Taking China's elections to the next level

Pushed by a desire to quell growing rural unrest and to clean house in the lowest level of government, the Communist Party is edging toward broadening democratic elections in towns, government officials and activists say.

Towns are the lowest administrative level of government, with final say over village affairs. With populations ranging from 10,000 to 50,000, towns can hold from 10 to 40 villages each. Around 60 percent of China's 45,000 towns are broke because of bloated payrolls and mismanagement, says an official at the Ministry of Civil Affairs, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Budgets are controlled by the provinces. While towns are budgeted around 40 positions, most now have around 100 employees, the result of widespread patronage. Salaries for the extra workers comes from town-owned enterprises, but a soft economy is prompting officials to levy taxes on villagers - sometimes exceeding 50 percent. Many of these taxes are collected in the form of illegal fees for such things as road use or land rights. Meanwhile, many villagers have seen their incomes shrinking because of falling grain prices.

That has led to bursts of unrest across the country as peasants rebel against high taxes. In one case, 200 rioters destroyed the town hall, set cars on fire, and clashed with police over illegal surcharges levied by the primary school. Elections are seen by government officials as a way to solve this problem. Anger against unpopular leaders can be channeled by having them voted out of office. And peasants will be more cooperative with government policy if they have a say.

Three years ago, two towns held elections. Buyun, an impoverished town in Sichuan, secretly organized direct elections after a financial scandal damaged the local government's credibility. Dapangzhen, in the rich coastal area near the border with Hong Kong, also held elections.

The central government let the results stand and has monitored the outcome closely, even sending informal delegates to talk with locals. Next fall, the three-year term of most town chiefs across China will expire, sparking hope that more places will follow in the footsteps of the two pioneers.

Li Fan, head of the World And China Institute, a nongovernmental think tank, helped draft the election regulations in Buyun. He has prepared an election "how to" manual and mailed it to all 2,000 county governments in China.

Another group of activists is promoting a "two-vote system" that would achieve the result of direct elections without subverting the Constitution. By law, township heads must be appointed by Local People's Representative Congress, a party-dominated rubber-stamp town council. But a town in Henan plans to hold general elections for town head, and then have the People's Congress vote to approve that candidate, reducing the congress to a symbolic role.

"If we do it well, then it can serve as a model for others," says one of the organizers, who feared giving his name could cause publicity that would derail the experiment.

But the ministry official says the two-vote system is perfectly acceptable and versions of it will be piloted in other towns this year. "It's a good way to practice, to open their minds," the official says.

Despite these moves, there is still strong resistance by local leaders loathe to give up power and a central government that fears sparking chaos. But central government officials maintain the need for better management. The growing rural unrest has broader impacts. China's bond ratings are lower because "a serious economic setback could jeopardize China's political system and not just result in a change of leadership," writes the global ratings firm Standard & Poor's.

Says the ministry official: "Democracy is like a rubber band. Once you've stretched it to a certain point, if you let go, it has to go forward."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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