Qin Hui on Democratic Government and Civic Society

(Southern Weekend)  Why Do We Want Peasant Associations?  The Interview with Qin Hui (秦暉).  By Xiao Shu (笑蜀).  October 19, 2006.

[in translation]

Q: The Forum on Chinese Rural Development organized by Southern Rural News recently published the "Guangzhou Consensus" to call for local governments to amend their regulations within the existing framework to remove the various unfair restrictions against the development of peasant associations.  The call is getting louder for the peasants to get organized, even as doubts persist.  One of the doubts that I heard about was that the village committee is organized spontaneously by the villagers.  Since the village committees already exists, why start some other peasant organizations such as peasant associations?

Qin Hui (Professor at Tsinghua University): Indeed, some of the people who are calling for peasant associations think that there are problems with village-level elections and therefore the peasant associations are needed to realize the democratic rights of the peasants.  But the problem is this: If the village organizations are truly elected by the peasants, then do we need peasant associations?  Under the same logic, if a government is democratically elected, then shall we eliminate labor unions, chambers of commerce and similar civic organizations?  The whole problem can be boiled down to one question: "If there is a democratic government, then do we need a civic society?"  Since the democratic government is elected by the people and represents the people, then shall all civic organizations be discarded?  This is an all-too-simple issue, so why has it become a problem?

There is some controversy about whether the village committee are government organizations or autonomous organizations.  But I don't think this debate is meaningful.  How is that?  In a true constitutional political system, as long as there is local or community autonomy, the base-level government is an autonomous organization no matter what.  But this autonomous organization is a special kind of organization which is formed by civic power.  First of all, it cannot be diversified.  In the western world, the leftists and the rights can compete for governing authority, but only one of them will be elected.  A single place cannot simultaneously have a leftist government and a rightist government.  So how would the leftists present their collective demands to a rightist government?  Secondly, the democratic government is still a territorial government.  In theory, it ought to represent the interests of all the people within the territory instead of representing the special interests of certain groups.  These special interests include the interests of the workers, the interests of the peasants, the interests of the commercial and industrial groups and so on, and they will have to be represented separately by people from those groups.

Therefore, a democratic government is not the same thing as a civic society.  Furthermore, I believe that the civic society is the foundation of a democratic government.  A democratic government is there to realize public rights, whereas the civic society is there to satisfy the public interests, especially the right to organize.  Without this right, the people cannot bring up their demands with respect to their rights.  In the face of a powerful authority, every person is atomized.  Atomized individuals cannot counteract agianst the authorities.  This will lead to the emergence of the "unfree false democracy," in which the majority decision method is used to deny freedom to others.  This is the "tyranny of the majority."

In recent years, quite a few people have talked about the "tyranny of the majority," but they often identify the so-called tyranny of the majority with "direct democracy."  This is wrong.  Direct democracy is usually infeasible, but it has nothing to do with this "tyranny."  "The tyranny of the majority" is unrelated to direct or indirect democracy.  The various cantons in Switzerland are direct democracies, but they don't have any "tyranny of the majority."  During the Nazi era, the anti-Jewish campaigns by the Germans are usually referred to as the classical example of the "tyranny of the majority."  But the first Nazi government was formed under a parliamentary system and not a "directly elected democratic" government.  The so-called tyranny comes from the public power created by the "majority" (either directly or indirectly) overstepping its limits to attack civic freedom.

Q: Is this what is commonly said as using democracy to oppose freedom?

A: Yes.  The peasant association issue is mainly not a question about democracy.  It is about the freedom to associate, because a peasant association is not a political association.  Suppose 10% of the peasants want to establish a peasant association.  You cannot ban them because they are a "minority."  Conversely, if 90% of the peasants join the peasant association, the association cannot use the majority decision to rule over the minority.  Today we do not need the kind of revolutionary or power-seizing peasant association to whom all power belongs.  This is not to say that there is not a problem about democracy in the rural areas.  But we cannot say the two things are identical.  The peasant associations are organizations that protect the interests of its members.  The government is the organization that exercises public authority.  If the peasants can freely organized their associations, then even if the government officials were not democratically elected, their powers are subjected to restrictions and they cannot arbitrarily abridge the rights of the peasants.  Conversely, if the peasants cannot organize to protect their rights, then even democratically elected officials can abuse their authority to damage the interests of the peasants.

Another thing is the relationship between democratic governments and NGO's.  International scholars usually think that the government's principal function is to perform public works to provide public goods to society.  But more and more people think that there are many inadequacies in relying on the government to satisfy the public needs.  According to the theory of neutral needs, even a democratic government can only provide those public goods that are needed by the "majority."  Those public goods that are not needed by the "majority" will often go missing.  Examples such as poverty relief, assistance to handicapped persons, etc are not being adequately handled by the government because these groups are small and do not figure in government policies.  Thus, Non-Government Organizations are needed to provide those public goods and services.  In summary, the government has flaws in terms of providing public goods and services, and third parties are needed to fill in the gaps.

