By Zhang Jing, published: March 19, 2015
We were in Guangdong during the two weeks before the Chinese New Year, and Xiao Bin, an old classmate of ours, suggested that we make time to visit the village of Xiawei (下围村). “Interesting things” had happened there, he told us. This village known for airing its grievances year after year through petitions has been transformed. The village had been known in the area for tensions between village cadres and the populace, and they were the grounds for never-ending petitions by villagers. In 1999, the village held its first direct election. Though a good chance for reconciliation, the election unfortunately turned into a turmoil. The government had to send in 400 police officers to “maintain order.” In 2000, to tackle the growing petition problems, the CCP secretary of Zengcheng (增城) spent three days in Xiawei for “truth finding.” He was beleaguered by angry villagers. The ensuing decade recorded Xiawei petitioners constantly flooding into the provincial and even the nation’s capital to voice discontent.
Given that problems in Xiawei had been longstanding, we figured that the underlying problems must be deep and complex. What happened that has brought peace to the place? We decided to go and find out for ourselves.
Xiawei village is located in Zengcheng district to the east of Guangzhou. In the 1990, the village engaged in waves of vigorous investment and development. Superbly located for commerce, the village leaders constructed hotels and shopping malls by the main road. As so often is the case in China, those who managed the village’s public assets and oversaw its development profited handsomely in their positions of power. As in other parts of the country, Xiawei’s road to prosperity was teeming with strife. Villagers frequently contested their leader’s business activities such as accounting, real estate leasing, project contracting, land expropriation and relocation. This kind of strife went on incessantly for more than two decades.
Most Xiawei villagers carried the same last name “Guo” (郭), indicative of their lineage. But sharing the same ancestry didn’t stop the fighting between two “groups” of the Guos. Each group had its leaders, and the village leadership alternated between the two groups. When one group was in control, the other wouldn’t cooperate. The assumption of the village leadership by one group often triggered a new round of tension. If the leadership was made up of people from both groups, they wouldn’t work as a team. Decisions were hard to reach, and harder to be implemented. For many years, Xiawei simply oscillated between those two scenarios.
For each group, the cause of strife had always been the same: the group in power giving business opportunities to their own group. As a result, the disenfranchised group would petition with the goal to replace the village leaders from the other group with their “own people.” That being done, another round of petitioning would ensue in the next few years until the current leaders were unseated. Then the old story repeated itself all over again with enmity growing ever stronger. Increasingly, when their quarrels could not be resolved locally, villagers banded together to petition higher levels of the government.
Everyone knew that the fierce confrontation between the two groups was bad for all: the real estate became idle because no one could run it without interference, clients gave up businesses because they were tired of dealing with quarrels, and much of the public assets remained unutilized.
They knew they needed to change but the problem was that no change could be initiated because of the divide. Fist fights broke out in every meeting; resolutions could hardly be reached; when they did, their implementation was obstructed every step of the way. For over 20 years, it had been a headache for local government to maintain stability in Xiawei.
In early 2014, when the village was deeply mired in this development bottleneck, a villager council was established . There are about 600 households in Xiawei. Based on household population, every 5 to 15 households choose a representative to form a 69-member village council. Council meetings are held periodically and the agenda for each meeting is selected from the village’s WeChat platform. The most contentious issues command top priority. To address different interests, several propositions might be proposed for each issue. After fierce debates, representatives vote, and the proposition with at least two-thirds of the votes is adopted as the final resolution. All representatives must ratify the resolution by signing or fingerprinting the document. The entire meeting is broadcast to the public via WeChat and the resolutions are announced on spot. Villagers can watch the proceedings on their smartphones in real time. The “Village Council Guidelines” stipulate that once a resolution is adopted, the two governing bodies – the Villagers Autonomous Committee and the Village CCP Committee – as well as all villagers must “abide by it” without any tampering.
The two Committees convene the council meetings. Besides the podium for speakers and the seats for the representatives, the meeting room also has seats for monitors and observers. The party committee members and the director of the village cooperative, who are not representatives, can attend as observers. “They can join the deliberations, but they have no voting power.”
