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Americans aren't the only voters too busy for politics, China scholar finds
Earlier predictions by scholars, including some at Stanford, had it that as China became wealthier, it also would become more democratic. But now, Stanford political scientist Jean Oi and economist Scott Rozelle are casting doubt on that theory.
In a survey of residents of more than 200 Chinese villages, where local competitive elections are encouraged by the central government, Oi and Rozelle found that it was the poorest villages, not the wealthiest ones, that embraced democracy the most.
Individual peasants with more income aren't as likely to participate in elections and local government meetings because they are "less discontent and too busy making money" to get involved, Oi said last week at a seminar hosted by the Asia Pacific Research Forum. Villagers with sources of income outside the control of local village officials are least likely to attend local assembly meetings, the preliminary results show.
Yet democratic elections are occurring in China and "people are actually using their right to choose among candidates," Oi said, as she reported on her recent trip to monitor village elections. An associate professor of political science who came to Stanford from Harvard last year, Oi was part of a delegation from the Carter Center in Atlanta that observed election procedures in more than a dozen villages in two northeastern provinces during two weeks in March. Summarizing the experience, she said, "There does seem to be a choice of candidates. I think progress has been made and there is more interest now than in the late 1980s when I did my earlier research."
Oi has an impressive list of scholarly publications on China's peasantry and rural economic development. A graduate of the University of Michigan, she was among the first China scholars to show that political reforms undertaken by the Chinese central government gave local and regional governments incentives to improve their communities economically by allowing them to retain the residuals of tax revenue and production. Her second book, Rural China Takes Off: Incentives for Industrialization, to be published in the fall by the University of California Press, discusses how local Communist party officials became entrepreneurs after the decollectivization of agriculture and industry and the fiscal decentralization of counties, townships and villages.
In the seminar last week, Oi described election activities in several of the villages she visited, which ranged in size from several hundred to a couple thousand registered voters all residents over age 18. In the town of Gujiazling, two candidates were selected in a primary election held a few days earlier to run for head of the village committee. In a schoolyard on election day, the two gave final campaign speeches that reminded Oi very much of those made by American politicians.
The incumbent, a Communist Party member, "promised the villagers he would improve their conditions, improve roads, improve safety, make things better for the schools and also promote development and growth in the village," she said. "The challenger was promising similar things, but he hinted that if he became the new village head, the burden on the villagers would be less that he had never taken a drink in his life and did not engage in what the Chinese call banqueting." He was hinting that the incumbent was wasting some of the town's money on entertaining.
Nevertheless, the incumbent won 864 to 655, but incumbents did lose in other villages and write-in candidates garnered several hundred votes in some, suggesting some type of organized resistance to the listed candidates, Oi said. In one case, where the second candidate for village leader dropped out, she said, a write-in candidate garnered enough votes to prevent the incumbent from winning the required majority.
"The person who controls the village resources is still the appointed Communist Party secretary," she said, "but what's interesting is that in some of these cases, the party secretary was now running for village committee head, so in a sense there was a sign that perhaps he is feeling he needs this sort of legitimacy as well."
China's central government began promoting competitive village elections in 1988. The regulations state that villagers must be given a choice of at least one more candidate than there are seats on the village committee. Residents also elect a village committee head and a village representative assembly, which consists of representatives of small groups. The groups are often former production teams from the era when agriculture was collectivized, Oi said.
Western organizations, including one financed by the Republican Party, as well as China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, have offered conferences and educational materials to promote more understanding of the mechanics of polling and other election procedures, she said, so that in many villages now, local officials understand the need for voter privacy when casting ballots and for transparent practices of vote counting.
County, township and village officials were interested in the observers' opinions of their procedures, Oi said, and in some cases enacted their suggestions almost instantly. Noticing that voters waiting outside one school voting room could see voters' ballots inside, observers suggested covering windowpanes with paper. By the time the observers reached the next polling place, she said, the windows were covered with paper.
"Traveling in a large pack" of election observers and news reporters is not the ideal way to do research on election practices, admitted Oi, who usually works alone in China. The group discovered, to its members' horror, that in one village the voters were being asked to vote in groups simply because local officials didn't want to delay the observers.
In more industrialized areas, she said, the team found more instances of questionable practices, such as roving ballot boxes, voters casting ballots for all voters in their household, and candidates being vetted by the village representative assembly, with no apparent opportunity for voters to hear them make a campaign speech.
Election workers took sealed wood or paper ballot boxes to homes, she said, because getting voters to polling places was a problem in areas where fishermen and other peasants commuted to their jobs. "In some places 90 percent of the ballots were cast in roving ballot boxes, which opens the door for all sorts of abuse," she said. "In some places, there is vote-buying, which is both a good and a bad sign. It suggests these positions hold some power."
Westerners have wondered why the authoritarian central government would try to promote local elections. Oi said she believes it is "using them as an aid to try to increase its legitimacy." Despite more than a decade of economic reform and a large growth in per capita income, many peasants are unhappy, she said, and there have been violent protests and demonstrations. Local officials also have been beaten, had their property destroyed or just been ignored. "My take is that the central state has decided, well, if they are not going to listen to the appointed officials, then we're going to let them pick their own officials who will still have to be responsible to the center, but at least we can say, if you are not happy with your officials, vote them out."
Survey data indicate that "in most cases, as income goes up, competitive elections and participation fall," she said, and that may be because the stakes are smaller. Villages, unlike townships and counties in China, receive no budget from higher levels of government and they are not allowed to keep a portion of taxes. With households now responsible for agricultural production, many villages have little to offer their residents in comparison to other sources of income, such as self-employment and jobs in factories.
"There is a large out-migration; something like 60 million have moved from poor agricultural regions to the cities or to richer agricultural regions," Oi said. "Some of them go for long periods of time. Others migrate out by the day and come home to sleep."
Not even all poor villagers show much interest in elections, she said. "It's the people who are stuck in the village, who rely almost exclusively on internally held resources, who have the most interest. People who are migrating out to work in the cities in higher paying jobs are not home, they are too busy to give this much thought, and their sources of livelihood don't really depend on the decisions that the village leader is going to make."
Oi, who has been a visiting scholar at a Hong Kong university in the past, will return to Hong Kong this summer and hopes to continue to do research in China's countryside. "I want to do more on the political aspects [of rural development]," she said. "I may extend my investigation to look at the possibility of extending these type of elections to higher levels the township and the county and the role of things like these local people's assemblies."
By Kathleen O'Toole