December 5, 2013 Leave a comment
The common wisdom is that in the post-Mao years China has experienced unprecedented developments from the grassroots level to the high echelons of power. Some observers cling to examples of minor achievements in political opening to bolster far flung claims that China is on a gradual path toward political liberalization. Such pundits, mired in now largely disproved neoliberal economic theory, cling hopelessly to the notion that economic liberalization inevitably brings political liberalization. Such arguments often point to village committee elections as the starting point of a bottom up initiative toward gentle democratization. The internationalization of the series of events collectively understood as the Wukan Incident is a good example of this fervor. However, a clear understanding of adaptive governance, outlined by Heilmann and Perry in their 2011 Book Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China, challenges the conventional understanding. It encourages us to see village elections not as part of a democratizing mission, and may never have been, but as a directed effort by the central government in the 1980s to shore up inefficiencies and integrate itself by institutionalizing CCP authority at the grassroots. Furthermore, the procedural definition of democracy behind such narrowly optimistic appraisals as that trumpeted Wukan might actually contribute to forestalling more structural civil and political developments. This treatment of adaptive governance is especially germane to understanding the recent announcements of the Third Plenum.
Village Committees, An institutionalized Hoax
In late 1980 and early 1981 two counties in Guangxi (Yishan and Luocheng) began experimenting with village committees (cunmin weiyuanhui), then referred to as ‘village management committees’ (cun guan hui). This was an attempt to address the perceived impending crisis produced by decollectivization; as Naughton explains (2006, p. 89), the household responsibility system was effectively turning the collective into little more than a landlord. These early experiments in locally elected administration were done without the guidance or explicit knowledge of party representatives. Eventually, reports of Guangxi’s Village Committees reached Beijing. Vice-chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, Peng Zhen lauded the ingenuity of the newly formed VCs and subsequently instructed the NPC and the Ministry of Civil Affairs (MCA) to send investigators to Guangxi in order to gain a deeper understanding of what was happening. He encouraged other provinces to experiment with village committees. In a short time experimentation with locally elected village committees was spreading throughout China.
The following year, 1982, villager’s committees were written into the Constitution as elected mass organizations of self-government. Article 111 of the 1982 Constitution reads:
“The residents’ committees and villagers’ committees established among urban and rural residents on the basis of their place of residence are mass organizations of self-management at the grass-roots level. The chairman, vice-chairmen and members of each residents’ or villagers’ committee are elected by the residents. The relationship between the residents’ and villagers’ committees and the grass-roots organs of state power is prescribed by law. The residents’ and villagers’ committees establish committees for people’s mediation, public security, public health and other matters in order to manage public affairs and social services in their areas, mediate civil disputes, help maintain public order and convey residents’ opinions and demands and make suggestions to the people’s government.”
In 1986, a Circular from the Central Committee and the State Council on the Creation of Rural Grassroots Self-Governing Institutions defined village democracy as, ‘self-education, self-management, self-building-up and self-service,’ and urged village committees to actively engage in village campaigns (Baogang, 2007, p. 24). Deng Xiaoping encouraged investigation into village committees as a means of “political reform to overcome the systemic obstacles to his economic reform (Pei, 2008, p. 50).” The Organic Law of Village Committees was first promulgated in 1988. This preliminary version had 21 articles. The 1998 version, with an additional 9 articles, nationally mandated village elections. The current version, with 41 articles, was promulgated in 2010. These legal developments support an understanding of changing political perceptions of local level ‘democratic’ participation as the result of evolving central policies. What was at the core of these changing policies?
The village committee and its leader have significant local economic power, says Landry et al (2010, p. 766), to oversee the redistribution or lease of collectively owned village land, which since the 1980s’ rapid private development has become exceedingly valuable. This has seen a parallel increase in land rights related corruption. The committee is also tasked with, inter alia, mediating local disputes and for serving as liaison between township party officials. However, while the village committee may be entrusted with economic rights by law—implementation is another matter—the effective autonomy of the village committee to make political decisions or engage in the legislative process does not appear to have evolved since initial experimentation in the early 1980s, outside of potentially more competitive elections with higher voter turnout. I argue, in line with Nathan (2003) and Yan (2011), that village committees should be treated as the localized institutionalization of CCP authority, a far more believable objective behind central government support of initial efforts at village level self-governance.
