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.