Contemporary NGO's have a new special characteristic, and that is the rapid development of public interest groups not formed from the target groups.  For example, charity organizations, human rights organizations, environmental protection organizations, green peace organizations, women/children protection organizations and indigenous population organizations are different from the traditional groups mainly on the following -- they are not acting on behalf of the interests of the members of the organization; rather, they are representing the public interest.  In other words, these are spontaneously emergent organizations that derive their human and financial resources from volunteer workers and donations.

Many people hold great expectations for these non-member-based public interest organization, but this may be too idealistic.  Actually, these non-member-based public interest organizations is a higher form of civic society that can only occur when the member-based public interest organizations become highly developed.  If you cannot defend your own rights, how are you going to defend the rights of others?  Therefore, when we speak about NGO's today, we should really emphasize on those organizations that protect the rights of their members.  This is where the emphasis for a civic society in China should go to.  The most idealistic things are not unattainable, but without the foundations such as peasant associations, these "higher ideals" do not have a bright outlook.

I believe that the peasants should have the right to associate.  Organizing into an association allows them to interact with other interest groups, conduct collective bargaining and participate in the 'game.'  I have always thought: an organization formed by acquaintances may require more ethics-based autonomy without being democratic.  The smaller the group, the more the people in the group will rely on mutual trust and ethical relationships.  Then power and responsibility can easily merge into one and the need for "democratic" requirements is smaller.  As an example: within a family, even westerners would not advocate the separation of powers and democratic election of the father head.  The reason is simple: the father's power is based upon his responsibility -- no matter how bad he is, he should not hurt his own children.  Acquaintances outside of the family circle are bounded less by these kinds of ethical concerns, but it is still more effective compared to total strangers.  Besides the "transactional costs" are lower.  But in a world of total strangers, ethics cannot solve the problem.  There has to be a system to balance the powers in order to ensure corresponding responsibilities.

It is the same thing in a rural network of acquaintances.  In practice, there are low-cost functions among acquaintance circles that can solve the problems about the supply of public goods and services as well as authority and responsibility.  Democracy is pretty good in using these public resources, but there does not seem to be major issues in the absence of democracy.  In many undeveloped rural villages, the issue is not democracy versus non-democracy.  The places that truly need democracy are those larger societies consisting of strangers with very few direct emotional bonds.  The democratic system is actually a way of establishing social responsibility in a society of strangers.

Therefore, democracy is not omnipotent.  Democracy is more suitable at the county-level or higher.  At the village-level, the main thing is to develop effective autonomy.  So what about the town-level?  I believe that in many places in China, the town-level government can be appointed by the higher-level government and their members can be professional officials or public servants who are responsible to their supervisors.  So how can the town-level rights of the peasants be realized?  It does not have to come through any directly elected town officials.  It is more important to organize the peasant associations.  I don't think that there is anything wrong with peasant associations representing the rights of the peasants and communicating/negotiating with the government.  This will actually be a better way of administering the towns and villages.  There will not be too much administrative costs or burden, it will maintain a certain level of efficiency and it will protect the rights of the people.  Although the town officials are appointed rather than elected, their powers are restricted, they are held accountable, they cannot do as they please, the demands of the peasants will be mediated and petition to higher levels is possible.  Thus, town governance will have to obtain the approval of the peasants.  I feel that this is a better outcome than arguing further on the irresolvable question of direct town-level elections.

Q: Your theory can be summarized as: "Autonomy is better than democracy."

A:  You can also say "autonomy is more important than democracy" and "freedom is more important than democracy."

Q: There is sufficient proof that peasant associations are inevitable, but there is still the question of the implementation.

A: I feel that legislation is possible.  Of course, we need to consider that in the history of reform of China, actions have been based upon practical experimentation.  After a certain period, the practice receives legal acceptance.  The various changes in rural China came in this manner: the all-round responsibility system; the village/town enterprises and the migrant laborer wave all came in this way.

Q: But those changes were in the economic realm whereas the peasant associations enter the political realm.  There are many conflicts in rural society, and certain local cadres are sensitive.  As soon as you form an organization, they may hit back.  This is easily conceived to be a challenge to their authority, no matter what it is that you are actually trying to do.

A: Actually, the real challenge is somewhere else other than the peasant association.  In the data collected by Yu Jianrong, befpre setting out to petition, 70% of the peasants believe that their upper-level officials are fair and just and the problems exist only at the base level.  The petitions to the upper levels do not usually solve the problems, and they usually result in retaliations against the petitioners.  Then these petitioners think that there is a problem at the upper level and this inflicts tremendous damage to the trust in the system.  Sometimes, it leads to irrational reactions.  This warns us that while there are risks from the peasant associations, there are bigger risks from other methods.  If you let the peasants form their own associations to negotiate their interests through a system of mediation, you can solve the problem at the base level and the irrational reactions such as petitions to the upper levels would not be so serious.

