Rural Chinese begin tasting democracy 'lite'
Monkey Rock votes in a 'populist' and joins some 200,000 other villages electing their own officials.
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"It's not fair, it's not fair," he said, cursing Gao in a huff, as reporters and translators overheard.Skip to next paragraph
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Yet while Qin was whisked away by embarrassed election and security officials and told not to make a scene with foreign reporters present - his outburst seemed a signal that the Houshi election was authentic. Reporters visiting Houshi under the sponsorship of the Foreign Ministry in Beijing were not allowed outside the schoolyard compound to talk independently with Chinese.
Yet Gao, the father of two, and owner of a local eatery, also offered a plan that tells about political realities at the village level. Having been declared the winner in a seemingly free and fair election, and having given his acceptance speech wearing a huge ceremonial ribbon, Gao told friends he would now apply for party membership. His reasons: "You need to be in the party to have an effect. It's the way to help direct finances."
To this point, experts say that village elections, along with keeping peasants mollified, serve another purpose: They are a natural means for the party to identify rising leaders who can join their cadres.
Villages are a powerful element in both Chinese history and imagination. The countryside is where Chairman Mao Zedong, himself from peasant stock, sent millions of urban dwellers to learn the wisdom of the farmer and to get closer to the land. Farms were steadily communalized in the 1950s and '60s; the peasants essentially lost their land, and were required to give their produce to the state. The experiment was a disaster. Peasants bickered, worked haphazardly - and by the late 1970s and early '80s, a land-reform movement was ushered in that restored many of the fields to the ordinary farmer.
During the 1980s, with farmers earning their own wages, life was good for many. Yet the liberalization of the economy also removed some of the social safety nets - and tensions have risen as peasants shoulder new costs. Some villagers in Houshi whispered to reporters that they give no less than half their $375 monthly salary in taxes.
There is also a shadow between the idea and the reality of local democracy. In Houshi, for example, it was unclear just who the most recent village chief had been. Queries met with contradictory answers. One possibility is that the former directly elected village chief had not been liked by the party, or had been corrupt, and had been summarily replaced by the party.
Only about a quarter of the 800,000-plus village councils in China are elected under proper international standards, Dr. Liu Yawei, associate director of the Carter Center's China Village Election Project, told the South China Morning Post last year.
At the same time, villages like Houshi have modernized and improved. The streets are paved. Houses and schools are well-built. Neat pens encircle hordes of ducks and geese outside individual homes. "We used to have roofs made of corn stalks," one peasant said. "Now they are made of brick and mortar."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society