China: An unlikely home for democracy?
Xue Jianwan, the daughter of a local leader who died in police custody in Wukan, votes in elections in March.
June 5th, 2012
10:48 AM ET

China: An unlikely home for democracy?

Editor's note: Ravi Agrawal is the Senior Producer of "Fareed Zakaria GPS." You can follow him on Twitter @RaviAgrawalCNN and check out past posts.

By Ravi Agrawal, CNN

Just as some despair that democracy’s sun is setting in the West, a new study suggests it is rising anew in the East – in authoritarian China.

Three months ago, the world’s media reported with amazement a successful election in Wukan, a fishing village in the country’s southeast. 6,000 villagers were allowed to vote in a Western-style free and fair election – secret ballots and all.

But Beijing’s experiments in rural democracy are not new; they go almost three decades further back.

How has it worked out? For the first time, we have some data.

The National Bureau of Economic Research sponsored an investigation into democracy in rural China. Researchers studied elections in 217 villages from 1982 through 2005. They found that villagers who elected their leaders got more of what they wanted. They benefited from 27% more investment in public goods like schools and canals than their counterparts in non-democratic villages.

Villagers with suffrage were also more likely to live in equal societies, the study found. Elections caused the poorest households to increase their income by 29%; the richest households saw their incomes decrease by 28%.

So consider the irony: could it be that people power, the very ideal that Beijing looks down upon with scorn, is creating the “harmonious society” the Communist Party holds as its guiding goal?

The study raises a number of interesting questions. Will more villages clamor for democracy? Will that yearning for people power spread to the cities? Will the Communist Party ever cede power to the many?

I turned to the Chinese political scientist Minxin Pei for answers. He says to treat any analysis of rural democracy in China with caution.

“Village elections have largely been a failure,” he says. “Most so-called democratic villages have no autonomy or control over their finances.”

It’s instructive to consider the power structure in China. At the very top of the pyramid lies the 25-member Politburo and its all-powerful nine-man Standing Committee. Together they control the Provinces; these in turn control the Prefectures and Counties; then you have Townships. Villages are the very bottom of the pyramid – they’re not an official part of government, says Pei. Instead it is more apt to call them a civic association.

“Democracy is a rather charitable description of what the villages have been allowed,” says Pei.

Here’s a harsh but effective analogy: Imagine an apartment complex building in a big city. The tenants want to form a civic community; they hold elections. The elected leaders make minor decisions for the building’s residents – what color to paint it, how many guards to hire. But do they really have any say in government?

Gordon Chang, the author of "The Coming Collapse of China," says even the apartment complex analogy is too charitable. “Village democracy is worse,” he says. “Communist Party leaders have a history of controlling or even nullifying them to suit their purposes.”

So why do the powerful Provinces – with the Politburo’s blessing – allow people power to grow roots at all?

An article last week in the South China Morning Post may shed some light on the question. Two competing ideologies about governance are being debated at the highest levels – and some of that debate is leaking into the public domain. The South China Morning Post reports how an editorial in the state-run Global Times says the public should show more understanding towards government corruption. Why? Because the country wasn’t ready to deal with the problem, it says. But the China Youth Daily, an organ of the Communist Youth League, disagreed, saying that urgent reforms and democracy were the only ways to cleanse the system.

The debate is not new. Ultimately, corruption is the reason why village democracy was first seen as an attractive proposal. Many village leaders were corrupt landowners. Empowering the people to elect their leaders is an effective way for the Communist Party to keep the system honest – and to absolve itself of blame. Badly performing leaders can be voted out. But the glitch in the system is that the people’s powers end there; reportedly only 10% of village elections in China are competitive.

The disconnect between the bottom-up system of the village and the top-down system of the Politburo allows Beijing to at once practice democracy and maintain control.

So will people power ever flourish in China?

As it recently did with Wukan province, the Provinces are more likely to pick and choose when to use an iron fist or a velvet glove.

