mainly because of a lack of policies regulating the matter and mismanagement by rural officials.
Comparing the development of China's grassroots democracy to teaching a child to walk, Wang said: "It is like teaching a toddler to walk. It might fall or get hurt, but this is the only way it is going to learn to walk."
Pingtang Village in Yongxiu county, east China's Jiangxi Province, was like this "toddler". For villager Ma Zucai, October 30, 2005 was a memorable day for him. He and his wife got up early that day, took out their ballot papers and headed for the voting station to nominate candidates for the next village committee.
Just like Ma, 1,285 farmers in Pingtang Village voted that day. Wu Xiaogen, the village's Party branch secretary, said the election was aimed at "nominating those who can really serve the interests of villagers".
"When we had an exhibition in Europe, showing this election case in China's countryside, the Europeans were amazed at the level of democracy at village level in China," William Massolin, EU Co-Director of the Training Program on Village Governance, told Xinhua.
In 2005, approximately 300,000 villages in China's 18 provinces had village committee elections.
The Organic Law of Village Committees was approved by a meeting of the Sixth National People's Congress (NPC) Standing Committee in 1987 and was implemented on June 1, 1988. In 1998, the law formally granted farmers the right to directly elect or oust their village heads and members of village committees.
There is a stronger democratic awareness in villages in the coastal areas than inland. "To improve basic-level democracy, an effective system is one thing but it also needs the coordinated development of the rural economy, culture and education," said Xu Qida, vice president of the China Civil Affairs College.
"It will take time for China's basic-level democracy to mature; may be 40 to 50 years," Xu said.
(Xinhua News Agency March 15, 2006)