Some people, especially in some Western countries, do not believe democracy in China even exists. But it does, and journalist Zhang Yingping has written a new book about it.
The book will probably not be a commercial hit in a market increasingly inundated by leisure-reading or money-making titles, both translated and home-brewed. But it will have a place in China's history because it reports on democracy as practiced in the countryside in east China's Zhejiang Province.
Its Chinese title reads: "What Has Happened in Zhejiang: Democratic Life During an Era of Transition." Its English title, however, is simply "Democracy in Zhejiang," reflecting obvious inspiration from "Democracy in America," a 19th-century classic by Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who reported on democracy in the early United States.
Besides admiring de Tocqueville, Zhang, 31, who works for the Chinese-language weekly Economic Observer, is also eager to challenge some commonly-held myths about China's grass-roots politics.
"People seem to have many negative stories to tell about rural China, but each of them knows about only one or two cases," Zhang said. "But if you try to piece together a broad picture by using those stories which admittedly are all true you end up getting something that gives you a feeling that's different from reality."
But what is the reality? "That's the thing that I wanted to find out," Zhang said.
"I have been covering rural development since 1999, and the reality at least, as far as I can see from the relatively well-off and better-educated communities in the Yangtze River Delta is far from dark. Nor is it simply black and white."
He added: "Despite so many things happening in modern China, the grass-roots level government still has to accommodate, if not rely on, the traditional definition of moral authority."
For years, not many investigative pieces were published about democracy of that sort a subject treated as either too trivial by the scholars busy translating the thick volumes of Western political science or as not interesting by the journalists always chasing such sensations as the largest growth in gross domestic product in the world or China's worst industrial hazards.
But for Zhang, those subjects pale in comparison to social innovations in the Zhejiang countryside, which are designed to make supervision of the government more effective, and make officials more accountable.
They include the pledges of prospective local government leaders to set up community welfare funds, and legislators directly contributing columns in newspapers, whereas media organizations elsewhere in the country are more often guided by the executive branch of the government.
Some elected officials are even required to take out special insurance policies to guard against any mistakes they make in their roles.
Zhang tells the tale in his book of a visit he made to Shacheng County of Wenzhou.
A local farmer there explained that he had enjoyed 27 free lunches in the summer of 2002, when candidates for the leadership of his village held free banquets to all voters during the election campaign.
"It would be terrific if there was an election for the village head every year," said the farmer. He was sorry that village heads were only voted for every three years in China.
Being the village head is the dream of many rich men in Zhejiang's countryside, who compete fiercely to get the position in spite of the fact that the position is for a grass-roots administration for self-governance.
Yang Baowei, who owns a pencil factory in Shangyang Village in Chengxi County, Yiwu, had an amateur band beating drums and gongs to accompany him when he put up dozens of bright red election posters around his village in January 2002.
On the posters, he pledged he would donate 100,000 yuan (US$12,500) to have a road built in the village if he was voted village head.
He also promised to donate all of his salary as village head to an entertainment center, established for senior citizens in his village.
The entrepreneur beat other candidates, including the man in power at the time, to be elected to the post two months later.
As more and more rich men began running their own villages, a special regulation came into force in Ruian of Zhejiang, requesting that elected village heads sign insurance agreements in case their decisions adversely affected the village.
Zhang tells in his book how Wang Xiantao, head of Hongguang Village, Xinsheng County of Ruian, showed him a contract he signed with the representative of residents in his village in 2002, in accordance with the regulation.
In the contract, Wang agreed that he would compensate public funds with his own money if he were to make any decision with the purpose of seeking personal interest or that endangered public money.
Zhang also lavishes praise in the book on legislators who have made good use of the local news media in Wenzhou.
The city's People's Congress initially planned to only open a column at the website of Wenzhou News, which is hosted by the municipal government. But hearing of its intention, a senior editor at Wenzhou Metropolitan News visited the congress and persuaded it to produce a column in his newspaper as well as the website.
After the first columns appeared in July 2003, editors at Wenzhou Television Station visited the congress. In September, the station launched a new programmer, "Face-to-Face Facts," in which local congress deputies had face-to-face dialogue with government officials.
Since then, the 30-minute program has been broadcast at 8 o'clock every Sunday, and then rebroadcast three times during the week.
The newspaper columns and TV programs have attracted so much attention from both the public and the government that local entrepreneurs have been more than happy to pay for advertisements.
These entrepreneurs are also finding the congress a place for help when they are unsatisfied with the government's work.
In one case, a private entrepreneur publicized his diaries in a congress program on TV in October 2003.
He recorded a period of 70 days, in which he visited a host of offices at the county government to try to gain approval to have his new factory built. He received no clear replies from any of them.
Soon after his program was broadcast, the entrepreneur was finally given planning permission by those government organs mentioned in the diaries.
The local legislators also benefited from playing active roles in the media, Zhang explains in his book.
More than 100 people's congress deputies have appeared in the congress programs on TV and they are becoming more and more confident and skilful in using their political rights.
In one program broadcast in May 2004, three deputies questioned a vice mayor of Leqing in Wenzhou over a bus terminal that was still not being used more than six months after it was completed.
"The government has abused its power in the case," they said. "It will greatly reduce the confidence of the public in the honesty and capability of local government officials."
One trend that has spread is "Min Zhu Ken Tan Hui," or "Meetings of Democratic, Heart-to-heart Conversations," which originated in Wenling in June 1999.
They began when some municipal government officials were given the task of organizing routine meetings between farmers and government officials.
To make these meetings sound more attractive, the officials told farmers that they would have the opportunity to speak on almost every aspect of government work by talking with the top leaders of their districts.
Farmers used the opportunity to talk about topics ranging from conflicts with village heads to a rise in the price of tap water.
The meetings proved such a success that they have since been held on a regular basis by different levels of the government in Wenling, and duplicated by other cities in Zhejiang.
Zhang is so in tune with Zhejiang's rural life that some people thought he was native to the area.
"But, actually I am not," he said. "I am just a journalist. My beat is politics and law. And I've been stationed in the Yangtze Delta for a long time."
However, just like many innovations in everyday life going unnoticed, many people in the big cities tend to pour scorn on what the country people are doing. Even the publisher of the book admitted to China Daily that it was not selling as well as Zhang's previous ones.
Zhang said many reviewers argued against his claim that business people could be good public officials as well.
But he added that his book allowed readers to see that a unique class of private entrepreneurs does exist in Zhejiang's countryside "which may not hold true in other places," he hastened to add - who do have a moral commitment to their neighbors and communities' well-being, thanks to their traditional upbringing.
Some reviewers argued that democracy was just wishful thinking without China changing more radically from its traditions. To them, Zhang said: "I'm not gifted in defending or attacking pure theories. I'm just a journalist. I trust only what I see."
(China Daily May 9, 2006)