Call for grassroots democracy

By Li Xing
0 CommentsPrint E-mail China Daily, March 10, 2011
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In 1972, about 300 villagers elected Liu Zhihua to head the fifth group (later called Jinghua) in Dongjie village, Xinxiang county of Henan province. Liu and six other women as her deputies were the only nominees. Their job was to stop infighting among villagers and start farming in earnest so that they could grow enough food and earn enough cash to feed and clothe themselves. All the seemingly capable men had tried it but failed.

Nearly 40 years later, Liu, 69, remains - through general elections - at the helm of the group, seeing the small hamlet turned into a booming town of leisure travel, convention and a hub for trade and shopping. Its magnesium products are shipped to India, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands in addition to some 30 cities and provinces in China.

Last year, the village's disposable per capita income reached 30,000 yuan ($4,500). Almost all residents have traveled outside the province. Liu herself has visited many countries in the world.

Apart from keeping her local leadership, Liu has also been elected four times to serve as a national lawmaker - a deputy to the National People's Congress since 1993.

Attending the annual NPC session in Beijing this week, she has put forward her proposals, urging the central government to take serious action to deal with increasingly serious environmental degradation in rural areas and to come up with measures to help rural communities build their engines for growth.

Exemplary villages in contemporary China invariably owe their development to a strong man or a strong woman at the head of their leadership. Word has also spread that the decisions in some of these rural communities are always top-down. There is even doubt whether villagers have a say in their affairs.

On Tuesday I raised these questions and some doubts with Liu. Emphasizing that a strong leadership is important, Liu said it is wrong to assume that decisions are taken top-down in Jinghua.

"Democracy is alive and well in our part of the community," she said. For every idea and plan projected for change and growth, she and the leading committee must solicit opinions of the villagers - they are workers now.

The town is now managed under the Jinghua Industrial Corporation, with each household being a shareholder. Jinghua is the village that Liu actually belongs to. Liu is board chair and general manager, in addition to her role as the village committee chief. They have to get the shareholders' approval for every investment in public projects. "All the projects, from garbage disposal, road construction to waterway cleanup, must come under the 'sunshine' policymaking," she said.

All the village-corporation financing must go through public review. "As an old saying goes, three heads are better than one." The village corporation has also established a system to encourage its workers to submit suggestions for innovation and progress. A young engineer put forward a proposal to renovate the machinery for magnesium processing and received a cash award of more than 2,000 yuan. Such awards are regular, she said.

At the end of every month, the managers and Party members must submit an essay summarizing their achievement, and breakthroughs and failures of the previous month as well as their goals for the next month. These become case studies to correct the wrongs, Liu said. Every year, workers assess the managers' performances. Anyone who fails to accomplish his/her duty is removed, while a competent person gets promoted.

While Liu has kept up her democratic practice, a system has been introduced elsewhere - in rural areas of Henan province for instance - requiring all major village decisions to go through four levels of deliberations, from village leadership to villagers' meeting. The decisions' implementation and their results must be made public.

According to media reports, such deliberations and system of transparency helped local officials and village chiefs resolve numerous conflicts over land, housing plots, woods as well as candidates for poverty assistance.

When more than 3,261 villages decided to build roads, the villagers raised about 11 billion yuan to pave 9,156 kilometers of new roads, build 1,960 safe drinking water projects and enable 600,000 rural households to use methane gas for cooking.

The fifth group of Dongjie was separated from the parent body in 1997 and called Jinghua. That was to change 13 years later. Last August Liu's Jinghua village incorporated Dongjie village with 4,000 residents to build a "modern, prosperous, harmonious and urbanized community", to set an example for further rural development for the 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015).

Did such a move get public approval? Liu said that while the veterans understood such a "merger", many of the 4,000-plus new members told Liu that they "finally have some people to take care of them". Liu said she and other board members of the Jinghua Industrial Corporation made sure that the new Jinghua residents elected their own group leaders and discussed what they must do to improve their environment and production.

Liu said the ability to openly discuss community affairs is not only a culture and way of life in old Jinghua, but also a feature of quality citizenship. In that sense, the new Jinghua members lag at least 20 years behind the veterans.

"A lot of them are not used to presenting their views in public; they'd rather grumble behind the backs," Liu said. "I had to tell them that they have the duty to lodge their complaints with the corporation if they want to get the problems solved."

This is how grievances are redressed and harmony established - giving everyone the incentive to contribute his/her share to local development and ensure personal well-being, Liu said.

"I had a chance to move with my husband to Beijing," recalled Liu. Her husband graduated from Peking University in 1965 and offered a job in Beijing in 1974. But Liu said she couldn't abandon her work in Jinghua and life had started to turn around there.

"I told myself: I don't have to go and live in Beijing, but I would turn my village into a town. Every service available in big cities is available there today, and in Jinghua we are our own masters, whereas in big cities, migrants face many difficulties."

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