“Village elections are a minor concession to placate people but it ignores larger structural reforms,” says Chang. “China is the most dynamic, fast-moving country in the world – and the Communist Party isn’t keeping up.”

Village democracy may be of the people in that it provides a degree of choice and small benefits to its participants. But it really isn’t by the people or for the people – it’s by and for the 80 million strong Communist Party of China.

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Topics: China • Politics

soundoff (145 Responses)
  1. propbuster20

    china is pretty smart-they give their people enough freedoms and glimpses of democracy to make the majority of people content-they are almost as good at propaganda as our gov't(USA-propaganda masters)

    June 6, 2012 at 1:32 pm | Reply
    • jp

      thats because china executes everyone, highest in world

      June 6, 2012 at 2:23 pm | Reply
      • propbuster20

        they execute,while we bomb and destroy.......pick your poison.They justify their bs,so do we.At the end of the day,it's people dead.they kill,we kill.it's the way of the world we live in.kill to get what you want accomplished......USA,China-no different,except WE KILL MORE

        June 6, 2012 at 5:08 pm |
  2. propbuster20

    the difference is,chinese have never had the freedoms and they make them think they have more than they do......we americans have had the freedoms,they're being taken away,and now they want us to compare our freedoms with other countries and just be happy for the freedoms we have left........as they continue to take more away

    June 6, 2012 at 1:35 pm | Reply
  3. 100% ETHIO

    Democracy? Hu, hi...
    The World is under siege. Thunderstorms from the Sky and Weapons from the Ground. I bet, you must be lucky, if you get a good nap on your bed.

    Even 2000 Years ago, we were been found Sinners/not clean and Almighty God sent his beloved Son, Jesus Christ to carry our Sins. Since then, we become more Sinners than ever.

    Sadly, the creation of Nuclear Bomb by Devil, rather than creating Medicine for everlasting life, made our life miserable and Satanic.

    Thousands of years ago, we already lost the goodwill and truth path. Now, it's impossible to find it. We are living with a twisted Mind-sets.

    June 6, 2012 at 3:06 pm | Reply
    • hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

      hinduism, absurdity of a hindu, pagan labeled as Christian, No one is responsible for any one else s hinduism, criminality, neither son of blessed Mary promised not he took responsibility for any ones sins, but promised he will approach the bench as a advocate for his followers, if they obeyed the La, the truth absolute by the book of contradictions called bible, rest of it is hinduism, absurdity of hindu, pagan Paul.

      June 6, 2012 at 8:22 pm | Reply
  4. renjikuchiki1

    Communism = The Future

    WE need it more than capitalism...

    June 6, 2012 at 3:50 pm | Reply
  5. wc

    Another harsh but affective analogy would be to so-called self-governance in the western academia or corporate worlds.

    June 6, 2012 at 5:00 pm | Reply
  6. eroteme

    We have instructed China so many times that their government must become more like ours. I don't believe they have been all that eager to follow our instructions but maybe if we keep 'educating' them we will eventually set them straight?

    June 6, 2012 at 5:41 pm | Reply
    • propbuster20

      WHAT MAKES US FEEL EVERYONE HAS TO LISTEN TO US?why don't we just start another war and MAKE DARN SURE everyone listens to us?it's only a matter of time before the warmongers in the white house attack china as well,I'm sure.....

      June 6, 2012 at 5:49 pm | Reply
    • theroux

      China doesn't get it. We run things on this planet not them! Eventually we may have to go to war with them til they get it. Might makes right.

      June 7, 2012 at 8:03 am | Reply
      • George

        Sir you are sadly misinformed. We here in Canada are getting a crash course in Chinese culture and I can tell you that we have already lost the war through immigration. It was quiet, and uneventfull at least in the eyes of our Government here. On the street and workplace you will never meet a more ruthless and determined people ever. They are simply conquering by numbers, its very simple and hence intimidating. Canadians are terrified of them but say nothing for fear of retatliation from our own authorities and ofcourse the Chinese population itself. They get to you one way or the other, usually by taking your photo in broad daylight in public and posting your photo amongst the Chinese community in every city in Canada. Its the new darkside folks (new order). If you go to blows with these people be prepared to go all in.

