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The Pipe Dream of Independent Candidacy, Once Every Five Long Years

Mo Zhixu, July 1, 2016

2016 is also an election year in China, in case you are not aware of it.


Wukan elections, February 2012. Photo: Xinhua

Wukan elections, February 2012. Photo: Xinhua

A struggle is once again brewing in Wukan. Four years ago, after a protracted struggle during which village representative Xue Jinbo (薛锦波) lost his life under mysterious circumstances in police custody, the people of Wukan were able to elect a village leader that they trusted. But several years later, they still haven’t been able to win back their rights and things have again become unsettled. Police recently detained Lin Zulian (林祖恋), the elected head of Wukan’s village committee, and then put him on television to confess to accepting bribes.

And in just the past few days in Gansu Province, independent candidates for local People’s Congresses, like Qu Mingxue (瞿明学), have been detained on criminal charges of “sabotaging elections.”

It wasn’t long ago, back in the heyday of Weibo, that everyone was talking about how the village elections in Wukan and the appearance of independent People’s Congress candidates were hopeful signs for grassroots democracy and politics in China. Back then, both media and netizens placed considerable hope in these phenomena. But a short five years later, we’re once again in an “election year” and the situation looks as bleak as ever.

High Hopes for Grassroots Democracy

After 1989, China found itself in a deep freeze as far as political participation was concerned. As radical transformation became impossible, and what came to replace it after Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour” in 1992 were various visions of gradual change premised on the spread of market forces in China.

Entering the 21st century, China joined the WTO and successfully held the Beijing Olympics. Economic development went relatively smoothly, leading to the rapid formation of new social strata. At the same time, the authorities targeted particular opposition groups with continuous repression and severe crackdowns. In this atmosphere, there’s been a gradual withering-away of the idea of radical transformation that had guided the tragic movement in 1989. In its place, gradualism has become the new mainstream — even politically correct — discourse.

The main evidence supporting these visions for gradual change have been phenomena like grassroots democracy, legal rights defense, the opening up of discursive space through commercialized media, spaces for online expression, and the development of civil society and NGOs. Grassroots democracy has quite an important place in this discourse. This is because rights defense, the opening of discursive space, and the development of civil society are more facilitative or necessary conditions for political transition, or else serve as substitutes for political participation in certain periods where such participation is difficult or impossible.

Grassroots elections, on the other hand, is the essence of political participation itself; moreover, they can be seen as the true beginning of the gradual political transition made possible by the maturation of those other conditions.

At the end of the 1990s when the Law of Self-Rule by Village Committees (《村委会自治法》) appeared, the prospect of direct elections or use of “write-in ballots” first sparked hopes that grassroots democracy might lead China’s democratic transition. However, the practice of village-level democracy remained within the scope of self-rule and didn’t affect the overall political system. Nevertheless, grassroots democracy at this level has been put under all sorts of control and finds itself breathing what may be its last, dying breath. As Chang Ping (长平) recently wrote in “Wukan: China’s Domestic Experiment with ‘One Country Two Systems’”: “Within the overall dictatorial environment, small-scale democratic elections face all sorts of difficulties and inevitably wind up at a dead end.”

Comparatively speaking, the appearance of independent candidates in township- or county-level people’s congress elections was invested with even greater hope and even seen as a possible transition path. This is because, under China’s current electoral system, it remains possible for members of the public to nominate their own candidates or even to elect a write-in candidate by selecting the box of “other” on the ballot. This is how Yao Lifa (姚立法) got elected in Qianjiang City, Hubei, for example, back in 1998.

Independent candidates are formally allowed under the current system and there is a theoretical chance of ultimately being successful. And when you factor in the new market forces and online modes of communication, it’s possible for regional independent candidates to become known throughout China and even internationally. For these reasons, many people hoped that independent candidacy might serve as a path to broader political participation and, in the process, advance China’s democratic transition. For these same reasons, whether it was at the beginning of the new Hu-Wen regime in 2003 or during the heyday of Weibo, grassroots elections, and especially independent candidates, were seen as the next step and something in which people could invest their hopes for political transition. For a time, more hope seemed to be invested in it than internet expression, participation in public interest causes, and rights-defense activities.

The Uselessness of China’s ‘Elections’

It’s always been open to debate, however, whether or not China’s electoral system can sustain such hopes. For a variety of reasons, mainland Chinese observers often take Taiwan’s transition to democracy as a point of reference. There’s no doubt that elections played quite a significant role in Taiwan’s democratic transition, and for this reason Chinese gradualists never tire of talking about the subject. However, comparing the electoral systems in Taiwan and mainland China, as well as Taiwan’s road to democracy, we can see that it’s much more difficult under China’s electoral system for independent candidates to play the important role of pushing forward this transition.

First of all, the elections in which they compete take place at too low a level. Everyone knows that People’s Congresses at all levels in China are rubber stamps, and Chinese elections are merely decorative to the dictatorship. China’s so-called elections are limited in that no executive offices are chosen through direct elections and even elections for delegates to People’s Congress are restricted to the county and township levels only. Taiwan, on the other hand, had put in place direct elections for county commissioners, and representatives in both county and provincial assemblies in as early as 1954. Starting in the late 1960s, there were competitive elections for some seats of the National Assembly and Legislative Yuan.

