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Villagers' Self-Governance: Review and Preview


Zhao Shukai, Development Research Center of the State Council

Villagers' self-governance in China has gone through almost three decades though we knew even then that the road for China's grassroots democracy would not be smooth. However, in face of the fact that village election has not been promoted to the primary-level government over thirty years, we feel surprised and upset inevitably. The institutional obstacles that existed in the early days during the procession of villagers' self-governance have not yet been overcome. From the perspectives of institutional arrangement and policy stipulation, these problems, instead of being resolved, have become worsened in some aspects. The above issues are observed from a macro perspective and the results are not desirable. Yet, if we look deep into village life, especially the process and influence of village election with a historical stand, we could still find apparent progress, or major positive changes in the following three aspects. 1. There is a change in the mobilization mechanism of election, or a shift of focus in mobilizing forces. Candidates, or participants in competition for the position of village committee member, have become primary mobilizing and organizing forces for villagers to participate in election. Each candidate makes his endeavour to organize manpower and material resources and mobilize villagers to engage in the voting process, so as to enhance his competitive power. During this course, the function of government staff has changed and become responsible for formulating election rules and ensuring the fairness of election process. 2. The authenticity of election is enhanced, and competition has become fiercer. The fact that election is more authentic is because the control of grassroots government is obviously less. With less interference by grassroots government, the authenticity of village election is reinforced, which is reflected in two aspects. First, the election in some villages has become more competitive. These villages are generally economically developed and enjoy more village-level public resources and they are mainly rich villages, suburban villages, and villages inside cities. Among election-related research findings around 2000, some scholars have observed that the more economically developed a village is the less competitive election becomes. This is because former cadres of developed villages enjoy high authority and they are naturally elected to be cadres. Second, in some villages that have no public resources, especially in those burdened with huge debt or with underdeveloped economy, nobody is willing to be a cadre. Due to the increased number of farmers who have moved to cities, election often lacks a quorum. 4. The political efficiency of election results has risen prominently and the authority of village committee has been enhanced. The authority of the head of village committee continues to increase whereas that of the secretary of village Party branch is weakened. Although from the perspective of long-term social development we should acknowledge and feel encouraged by the historical achievements of village election over these years, we could not neglect the following problems in face of us. First, it should be admitted that the mechanism of villagers' self-governance implemented so far are inadequate. The Organic Law of Villagers' Committee could not fulfill the task of supporting “villagers' self-governance” as expected. Villagers' self-governance should rely on the basic level of institutional mechanism, in other words, only a law on self-governance could address some fundamental issues. Second, viewing from the present Organic Law of Villagers' Committees, we still face many problems. If such problems are not properly dealt with, it would be difficult for the law to be implemented in an orderly manner. Many specific problems are there, but the basic challenge is how to define villagers and villages.

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