Candidate Gao Zhi Li didn't need Democratic strategist James Carville. Facing skeptical voters, Mr. Gao, a tall ethnic Manchurian, did what any savvy Western politician might do: He ran as an outsider, a man of the people.
Gao's electorate, however, were about 550 stoic Chinese farmer-peasants, gathered outside in a freezing schoolyard to vote by secret ballot. Gao ran for village chief of Houshi (Monkey Rock) - an outcropping of frozen tundra in China's northeast Jilin Province, where the principal industry is corn and sugar beets. The power structure Gao wanted to avoid identifying with: the local Communist Party.
"You all know me, I'm one of you," Gao said from a podium, in what turned out to be the winning speech. "I will put farmers' interests first. I will not be corrupt."
China's villages now routinely experiment with a word that has only recently been spoken casually around steaming peasant hot pots - democracy. Partly, the estimated 830,000 village elections in China are an attempt by the central government in Beijing to adjust to land reforms of the 1980s. Partly, they are an attempt to stay a step ahead of the evolving sentiments and pressures brought by 900 million peasants who make up the bulk of China, and who have begun to shoulder a greater share of living costs - higher taxes and food costs, price rises on fertilizers, even new fees for those who want a higher education.
"Chinese have always worried about feelings in the countryside, and today there are more cases of instability," says a rural expert in Beijing. "The party needs to solve the authority problem. If they can keep 60 percent of the farmers happy, that will be positive."
Nor do elections mean the Communist Party is folding its tents in rural China. The popularly elected village council and chief exist in parallel with the local party structure. The village council has no power of the purse, or of police, and no real authority. About 80 percent of the village heads in Jilin, in fact, are also party members. (Party members make up 70 percent of elected village chiefs across China, officials say.)
Yet village councils do have a kind of populist influence, with peasants lobbying hard in the doorways of party officials for the building of roads, settling disputes, and other local management issues.
The Houshi elections, moreover, represent another step in a decade-long "democratization" of villages. In 1998 the National People's Congress in Beijing passed the Organic Law or "Stage of Further Development" for village elections - allowing for commonly recognized standards, including secret ballots, limited campaigning, and a 20-day nomination process that takes place outside the party. Today, the election process is moving up to larger towns (see related story below).
In Houshi, for example, Gao's main challenger was a former local party chief, Qin Ming Yan. Mr. Qin promised in his campaign speech to work closely with the village council, even if he lost the election. Qin, a majority ethnic Han Chinese, faced Gao, a minority Manchu - and felt he would win. Yet by 3 p.m., as votes were tallied amid humorous skits and loudspeakers blasting patriotic music, it was clear Qin would lose by a 60-plus vote landslide - and he began to mutter ever more loudly to those who would listen.
"It's not fair, it's not fair," he said, cursing Gao in a huff, as reporters and translators overheard.
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