Q: I still have a question.  If the rural community has spent so much effort with direct elections and peasant associations, then I think that a presupposition has to be that there exists a rural elite.  But the talents in rural villages are being depleted.  Under these circumstances, what is the purpose of having either direct elections or peasant associations?  I agree with the view that the principal theme in the Chinese rural problem is the migrant laborer issue rather than the rural villages themselves.

A: I share the same view.  It is obviously important for the government to subsidize new housing in rural villages, but it is more important to provide cheap housing for migrant laborers in the urban areas.  This is more practical.  The real problem in China is not the "Three Peasants" problem.  The "agriculture problem" and the "rural village" problem are not the main things.  The key problem is still about how we should deal with the "people" who form the majority of our citizenry, and that is about how we should treat the "peasants."  The "peasant problem" is the key to the problem in China.  But the so-called peasant problems cannot be thought of as the problems of those people who farm the land.  Rather, this is the problem of about how to deal with those people who have been traditionally defined as "peasants" (no matter whether they farm right now or not).  As you say, many of those people live in cities right now.  Can the "problem" be solved without taking those others into consideration?

Q: This is not a problem about migrant laborers.  It is a problem about peasants.

A: Yes.  The problem about the peasants is not necessarily a problem about rural farmers.  It does not have to show up in the rural villages.  But the traditional system defines peasants as those people who are defined as peasants according to the household registration system.  No matter where they live now, they have serious problems that need to solved.

Q: They carry a stamp on their body that they take no matter where they go.

A: Yes.  When we speak about peasants, we are not referring to an occupation, we are not referring to people who are farming the land and we are not talking about a social class.  Among the peasants, there are rich and poor people and there are employers and employees.  But even if they are rich and they are bosses, they are still peasants such as those who are often called "rural entrepreneurs."  As "peasants," they have problems with protecting their rights.

Q: Basically, it is a lack of rights -- a lack of civil rights.

A: Yes.  Therefore, it is completely correct to focus on protecting the rights of the migrant laborers.  But this does not prevent us from being concerned about the problems of the rural villages.  After all, many rural peasants are unable to go to the cities and they are stuck in the villages.

If the new construction of rural villages were to make any sense, then the rights of decision should be handed to the villagers.  If they want to go the cities, you need to protect their rights in the cities; if they want to stay in the villages, you have to protect their rights in the rural villages.  If you avoid this "rights" issue, then whether you are for or against urbanization, you are still violating the rights of the peasants.  What is the situation for many Chinese peasants?  They want to go into the cities, but they feel that they are prejudiced against when they get there; if they stay in their villages, their land is sometimes forcibly requisitioned and they are being forced out.  I can put it in the starkest terms: "You give their rights to them, you don't force them to leave and you don't take away their land.  If they go into the city, you do not discriminate against them and you treat them like any regular citizen.  That is all.  In developing the economy, urbanization is inevitable.  But urbanization is a natural process, and there is no need for the government to forcibly chase the peasants out.

Q: Yes.  Based upon the current economic development of China, the progress of urbanization may be limited.  The number of people that the cities can absorb may be limited.

A: That is for sure.  Whether peasants will go to the cities depends on whether they can find jobs.  Peasants are not stupid.  Why wouldn't they keep their land while they check things out in the city?  That is entirely possible, and this is what usually happens.  If they cannot find work in the city, they return home.  There is no doubt.  There may be some people who sell their lands without any information and then head straight into the cities, but there must be fewer such people than those who were forced to leave after someone took an interest in their land.

Q: Peasants are rational economic agents.  The calculations of self-interests by peasants cannot be worse than ours.

A: When the conditions are ripe, the peasants definitely want to go to the cities.  But if the conditions are not ripe, they definite will not go.  The problem is as simple as that.

Q: yes.  The basis problem is about rights as to whether the peasants can freely choose.  For many local governments, land requisition is done through an order.  A simple administrative order turns a rural village into an urban area and all the peasants are forced out.  The peasants had no choice but to move into the cities.  When the peasants become a problem in the city, another administrative order creates many barriers (such as the ability to rent houses) for the peasants and keeps the peasants in the rural areas by artificial means.  Most of the time, the peasants do not have the freedom to choose between going into the cities or staying in the villages.  Everything depends on the needs of the local governments.

A; Much of urbanization is artificial, and it is a means by which local government generates revenue.  Problems will obviously arise as a result.

Anyway, the peasant problem is one of peasant rights.  To protect peasant rights, peasant associations are needed.  That is the reason why the issue of peasant association is getting attention.