Democracy: Made in China
Posted on Dec 15, 2010
By Steven Hill
Stirrings of electoral democracy at the local level
While professor Yu Keping’s democratic theory for China sounds bold, his practice has been decidedly pragmatic and incremental. He is shrewd about the anti-democratic forces within the Communist Party—of which he is a prominent member—as well as the weight of China’s long authoritarian history. So he has promoted the idea of a “democracy cascade” in which elections gradually work their way up to the national level from successful local efforts. This strategy has led to some modestly impressive results.
Mostly unknown to Americans is the fact that China has begun widespread experiments with electoral democracy at the local level. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, China probably holds more elections than any other nation in the world. Under the Organic Law of the Village Committees, all of China’s approximately 1 million villages—home to some 600 million voters—hold elections every three years for local village committees.
The village councils have powers to decide on such vital issues as land and property rights, which are central to local development and the source of increasing tensions (as people are moved off their land, often involuntarily, for the alleged good of China—and all too often to line local officials’ pockets). The central government mandated direct village elections in 1988, soon after the dismantling of the collectivist commune system. The aim then and now was to relieve social and political tensions and help maintain order at a time of unprecedented economic reform. In the past few years that need has become more urgent than ever as more than 70,000 protests and other outbreaks of social unrest have been reported annually in villages across China, oftentimes in reaction to land grabs by local officials.
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“Democracy in China, at this particular time, would lead to chaos,” he says. He sees little electoral future in the near term, and believes that a better model for China is evident in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, which have developed successfully without robust representative democracy.
But Robert Benewick, a research professor at the University of Sussex who has studied local elections closely, says that village elections have been growing more competitive, with the use of the secret ballot becoming more common. For those elections where there has been real competition, with bona fide independent candidates running, researchers claim to have evidence of positive impacts.
Yao Yang is a soft-spoken economist who met with me over lunch one day in Shanghai to discuss his research about the impact of local elections. In a study that looked at 40 villages over 16 years, his research found that the introduction of elections had increased spending on public services by 20 percent, while reducing by 18 percent the spending for “administrative costs,” which is bureaucratic-speak for corruption. I asked Yao about Pan Wei’s skepticism, but he only smiled shyly and said, “People can say whatever they want. But I have the data to prove it [my thesis].”
Despite the critics, the Chinese leadership seems impressed with the potential of electoral democracy. Premier Wen has suggested that the village elections might be extended to the next level of government—township administrations—sometime over the next few years.
China’s modest experiments with local electoral democracy have been supplemented with exercises in what is known as “deliberative democracy.” These take the shape of New England-style town hall meetings, review hearings and public consultation exercises. China hired Stanford University professor James Fishkin to draft a randomly selected, scientifically representative sample of citizens from the city of Zeguo to participate in a process so they could decide how their city should spend a $6 million public works budget. Fishkin’s signature “deliberative polling” method employs technologies such as the Internet, keypad polling devices, handheld computers and more to convene representative assemblies of average citizens for several days.
The Zeguo exercise was considered hugely successful and has been replicated in other places. Interestingly, it jibes well with the governance vision of Pan Wei and others who want to see China develop into a sort of high-tech “consultative dictatorship” in which the leaders use various technological means to keep their fingers on the pulse of the people, a kind of 21st century version of Plato’s philosopher-kings ruling for the good of society.
Given China’s remarkable development over the past three decades under a succession of fairly competent leaders, this vision does not seem far-fetched, at least in the short term. But in the longer term, critics of this approach see the Chinese dictatorship—however consultative—choking off the creativity and entrepreneurial flourishing that is necessary to allow the growth of China’s business sector and macro-development. So Yu Keping and others have been nudging democracy forward in another direction that some think may have the most long-term promise—internal party democracy within the ruling Communist Party itself. The idea would be to rejuvenate the party from the bottom up by holding competitive elections for all party posts. This already has begun at lower levels, with votes for provincial and national party congresses showing electoral slates with 15 to 30 percent more candidates than positions.
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