Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 06/2008

Blazing New Trails: Villagers' Committee Elections in P. R. China

Linda Jakobson

January 1999

Finnish Institute for International Affairs


Though the Chinese Communist Party clings to its monopoly on power and fully intends to avoid “walking down the road of the Soviet Union,” it is implementing revolutionary political reform in the countryside. For the past decade, multi-candidate elections, in which candidates need not be members of the Communist Party, have been held in hundreds of thousands of Chinese villages. Abdicating its prerogative to appoint village chiefs, the Party has conceded that elected ones are more effective. The grassroots-level governance reform (jiceng zhengquan gaige) not only empowers ordinary citizens and encourages them to take part in the decision-making process. It also institutionalizes the concepts of accountability and transparency.

Though the openness and fairness of village elections vary considerably, they constitute a potential foothold for Chinese democratization. But will that first step lead to a second? Across China, government officials and ordinary citizens have begun to demand open elections for the heads of townships. The first such election was held -- without the knowledge of the central government -- in the township of Buyun in December 1998. Since then at least two other townships have experimented with direct elections. Despite the top leadership’s fury over the Buyun election, after which it categorically forbade direct township elections, pressure is mounting to expand grass-roots political reform and institutionalize a competitive electoral process in townships and even counties. After the experimental law on villagers’ committees was granted permanent status in November, 1998, several government officials and researchers dealing with political reform shifted their focus and are now preoccupied with studying ways to introduce direct elections of township and county leaders.

Why did the Chinese Communist Party decide to pursue political reform at the village level? Now that village elections have become national policy, can the electoral process be prevented from spreading to townships and counties? After reviewing the status of village elections as of mid-1999, this paper will briefly examine the reasons behind the Chinese Communist Party’s decision to allow multi-candidate elections for villagers’ committee posts. It will then describe how proponents of the law pushed through self-governance reform despite harsh opposition. Finally, the paper will explore the consequences and implications of village elections in China.