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Enough hype for the village elections In China
Hu Ping
11/11/2002



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The other day, a reporter from Radio Free Asia interviewed me over the telephone, and asked for my view on the village elections in China.

First, I emphasized that one should not set too high a valuation on the village elections. The self-governing of villagers in China simply is not worth mentioning. In ancient China, the royal-appointed officials’ rule only reached down to the county level, below which everything was autonomous. Back then, the degree of self-governing by villagers was far higher than it is today, and we have not even yet mentioned the Chinese Communist Party branch in today’s villages. Second, I mentioned that China is a country of high centralization. Thus, the result of low-level elections such as those in villages or townships is nothing aside from having either you or me transmit the documents from the central government. Third, I pointed out that the Chinese Communist Party’s agreement on the village elections should by no means be taken as the first step towards the implementation of democratization. Instead, it is for dealing with the chaotic situation of there being no management at the grassroots level in the countryside after the disintegration of the people's commune. Therefore, any viewpoint that attempts to stretch the significance of the village elections is presumptuous wishful thinking.

After the interview, I felt bothered since I could not even remember how many times I have spoken the same words. I must say, let us not talk about the village elections anymore.

In February 1980, a group of peasants in Sancha People's Commune in Yishan County, Guangxi Province spontaneously elected their Village Committee. In 1982, Article 111 of the Constitution of the People's Republic of China affirmed that the “villagers’ committee is an autonomous organization of the grassroots mass character." In other words, the village election has already existed in mainland China for twenty years. Even if one were a three-year old child back then, one should be a college graduate now. Yet China's election is still spun at its starting place.

The village election was an ugly duckling from the very beginning. Some people praised it, because they thought it would be able to turn into a beautiful swan someday. Now twenty years have passed, and the ugly duckling has not grown even a bit, and is still so ugly and so little. Obviously it is nothing but an ugly duckling, and cannot be expected to turn into a beautiful swan in its lifetime. China will have the beautiful white swan someday, but by then one will find out that it has nothing to do with this ugly duckling at the present time. I believe China will be able to realize democracy, but China's future democracy will absolutely not be established on the gradual advancement of the so-called village elections. At this point, it may simply be too naive for one to place great expectations on village elections and think surely that the democratization in China starts here.

If we compare the Congress or the open election of the President to a university graduation exam, then the village election cannot even be regarded as the first grade in elementary school. At best, it can be counted as kindergarten, the bottom class in a kindergarten. However, it has taken us twenty years to get to this bottom class of a kindergarten! A person spent twenty years at school, where all he learned was how to count numbers with his fingers from one to three, and he even puts on a show of this little ability of his, time and again. Moreover, there have always been foreigners who visit and revisit this show, giving high commendations each time. Is there anything in the entire world more laughable and absurd than this?

Some scholars claim that the reform under the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party is steady and gradually advancing. They criticize both the 1911 Revolution and the Reform Movement of 1898 as too radical. I want to add that, according to their theory, the regime in the last period of the Qing Dynasty was also rather radical. This is because in the gradually advancing reform plan issued in 1908 by the Qing government, that is, in the detailed list of the preparations for constitutionalism of the Qing Dynasty, it estimated just nine years to move from promulgating the self-government regulations in cities and townships to electing the Upper and Lower Houses of Congress. Take a look at China today and you will see that just the village election (maybe you could add township election to it) alone has stagnated at its starting place for twenty years. And this takes place one whole hundred years later than the Qing government's preparations to establish its constitution.

Mankind has already entered the 21st century. Even many third world countries including those in Africa are now electing their Congresses and Presidents (but all of them did not gradually advance and evolve from village and township elections). We, Chinese, actually are still doing child’s play type of village elections and even enjoying it. Is this an honor or a shame?

Through all these years, no one knows how many scholars and experts have put considerable effort and financial resources into the study of the village elections in mainland China, how many research conferences (including international conferences) have been held, and how many reports, papers, data and materials have been written. They have made a great show of being earnest about studying such a triviality of village elections. This must be a marvelous spectacle in the contemporary world of political science, having neither predecessors nor successors. Isn’t it time that this farce be packed up?

I certainly do not deny the village elections, just as I do not deny middle school students from electing their own class committee. I am only saying that anyone who hopes China will take the road of democratization should not indulge in the fantasy of village elections, but rather concentrate his efforts on some other focus.

* Hu Ping is Editor-in-Chief for "Beijing Spring" magazine.

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