Asia-Pacific / China

Authoritarian Resilience Through Democracy

In an era when United States foreign policy is dominated by the effort to create functioning democracies around the world, it is important to understand how or if democratic procedures alone can create a fairer society. The United States has promoted democracies abroad countless times. Arguments favoring the Democracy Peace Theory– that democratic states are less likely to act aggressively–have been made repeatedly to justify foreign intervention. The question of how democratic states behave is particularly relevant in the case of China, where some hope that democratization would bring a more Western-friendly state.

For this reason, many Western analysts prioritized Chinese democratization and were optimistic about the first Chinese village elections in 1987. Village elections were thought of as China’s grassroot path to democracy. One scholar described them as “a Trojan horse of democracy.” Others estimated that China would democratize within the next twenty years.

Though much excitement about the elections has since died down–the last article in major Western press outlets covering the topic was in March of 2012 in USA Today–it is necessary to look at the entire enterprise and question why it is that after twenty-six years, China is still authoritarian.

Enacted in 1987 and amended in 1998, the Organic Law on Village Committees promised “self-governance” in Chinese villages through democratic elections. In theory, villagers can now form their own village committees and elect a chairperson who “shares power” with the traditional village boss, the Communist Party secretary. On the surface, the law seemed to implement a system of checks-and-balances and government through consent. Yet its actual wording is vague, noting that the Party is still the “leadership core” and that the chairperson should only exercise leadership “over specific issues.” These small details are compounded by China’s demographics–nearly 48 percent of China’s population occupies rural villages. With nearly 600 million villagers casting ballots, the number of voters constitutes twice the population of the United States.

Judging by electoral procedures alone, village elections have surpassed even Western standards for thorough democracy. Balloting has been carried out across 600,000 villages in all provinces, including in Tibet in 2002. Turnout rates have been high, with numerous locations reportedly over 90 percent (compared to less than 60 percent–the American average). Studies and surveys found remarkable improvements in the overall process, with anonymous balloting, public vote counts, and multiple candidates being the norm in almost all villages.

Yet these positive procedural developments alone cannot constitute democracy. Impeccable procedures without sufficient exercise of power do little for individual rights. In the case of Chinese villages, elected chairpersons do not compete with Party cadres equally and experience considerable constraints in their day-today activities. Non-elected village party secretaries hold the dominant voice in political decisions in 80 percent of all Chinese villages and are considered Yibashou–“primary power holders.” A number of field studies and surveys found that the elected village committees rarely have exercisable power, particularly in important realms of decision making like finances or distribution of economic resources. In some cases, elected committee members are denied access to account books and the official seal that symbolizes political power.

There are exceptional cases in which the Party secretary and the elected chair indeed share power, but these appear to be outliers rather than the norm. Even in these more collaborative villages, the chair rarely challenges the Party decision. Unsurprisingly, most local surveys indicate that 70 percent of Chinese villagers are well aware of the Party’s predominance of power over the elected chairman.   A more recent and alarming development is attempts by the Party to merge the village chairmanship with the position of the Party secretary. In practice, this means that the Party will either encourage the local secretaries to run for chairmanship, or, if the incumbent chair maintains a good record, recruit that individual into the Party and appoint him secretary. As of 1999, in Guangdong 56 percent of village chairpersons were also secretaries. In Xinhui city, this percentage was 80 percent, and in Nanhai, 60 percent. Some regions, such as Liaocheng city in Shandong, have even prescribed laws to require secretaries to run for the chairperson’s post.

Merging the two positions has obvious administrative benefits and avoids the usual secretary-chair conflict, yet this move also strengthens Party rule in several fundamental ways. By having the party-appointed secretary run for elections, the CCP in practice legitimizes the secretary’s power through a “democratic” means. This is particularly troubling given that most rural voters perceive village elections to be a legitimizing mechanism. Furthermore, dual office holding removes whatever check-and-balance previously existed. An analogy would be one individual serving as the United States President, the Supreme Court, and the Congress all at once. This may speed up legislation, remove congressional inefficiency, and perhaps be result-driven, but it also completely undermines the foundation of democratic rule.

Shortcomings in the Chinese village elections do not mean that village elections are necessarily “bad.” As evidence on procedure shows, the elections are not carried out like those in other authoritarian regimes, where elections are more for show rather than substance. On the contrary, most Chinese villagers expressed satisfaction with these elections and experienced “empowerment.” Indeed, looking beyond the democratic aspects, elections did improve the overall administration and better enforced central policies like family planning and grain procurement. The question still remains why there is great popular support for village elections when in practice the results have made little difference.

Fundamentally, as evidence heavily suggests, Chinese voters conceive of elections differently than their Western counterparts. Critically, they do not view the ballot as a weapon to punish ineffective leaders. Extensive surveying of rural areas suggests that most do not have an inclination to translate their voting power into concrete pressure on their cadres. Chinese villagers see their vote more as a “complementary instrument to place trusted officials in charge.” While this status quo may change, normative changes are slow and subject to grassroots pressure as much as Party pressure. Furthermore, if office-merging becomes the predominant political practice, then it may be difficult for the villagers to use the ballot to challenge the Party, as any non-Party elected chair could simply be converted to a Party member.

While village elections sparked hope for the future of a democratic China, idealists ought to take a step back and assess what has actually occurred. Ultimately, judging the effects of village elections requires one to ask a key question: self-administration on whose behalf? While a system in which self-administration bolsters state control may improve the quality of governance, it does little to promote democracy.

The reality of village elections is that they were not implemented to foster democracy, but to strengthen the Communist Party’s claim on domestic governance. The result of village elections, far from being the “Trojan horse of democracy,” may actually be to deter movement towards democracy by legitimizing one-party rule through a “democratic” means. As recently as October, China dismissed an Economic professor from a prestigious Beijing university for his allegedly pro-democracy activities. In the case of village elections, one must question whether these elections are a vehicle for democracy or if they are in fact contributing to the authoritarian status quo.