The Importance of The Taishi Elections
The details of what has happened is given in this continuously updated post The Taishi Village Elections - Part 1 (Chronology). What is so important about the recall of the village committee director of a village of 2,047 residents?
First of all, let us be very clear about what has happened. In essence, this is exceedingly simple.
That is the essence of the situation, and nothing of substance has really happened.
But this is an important case. I'll explain.
For some time now, village-level elections have been held in certain parts of China. These elections are treated as experiments to see how to roll out the elections across the country, first at the village level and then at the town level later. We are supposed to learn from experiments, but we are not getting enough feedback about what is happening in those villages.
Taishi is that big case study. Many things have happened over the past few weeks -- public meetings, police beatings, a police raid to seize the village accounting ledger, mass arrests, secret arrests, sit-in's, hunger strikes, etc. For those sensationalistic reasons, Taishi is sitting in the middle of intense media spotlights. On the Internet, the Yannan forum in China has a special page devoted to Taishi. People's Daily re-published an opinion piece praising the positive lessons from the election. International media have visited the village; see The Taishi Village Elections - Part 2 (The KR Report). This is not an easy story for western media to follow because it is unfolding over a long time-frame. But everything about Taishi from now on will be scrutinised carefully.
What will we learn?
So far, we have the preparation for a recall and then most likely there will be the election of a new village director.
Who shall run in the election? Based upon the results from the elections of the recall committee members, it is likely that no current or former officials can win under the prevailing circumstances. In the election for the recall committee, the current director Chen Jinsheng received 17 votes out of 583 eligible votes, so he is history. The new director will emerge from among the civilians. What kind of person then? The recall committee members include a 30-something military veteran; a teacher's wife; a small enterpreneur who sells sugar cane and fruit; a farmer; a factory worker; a motorcycle cab driver. The general opinion is that these are good and trustworthy people.
There will be an interesting debate over the desirable qualities of a village leader. Will goodness and trustworthiness be 'good' enough? Or should we be talking about competency here? There is a standard criticism about democratic elections -- they are won by people who are good at winning elections, but the winners may turn out to be corrupt or incompetent afterwards. Many people may like a school teacher known to parents and children, but is this the person to deal with a 6 million RMB annual budget while trying to reduce a 10 million RMB debt? And who among the civilians have any related administrative or management experience? Conversely, under the current climate, the officials who have that related experience will not be elected. So let us look forward to detailed coverage and analysis of this particular election.
Afterwards, how will the performance and conduct of the new village director be monitored? That is the next big question. Democratic elections are not held for the joy of the experience of casting a vote and seeing your choice win. They are supposed to solve problems, and what is the point if the village debt triples in size in the next three years? This will be a long-term development.
Another big question is how the new village leader will work with the higher levels of government in Yuwotou town and Panyu district. One of the outside activists at Taishi is Lu Banglie, who had previously organized a recall campaign and then won the new election in a Hubei village. He ended up leaving in frustration, because his village was poor and had no natural or economic resources. Good intentions are not enough to deliver practical results, and nothing would change without some outside help. The Pearl River Delta is more affluent, and that was why Lu Banglie became interested in this case. Still, the open question is whether Taishi can solve all its problems. There has bound to be some things that Taishi will have to work with the town and district governments. The Panyu district authorities have been downright hostile to the developments at Taishi, and probably want to see Taishi fail. So this will be another interesting situation.
Those are some of the practical issues of democracy that will be on display. If someone is smart, then they should move there and keep a diary.
The following is the translation of an Internet essay which some of the same points that I made above. The original Chinese document is enclosed, because it might be censored.
Taishi Village as the Starting Point: Ling Yang (September 18, 2005)
[translation] The residents of a small village recently encountered some difficulty when they exercised their constitutional right to recall a village official. Although they gained that right eventually, dozens of people were injured or arrested by the police. This seemingly insignificant incident that occurred in Taishi Village, Yuwotou Town, Panyu is no longer a simple case of official recall because various interests groups and formations have stepped in.
Previously, the villagers used all the legal means but they could not get a reasonable answer from the local government within an acceptable timeframe. Were they "petitioning" beyond the appropriate level? Were they "inflamed by certain people with ulterior motives"? I think that is just stuff made up by the government. The villagers cannot be manipulated so easily. They knew what they were fighting for. If someone comes and supports them, they will accept that help.
The matter is very simple. The villagers were not having an easy living. The management of the village assets by the director showed some confusion, and even hints of theft. The villagers spontaneously asked for an audit and the recall of the village committee director. It is peculiar that in April of this year, Chen Jinsheng, who is the village committee director as well as the party secretary, was elected with more than 60% of the votes from the villagers. So why is this popularly elected official being rejected by the same villagers just a few months later?
In recent years, the rural villagers in the Pearl River Delta have begun to implement democratic election of village officials. It should be said that this kind of democratic election is mostly democracy only in form. Many villagers do not have sufficient knowledge and some do not even know why they are voting. In the Pearl River Delta, in order to attract more villagers to vote on election day, the village may pay a "fee" from 5 RMB to a tens of RMB (this fee varies depending on the wealth of the village). Without these fees, some villagers may not bother to vote because they would rather work in the fields or the city.
These conditions arise because the villagers distrust the government. This is one big dye pot; even if the elected person was clean at first, they will be stained after a while. With this mindset, the participation of the villagers can only be sustained by paying them to do so. Due to the faulty regulations over the long term, the villagers begin to think that these conditions are immutable. Thus, they don't carefully evaluate the candidates designated by the upper-level officials. It does not matter to them who gets elected and their job is simply to put a ballot into a box in order to get paid.
Undeniably, in certain economically developed villages, the villagers are beginning to recognize the power in their hands. They know that they will have to vote for the most trustworthy person if they want to maximize their own interests. When injustice occurs, they dare to stand up and question the village officials, or even throw rocks. But as people recognize the importance of voting, some candidates begin to bribe villagers, as in paying money for their votes or taking them out for meals.
After the villagers elect the officials, very few of those officials actually think that they should do their best to work for the interests of the people. In the absence of effective monitoring, the officials have the information and resources to benefit personally to the detriment of the public interest. Too many such things have happened. In villages where the people are unsophisticated, the officials can get away with everything. If the villagers want to audit the books, they won't get a chance. At the most, they can exchange some gossip among themselves.
Of course, the villages have monitoring committees made up of citizens. But these committees are usually intimidated or even co-opted. The village official and the village citizen are two concepts. It is not about service, it is about theft. The village officials and the village civilians live in the same village, but they are like fire and water. The village officials rarely discuss the people's livelihood with the villagers. Most of the time, they just speed away in their cars.
In the absence of monitoring, the corruption of village officials is expected.
When the villagers exercise their rights, they will exhibit rebellious behavior. They will never elect those candidates designated by the officials. They will choose people that they think are good and pure. This creates a different problem, because the person thus elected may lack administrative ability and cannot manage the various business activities in the village. An incompetent village official is just as much a disaster for the villagers.
The accounting books for Taishi Village have been seized. How shall the newly elected director handle this sticky problem? Without the support of the officials at the town or district level, what can he really do? How far can he go? If the newly elected village official cannot get anything done, and then falls back into the old rules of the game, would the villagers go through another petition campaign and the defense of the budget office?
The victory for the election does not prove that the Taishi villagers have no more worries. Without a fair election, without adequate monitoring and without a rational set of game rules, the Taishi villagers will have to continue to pay in blood.