        June 8, 2012 at 11:14 am |
      • Amato

        @George
        I am sorry that you felt this way. However I have some encouraging words for you: go and visit Hawaii, you will see the future of Canada. The future of Canada may not be dominant whites but I am sure they will be dominant 100% Canadian if the local Canadian can adhere to their Canadian value which we immigrants so admired and impressed with.
        George, my advice to you is learn Chinese or have a Chinese friend, then you will have a clearer picture of us instead of preparing “go all the way in".

        June 9, 2012 at 11:09 am |
  7. me138

    A home for democracy is a hole 6 feet in the ground.

    June 6, 2012 at 5:57 pm | Reply
  8. stonecai

    I wish I could have been born in a democracy country. I am a communist party member. like most Chinese party members, we gain a status to get some advantages, it doesn't mean we are agree with the ideas and CPC propagandizes

    June 6, 2012 at 7:27 pm | Reply
  9. NickD2

    Villagers are given a choice of two pre approved communist party members to choose from.

    After voting they must meet their children for the end of their 10 hour shift at the factory and give them a ride to their indoctrination classes.

    Communist China murders any citizen who speaks for freedom. Now march out to Walmart and support those murdering communists with your American money. And cry all the way home because you don't have a job.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:08 pm | Reply
    • Maersk

      "Communist China murders any citizen who speaks for freedom. Now march out to Walmart and support those murdering communists with your American money. And cry all the way home because you don't have a job."

      I suppose they leave the kwok zucking kwok zuckers alone and that is exactly why you are still around and kwok zucking as usually.

      June 6, 2012 at 9:57 pm | Reply
    • THE TRUTH

      True, Chinese are employed but not free. We are free but not employed. We won!

      June 7, 2012 at 8:05 am | Reply
  10. hinduism source of hindufilthyracism.

    Westren democracy is hinduism, absurdity, based not on truth absolute but hindu Judaism, filthy self center ism, secular or be called pig ism, only hindu's criminals can love it, not a person of truth absolute.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:14 pm | Reply
  11. Onikami

    people gripe about freedom in america, yet here i am saying what i think as long as i remain civil. i own a gun legally and can shoot any body who tries to take it unlawfully. is america perfect? no. is it currently the best option for freedom in the world? all the other people in the world seem to think so because they are in a crazy rush to live here instead of trying to fix their own countries.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:29 pm | Reply
  12. Wahaha

    American people have no idea the price they pay for their freedom.

    Allow me to repeat :

    Freedom to the people is in reality,
    Freedom to the rich;
    Freedom to the media and journalists.
    Freedom to the greedy and parasites.
    Freedom to the criminals
    and finally, Freedom to the hard-working people.

    June 6, 2012 at 8:35 pm | Reply
  13. wavejump1100

    the advantage of a one party system is they can get things done. the disadvantage is if people dont agree with the things they are doing they have no other choice.

    June 6, 2012 at 9:22 pm | Reply
  14. linuxaomi

    Hey you blokes,

    your funny conversations don't get bloked here in China. Can read every single line.
    Btw the US dollar and the Chinese yuan will be history soon.

    Hooorooo

    June 7, 2012 at 12:20 am | Reply
  15. cmmrc

    China is ruled by a communist party. US is ruled by a capitalist party, since both rep. and dem. are capitalist parties. The result of American election is always that capitalists win.

    June 7, 2012 at 6:22 am | Reply
  16. ugajimmy

    I stopped reading this with "Elections caused the poorest households to increase their income by 29%; the richest households saw their incomes decrease by 28%." Please tell me cnn, how did you prove that elections caused this?