Nathan (2003) explains that, while authoritarian regimes are generally fragile due to the prevalence of legitimacy crises, destabilizing coercive methods of control, an overly centralized power structure, and the predominance of factionalism, the Chinese model of authoritarianism has remained resilient. It has outlived most of the 20th centuries other totalitarian states, and has far outpaced its neighbor the DPRK in international integration and economic development, while maintaining fundamental power for the party. Not least of all because of the perfection of ‘input institutions.’ These are institutions that allow for a modicum of autonomy for Chinese citizens to notify the regime of their grievances. However, as Nathan (2003, p. 14) implies ‘input institutions’ may only beguile individuals into believing that “they have some influence on policy decisions and personnel choices at the local level,” while generating support for the central legitimacy of the CCP.
Yan (2011) uses different terminology to expand on the same analysis. Inclusive regime institutions (IRI), he states, are attempts by the regime to expand its internal decision making boundaries, and to integrate rather than insulate itself with non-regime members of society. IRI incentivizes participation in the regime-dominated system, although strictly demarcating the methods of participation, while at the same time preemptively stalling demands for more long term or anti-systemic changes. Although directly speaking of People’s Political Consultative Congresses (renmin zhengxie), Yan (2011, p. 54) offers a further beneficial description of IRI that fits an examination of village committees, in that IRI represent “important platforms for co-opting potentially threatening social forces” and “a mechanism for offering material benefits to the regime’s most loyal and trustworthy collaborators.”
These institutions empower individuals with clearly delimited rights and responsibilities that are never capable of challenging or even engaging equally with the regime. One might inquire whether village committees as an institution began with the reformist objective of greater democratization or as part of Nathan and Yan’s framework. Deeper understanding of adaptive policy making in China will address this concern and further develop an understanding of village committees as nothing more than regime supporting institutions.
Unlike other authoritarian states, “Mao’s China exhibited a trademark policy style that favored continual experimentation and transformation (or ‘permanent revolution’) over regime consolidation (Heilmann and Perry 2011, p.7),” a regime feature that has not been abandoned in post-Mao China. I would argue that the trajectory of village committees from 1980 to 2010 can be seen as part of what Heilmann and Perry term the ‘experimentation under hierarchy’ approach, where “trial implementation of controversial or risky reforms in limited domains regularly precedes the enactment of national laws: risky policies are tried out first, spread to larger areas secondly, and only written into national law as a last step (Heilmann, Perry, 16).” Both the legal evolution and institutionalization of village committees proceeded, as part of a carefully choreographed effort by central party authorities to address overcentralization, without foregoing the efficiency of technical central decision-making, incrementally through a series of trial implementations, investigations, central discussions, and cautious extensions.
As noted above, Deng advocated measured ‘democratization’ as an effort to bolster his economic reforms. He may have noted, in 1979, that, “we have not propagated and practiced democracy enough, and our systems and institutions leave much to be desired… (Baum, 1996, p. 81).” But in 1987, when presented with ‘The General Outline on the Reform of the Political System’ (Zhengzhi tizhi gaige zongti shexiang), a report conducted by a task force for studying and discussing reform headed by Zhao Ziyang, Deng stressed, “we cannot abandon our dictatorship. We must not accommodate the sentiments of democratization… Efficiency must be guaranteed (Pei, 2008, p. 55).” For Deng, democratic reform was about little more than maintaining efficiency, which can be understood as a constituent concern of decentralization within Nathan’s typology of regime weakness.
“we cannot abandon our dictatorship. We must not accommodate the sentiments of democratization… Efficiency must be guaranteed.”
