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.

凌扬ly: 以太石村为起点

  一条小村的村民,只是为了按照宪法赋予的权利而欲罢免村官,却遇到相当的难度。最后虽争到了权利,也附带了数十人被近千警察打伤或拘留的代价。发生在番禺鱼窝头镇太石村的这一起看似微不足道的事件,因为各方利益集团、各方思维的介入,注定不是一起简单的任免村官的个别事件。
  村民们在用尽了所有合法的手段,而未能在可以忍受的期限内得到当地政府的合理解答,他们越级上访,至于是否受了一些别有用心的人煽动,我看那只是官方的欲盖弥彰的砌词。村民不是那么容易受唆摆的,他们心里清楚得很,知道自己要争取的是什么,如果此时有人站出来愿意支持他们的合法行动,他们当然乐于接受。
  事情很简单,村民生活困难,而村委会主任对村资产的管理存在混乱,甚至有鲸吞的嫌疑,村民于是自发要求查账,并欲罢免村委会主任。奇怪的是,这个集村支书与村委会主任一身的陈进生,在今年4月份,却是得到了太石村村民6成的选票而当选。何以几个月后,民选的村官,又遭村民唾弃呢?
  
  近年来,在珠三角的农村开始实行民主选举村官。可以说,这样的民主选举,更多的还是形式上的民主。许多村民还未达到足够的素养,他们不明白自己为什么而选举。在珠三角,为了吸引村民在选举当天进行投票,村里会以一张选票少至五元多至几十元的报酬(这种投票费通常因村子的经济是否丰厚而多减)。如果没有这样的报酬,相信村民懒得去投票,而宁愿到田头劳动或到城里工作。
  这种情况的出现,也可反映出村民对政府的不信任。一个大染缸,即使当初选出来的人是清白,不久也会给染黑的。抱着这样的心态,村民的选举积极性只能以一张选票多少钱来维持。在长期有漏洞的规则下,村民不得不认为这规则是不可改变的,于是对上级安排的人选不进行过多的评判,反正选谁都一样,随便就把选票掉进了票箱。
  不可否认,在一些经济发达的村子里,村民们已开始清楚自己手中的权利了,知道自己要的是利益的公平与最大化,所以他们会选举他们值得信任的人选。在遇到不公平的时候,他们敢于站出来,对村官进行质问,并敢投掷石头。但伴随着人们明白选举的重要性时,一些候选人则也对村民进行贿赂,如投他一票多少钱,并专车接送他们到酒楼吃饭等等。
  
  村民把村官选出来了,村官极少会认为自己从此便得为村民的利益而鞠躬尽瘁的,如果没有有效的监督,村官因为掌握了第一手讯息与资源,会对村集体的利益进行中饱私囊。太多这样的事情发生了,而碰着民风纯朴的村子,村官更是肆无忌惮。村民们想查账,没门,只能私下里议论一下。
  当然,村子里有村民监督小组,但这个小组,又常常慑于上级,而进行同流。村官与村民是两个不同概念,不是服务,而是掠夺。村官与村民,虽然同是处于一村里,常常势成水火,村官也很少与村民讨论一下民生方面的问题,平时便驾着车来去如飞。
  没有监督的力量,村官的腐败是情理之中。
  
  村民在张扬自己的权利时,肯定会出现叛逆的态度,他们决不会选择上面指定的人选,而选择自己认为纯良的人选。这也造成一个问题,村民选举出来的候选人缺乏足够的管理能力,而难以驾驭村里的各项事务。一个无能的村官,对村民来说也是一个灾难。
  太石村的账给查收了,新选出来的村官该如何着手处理眼下的棘手事情呢?如果没有更上一级的领导的支持,他又能办成多少事,又能走多远呢?万一新选出来的村官,在无所作为下,又投身于以往的游戏规则中,村民们还得又一次的越级上访、守卫财务室?
  选举的胜利,并不能证明以后太石村村民便可高枕无忧。没有大环境下的选举公平,没有足够的监督力度,没有一套合理的游戏规则,太石村村民还得继续付出血的代价。
  虽然有很多思想的推动与介入,但如果执政当局不支持,在一段时间内太石村的事件,只能作为一个印记,留待日后以此作为起点。