Rural China: Democratic local elections?
This week the Chinese Communist Party will unveil a new leadership, selected by an opaque system behind closed doors. Village elections, though, are open and democratic.
At least that’s what the party says. Channel 4 News China producer Bessie Du begs to differ.
Last time I visited my home village in the countryside, my cousin pointed at a man sitting idly in the sun and told me he was the village chief. He’s been chief for more than 30 years and has taken lots of money for himself. His children have moved to new apartments they bought in nearby cities.
“Look at him, he’s like a fat cat covered in grease. His belly is so full it could explode,” said my cousin.
“So why didn’t you vote him out in village elections?” I asked
“If we have a new chief, he’ll start filling his empty belly and will eventually become fat like this,” replied my cousin. “He’ll take even more from us.”
In the last twelve years, I’ve come across many farmers who have lost their land and clashed with local government. They complain that government officials sell their land to developers and factory owners and then pocket money for themselves. The same stories are told by farmers from almost every province.
Free elections on village level are guaranteed by law in China. So I often ask: why don’t you elect your own representatives to negotiate land sales?
Some tell me – village elections are just going through the motions. We don’t get to elect who we want – the higher government office has the final say on who becomes the village leader. Others say, the village officials have become a local mafia.
They control the police and are connected to higher ranking officials. They all work together to make sure we give them our votes. They bribe us by giving us detergent or cooking oil or hire thugs to threaten us.
Others say: No matter who is elected, he will steal from us. We rely on the good will of the elected officials, hoping they will give us a bigger share of the profit of the land sales.
Cities make life beautiful
When farmers lose faith in local officials and become desperate, they arm themselves with sticks and iron bars, and pitch tents on their land to defend it. Incidents of violent clashes have taken place over and over again in the countryside.
China has gone through massive urbanisation in the past decade. Posters of “cities make life beautiful” are everywhere. Farmland has given way to high rise buildings. Chinese farmers’ lives have been transformed as the economy reforms and booms. The government has promised that the farmers will share more of the fruits of reform but many farmers feel left out.
My home village is now surrounded by newly constructed apartment blocks. Local officials and developers tell the villagers to give up their land and live “city people’s life” in these new apartments.
People in the village have always seen such a lifestyle as an improvement, but now that some of them have given up their land to live in concrete blocks with electricity, running water, and a private toilet, they realise that they no longer have any means to make a living. Their children working in the factories cannot make enough money to buy another apartment. They struggle to understand how their lives have been made more beautiful.