The regime logic behind the implementation of village committees should be seen as at least threefold, and part of the adaptive governance model. The first goal was maintaining efficiency, as explicitly noted by Deng. The additional goals, in line with Nathan and Yan’s regime institutions, are to generate greater support and legitimacy for the regime and to control local malfeasance among party and non-party individuals or provide material or symbolic support for collaborators, a concern for Chinese leaders with legacies stretching as far back as Imperial China. In this light we can understand village committees as inclusive regime institutions that, rather than having been hijacked from more democratic origins, began as experiments in localized party domination. If we accept village committees as the localized extension of party domination, then an over reliance on village elections, tout court, as the barometer of democratization must be unpacked as well. It presents a shallow and partial view that also benefits and legitimizes the authoritarian regime that, by nature, must firstly permit the election to take place.
Tilly (2007, p. 8) explains that procedural definitions fixate on a narrow range of governmental practices to determine whether a regime is a democracy. Adherents of this approach tend to focus their attention on elections, likely for reasons of observability and simplicity. He argues that the problem with procedural definitions is, “despite their crisp convenience, they work with an extremely thin conception of the political processes involved (2007, p. 8).” Tilly also elucidates the more sophisticated process-oriented approach. This approach is based on measuring five criteria: (1) effective participation; (2) voting equality; (3) enlightened understanding; (4) control of the agenda; and (5) inclusion of adults (Tilly, 2007, p. 9).
Adding critique to the procedural definition, Landry et al point out, “Officials who run authoritarian elections have strong political incentives to maximize turnout, and variation in turnout reflects not individual-level decisions but instead the performance of local officials as election organizers (Landry et al, 2010, p. 768).” Clearly, that elections are taking place in China, a procedural definition is more appealing for optimistic analysis, willing to shrug off the blocking of independent candidates at township level elections as outliers, but once a process-oriented approach is applied the degree of democratization represented by village committees is significantly diminished.
Speaking tangentially to a process-oriented approach, Pei notes that “the lack of effective channels for political participation and interest representation, creating an environment in which groups unable to defend their interests are forced to take high-risk options for collective protest to voice their demands and hope for compensatory policies (Pei, 2008, p. 15).” Pei’s reference to increasing contention points perhaps to the fact that the institution of village committees not only does not represent efforts by the regime to democratize but are also failing in their attempts to be inclusive regime institutions to bolster party support and promote local stability. In other words, while village committees may be nothing more than an extension of some Faustian bargain from the center, villagers are engaging in increased contentious politics demanding a more process-oriented, truly inclusive, approach to democracy that deeper research may reveal to be far more instrumental in democratization than any amount of village elections. Put a third way, self-organized contention by civil society is a far more robust indicator of democratization within an authoritarian regime than the hijackable village election.
Encouraging electoral politics at the grassroots level to ostensibly transfer the onus of regulating abuses and maintaining efficiency, by mildly increasing autonomy, through elections, may well be a more appealing strategy than the Maoist mass line and mass criticism, but it falls far short of democratization. The evolution of the village committee should, rather, be treated as a cautiously and centrally approved institution by the CCP toward the goal of localizing its legitimacy and control. Approaching village committees through a procedural definition of democracy will inevitably produce a flawed understanding based on a narrow conception of democratization that perpetuates a myth, framed in central policy dictates, that village committees are a sign of political liberalization in China.
Baum, Richard. (1996). Burying Mao: Chinese Politics in the Age of Deng Xiaoping. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
He Baogang. (2007). Rural Democracy in China: The Role of Village Elections. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.
Heilmann, Sebastian and Perry, Elizabeth. (2011). Embracing Uncertainty: Guerilla Style Policy and Adaptive Governance in China. In Heilmann, Sebastian and Perry, Elizabeth (Ed). Mao’s Invisible Hand: The Political Foundations of Adaptive Governance in China (p. 1-29). Boston, MA: Harvard University Press.
Landry, Pierre; Davis, Debora; and Wang, Shiru. (2008). Rural Elections in China Competition with Parties. Comparative Political Studies. 43 (6). p. 763-790.
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