As the village’s decision-making body, the village council has deliberated and adopted resolutions on issues such as the village’s economy and social development plans, procedures of the council, procedures for initiating and contracting economic projects, the use and allocation of large funds, public debt management, public assets management, the leasing of public land and real estate, the financing of public interest construction projects like utilities, roads, and piping, and the distribution of compensation…In sum, every matter having to do with the village’s collective assets or concerns is discussed and voted in the village council.
At the beginning, the meetings were often chaotic with people grabbing the microphone, throwing objects at or pouring liquid on speakers, calling names, damaging equipment, and even blocking representatives from entering the venue. To deal with such conducts, the Village Council Guidelines borrowed ideas from soccer games: a yellow card for warning against inappropriate behaviors, a red card for serious breaches, and representatives receiving two yellow cards or one red card would be deprived of deliberation and voting rights once.
Since the rules are impartial and the cards are applied to behaviors, not affiliations, the representatives have adapted to the new rules faster than initially anticipated. On top of that, there are pressures from the court of opinions expressed by other villagers on the internet. Gradually, the representatives have chosen self-restraint over chaos. Still fierce in debates, the two groups fight no more and are able to sit down and talk. In less than a year, Xiawei village council has successfully held 16 meetings, deliberated 38 propositions, 29 were adopted, 1 vetoed, and 8 discarded. Out of those 29 resolutions, 23 are being implemented with no obstruction from any villagers, as the two village governing bodies have found out, something that was unthinkable over the past 20 years.
The village council system quickly garnered support from majority villagers, and the two governing bodies have received positive ratings. Projects decided by the village council have received unprecedented satisfaction rates. The village leaders are happy, because the village now boasts the occurrence of zero petitions, and they don’t have to worry that they are the objects of villagers’ complaints. The villagers are even happier because, now that the decision-making is transparent, they don’t have to worry about being hoodwinked. With the new consensus-building mechanism in place, the village’s collective assets, which had been idle for years, are now revived. The village’s revenue has increased, so have investments in annual bonus, retirement benefits, environment beautification, and public security.
What has caused the disappearance of clash that plagued the village for 20 years? Because the village council has eliminated factional fights for control of power.
Under the new rules, the village council was the decision making body, and the two governing bodies are the executors of the decisions. The village leaders said, “our role has changed from [being] the bosses to the housekeepers.” Or in academic jargon, the power of control has been transferred. The process of decision making has shifted from humans (leaders) to an institution (the council), and the proceedings have moved from behind-the-door secrecy to public view. Village leaders have significantly less say in the distribution of interests, nor are they as keen on power grabbing as before. The situation now is that, even if they fight for and secure leadership positions, they have no power to change the decision-making rules which are set by the council.
With everyone either closely participating in, or watching, the decision making process, to influence the 69 representatives and the 600 households they represent, one must be able to reason in front of the council and persuade it. No group could predominate the council itself. Persuasion is more effective than quarreling in winning votes from representatives. Any attempts by individuals to circumvent the new rules and try to maneuver the process are not only very difficult but also running the risk of making a fool of themselves, not to mention that one could lose one’s seat next time around.
In Xiawei village, the people are the same, the issues are the same, but with the new rules of governance, the results are very different these days. The village has experienced no turmoil as the council turns the management of public assets from individuals’ power to public consensus. Instead, it has become more stable. The leaders are more respected these days even though they have less say in decision-making. This leads to more effective leadership, better cooperation from villagers, and better governance. The two things that were feared – instability and loss of respect – have not occurred. In just six months or so, Xiawei has transformed itself from a “problem village” to a “civilized model village.”
The reason that the new rules could take root in Xiawei is because they have worked and resolved problems. The key to more stability and less conflict, to more respect for the two governing bodies and less personal power, is the transformation of the decision-making mechanism. Between having a village council and having to deploy 400 policemen, which model is more reasonable, orderly and efficient? Which one is cost effective? The practices of Xiawei village are handing out the answers.
 Editor’s note: I’m curious whether the council was set up spontaneously by villagers or as a government-guided pilot program. I asked Professor Zhang but she has not responded.
Zhang Jing (张静) is a professor of sociology at Peking University.
Beijie Village: a Land Grab Case, a Village Election, and a Microcosm of China, by Yaqiu Wang, December 16, 2014.
(Translated by Zhong Ming)
Chinese original was published in Financial Times Chinese website on February 28, 2015.