Residents in thousands of Chinese villages are about to go to the polls to elect their community committees, but officials and experts say there are loopholes in the law governing villagers' committees, which needs to be revised.
For more than half of the country's villages, where the villager 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, such as Zhejiang, Jiangsu and Anhui, will elect new village committees from this month.
A villagers' committee is a mass organization of self-management consisting of local villagers usually five members that manage village affairs.
The Ministry of Civil Affairs indicates that most of the 680,000-odd villages in China have adopted a direct election system.
Twenty-six provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions have laid out their own election statutes, while 27 have completed five rounds of elections since the Organic Law of Villagers' Committees was enacted in 1988. The law, which sets out basic principles to ensure democracy at a local level, states that any villager aged 18 years or over has the right to vote or stand as a candidate.
"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 and lawful" definition of bribery and "no specifics about how to rectify such illegal deeds in the law," he noted.
The only way villagers can report infringements of their rights is to lodge complaints with higher authorities.
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.
Underdeveloped economies make rising to power to manoeuvre local businesses for personal gain a great temptation, he said.
In some villages, candidates are even directly appointed by higher authorities at the county level, according to some experts.
Early this year, the ministry released a circular emphasizing the difference between bribery and "general public relations."
But Professor Shi Weimin from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences said the circular is still insufficient when "it comes to deal with a specific case" because "there are huge differences from village to village in terms of customs."
Some experts say the State's efforts to relieve farmers from the burden of agricultural taxes 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 power to distribute land and allocate project funds is still very attractive.
Another problem lies in the voter registration system, which has been put under pressure by widespread rural migration 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 the legislature begin the drafting of a revised version of the law this year, he said. "Though a lot of problems need to be addressed, the basic task is to clarify the relationship between the villagers' 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 Daily March 21, 2005)