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Progress and problems mark elections
(China Daily)
Updated: 2007-07-10 06:48

Democracy is making big strides in rural politics but corruption and vote-rigging plague some village elections, the Ministry of Civil Affairs said yesterday.

Elections to village committees, introduced in 1988 as a pilot program, are progressing well with an average voter turnout of 80 percent, said Liu Feng, an official with the ministry's department of grass-roots government and community building.

About 500 million voters from more than 624,000 villages have taken part in elections.

Liu, however, pointed out "improper, or even illegal, practices".

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"Clan forces and gangsters are gaining ground in some elections. Beating and intimidation of candidates were reported in some cases," he told China Daily.

The Law of Organization of Villagers' Committee sets no restrictions on the qualification of candidates. Some who have violated the family planning policy, and even ex-convicts, have been elected village committee members.

Liu said an unclear definition of election bribery was to blame for widespread irregularities in recent years.

Yang Tuan, a researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' social policy research centre, said the government must intervene.

"It's not a matter of legislation," Yang said. "The root of the chaotic situation in some places is that village officials have too much power."

She said many village heads make huge profits by selling or leasing out public land and pocketing the money; and suggested that county-level governments send watchdogs, such as social workers, to take charge of village finances.

The social workers, given the same power as civil servants, can supervise and assist village heads in governing, she said.

"Only when village heads have no chance to be corrupt can elections be clean," Yang said.

Despite the problems, Liu said that village politics - an important component of China's grass-roots democracy - was making headway.

"With the agricultural tax abolished and government assistance increased, village committees now have greater resources at their disposal and the positions of village officials are more appealing," he said.

"Villagers are showing an increasing interest in elections, which are related to their immediate interests."

Liu said recently elected village officials are younger and better-educated; and more women were playing an active role.

All the 31 provinces, municipalities and autonomous regions on the mainland have held at least two village committee elections since the law was promulgated in 1998.