    June 7, 2012 at 7:59 am | Reply
  17. that's right

    We are free to ram our democracy down everyones throats. if they have a problem with that, we'll send in the marines! They will get democracy even if we have to destroy them in order to free them.

    June 7, 2012 at 8:09 am | Reply
  18. krm1007 ©™

    Experimental democracy is DOA (Dead On Arrival) in India. It is has never worked in large populated countries. Particularly those with mostly illiterate populace such as India. Too big to manage, minorities such as muslims, sikhs, christians get disenfranchised etc. India will need to go back to its socialist/communist roots. Maybe splitting it up into smaller pieces (circa USSR) is an alternate scenario.

    June 7, 2012 at 8:15 am | Reply
  19. Wasntmee

    The US has 2 parties that have a stranglehold on power excluding anyone not a member. We put a huge number of our people in jail for non violent offenses with many of them minorities. We have check points where our government stands with guns demanding ID and papers. My state of GA averages 10,000 rolling check points annually "for our protection". We have states where we send citizens to jail for offenses that would not be crimes in neighboring states. Yes China has issues but has been in existence for thousands of years. The US should be more concerned with upholding our own "equal protection and equality" for it's citizens rather than trying to police the world. IMHO. Peace....

    June 7, 2012 at 9:57 am | Reply
  20. James

    I will believe what I see on this one. In Canada we see that the old ways die hard. We hear much yadda yadda but see nothing but contradictions. So America, understand that what you think you see as a tendency towards democracy is indeed the Chinese version. More money, more freedom and rights less money zero rights.

    June 8, 2012 at 10:59 am | Reply
  21. Observer of thoughtless comments

    Look, I've seen a range of comments in here, many border on the outright insane. Some suggest that the recent weakening of the Western Democracy's economies is a sign that Democracy itself is weak. I'm sorry that you have that viewpoint but if you had any logic you would know that's absolutely false. Democracy has allowed the West to flourish for Hundreds of years. China has only recently emerged as an economic powerhouse and before that it went through decades of suffering of the likes we have never seen in the West. China is not a standard Communist country either, they only began to flourish when they opened their economy up to a more democratic free trade style, before that it was hardly an example of a good economy. Without reforms that mirror democratic societies, China would still be a 3rd world country, and parts of it still are. Democracy is not threatened by a recession, Democracy withstood the Great Depression, 2 world wars and is continuing to flourish. People are simply short-sighted. They see bad news and decide the whole system is bad. The System is fine. You just have to adapt to a changing world in order to continue to flourish. The concept of Democracy is still the best system the world has ever seen, and it allowed the growth of the most powerful nation the world has ever known, America. It will be the cornerstone of future society. Democracy keeps bad leaders from remaining in power and being too destructive to the Nation, it also allows new ideas, it allows for creative, unrestrictive problem solving unlike Communism... Which is why in many Communist nations, the populations face starvation and mistreatment at the hands of the Government, you don't see that in the West... So please, if you're going to speak on these matters, do a little research, use logic not some warped feelings drawn from recent events to form opinions... and post something that at least makes some sense.

    June 8, 2012 at 3:36 pm | Reply
    • Amato

      “The concept of Democracy is still the best system the world has ever seen, and it allowed the growth of the most powerful nation the world has ever known, America. It will be the cornerstone of future society.”
      Unfortunately the voter turnout rate shows many Americans disagree with you. Americans values have been diluted and people are losing the common values that pull the nation together.
      As for China, Communism basic values are high and noble, it served the Chinese, pull them from starvation and poverty, rebuilt their nations with strength and dignity. Economically, the Chinese realized the weakness of communism, so they look into Singapore and change. Again today they humble look into the USA, not so much into the present diluted democracy system but much more into the original American value that made USA great once.

      June 9, 2012 at 12:04 pm | Reply
    • The Shawdow

      Well said Observer.

      June 10, 2012 at 9:05 pm | Reply
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