Direct elections thus cut across executive and legislative branches and span from the central government down to the local level. It was only because of this that elections were able to have a social influence and promote transition to democracy in Taiwan. And under these circumstances, the officials and legislators who ran for office could form a political core outside of the KMT. Whether it was the 1979 demonstrations by Huang Shin-chieh (黃信介) and other members of the opposition in the Kaohsiung Incident or the formation of the Tangwai Research Association for Public Policy, these independent politicians were able to have an impact and eventually lead to the formation of an opposition party because of Taiwan’s particular electoral system and election practice.

A second difference between Taiwan and mainland China is that many constraints have been placed on China’s electoral system. The essence of dictatorship is total control over society and the elimination of spontaneous political participation. Since China’s electoral system is merely decorative, it was designed from its inception with all sorts of restrictions and mechanisms to limit participation.

So-called independent candidates can only take part in elections for county and township people’s congresses, but even these elections have been painstakingly engineered so that small electoral districts are coordinated with the political structure in order to facilitate control and mobilization. In order to prevent members of the public from nominating their own candidates, an “incubation phase” has been set up to ensure that any unacceptable individuals can be weeded out from the formal list of candidates. Given all of these various measures, it takes a miracle for any candidate who isn’t part of the political system to get elected. This not only considerably dampens enthusiasm to participate; it also means that it’s nothing but a pipe dream to hope that elections will somehow lead to a democratic transition in China.

Finally, we must consider the long interval between elections in China. Because Taiwan holds elections for executive and legislative offices over three levels of government from central to local, contests are frequent and “election season” is always just around the corner. Under Taiwan’s particular form of authoritarian reality, “election season” served to expand political participation and ultimately created favorable conditions for Taiwan’s democratic transition. China’s “decorative” electoral system, on the other hand, only allows for direct election of county and township people’s congress delegates once every five years, meaning that “election season” arrives much less often in China. And considering how much participation is suppressed, this long five-year interval between elections makes it difficult to gather a sustained accumulation of experience.

Altogether, it means that there’s little hope that independent candidacy alone will do much to promote democracy. This is why, from almost the very beginning, those who have advocated for independent candidacy have all made even higher demands for the electoral system.

They expect the electoral system to undergo a number of reforms. First, they want to see direct elections at higher levels of government, including for executive offices. Others want to see the system of village elections expanded to direct elections for government positions at the township level and above. In 1998, 6,000 voters in Buyun Township in Suining, Sichuan (四川遂宁步云乡), chose the first township head elected through direct vote since 1949. Afterwards, similar experiments were conducted in Shenzhen and other places. This attracted much attention from the media and liberals, but in the end it never led anywhere. In recent years, among the reform proposals Prof. Yu Jianrong (于建嵘) has repeatedly been peddling, county-level direct election reform has been a core proposal.

A Reality Check

Unfortunately, things have gone in precisely the opposite direction from what people had hoped for. The expansion of market forces has led to the emergence of a variety of rights demands and stimulated the desire of new social strata to take part in politics. These new social strata have gravitated toward independent candidates. The craze for independent candidates that appeared on Weibo back in 2011 was based on these socio-economic changes. However, thanks to the political logic in place since 1989, the current system hasn’t changed in any way to accommodate these new demands. Instead, the regime continued to pursue its policies of stability maintenance. The stronger these social forces became, the more rigid the stability-focused regime grew. In this way, Chinese authorities have come to see independent candidacy as a form of protest that must be restricted and suppressed.

The irony is that even when independent candidates have a desire to work inside the existing system, the authorities see them as representing the “other.”

Five years ago, during the online craze for independent candidates, I reminded people that running for office was a form of protest: “Those running for People’s Congress want to broaden political participation in China, but the stability-maintenance regime is focused on using autocratic deterrence and management and repression of society, including the elimination of political participation. Standing for election thus constitutes a direct challenge to the stability-maintenance system and must be suppressed. The fate of people like Liu Ping (刘萍) is proof of this point. I hope that Li Chengpeng and others who want to run as independent People’s Congress candidates will be prepared.”

What happened afterward proved that my judgment was correct: “Under the stability-maintenance system, there will be no hesitation about repressing independent candidates or blocking information about elections.” Such a system can’t even tolerate the presence of an independent candidate as a token of democracy. Given that running as an independent candidate is a form of protest, it will inevitably meet with even greater repression. The criminal detention of Qu Mingxue and others demonstrates this escalating repression. Of course it also demonstrates further that any hope of using independent candidacy to further the transition to democracy is unfounded.

But protest is never insignificant. Some people shy away and retreat after having taken part in this form of protest, but others like Liu Ping emerge from their participation in grassroots elections to follow even more resolute paths of protest. In this respect, elections may not be able to change the system, but taking part in them can have a transformative effect on us as people. Once we cast off our false hopes, perhaps our struggle will finally generate some real hope.


Mo Zhixu (莫之许), pen name of Zhao Hui (赵晖), is a Beijing-based Chinese dissident intellectual and a frequent contributor of Chinese-language publications known for his incisive views of Chinese politics and opposition. He is the co-author of “China at the Tipping Point? Authoritarianism and Contestation” in the January, 2013, issue of Journal of Democracy.


Also by Mo Zhixu on China Change: 

China’s Future: Unstable and Unsettled

The Glory and Suffering of Pu Zhiqiang

Crime and Punishment of China’s Rights Lawyers

The Coming Information Totalitarianism in China


原文:莫之许《独立参选的五年一梦》, translated by China Change. 



The Transformation of Xiawei Village

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 [1]. 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.

[1] 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.