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Comment: Democracy grows with rural autonomy
( 2003-08-02 09:15) (China Daily)

The success of the villagers' autonomy programme over the past 15 years has provided valuable experience for China's introduction of further democratic reforms.

In late 1987, the National People's Congress (NPC) passed a trial code on rural governance, which authorized direct voting in the election of autonomous rural villagers' committees.

With other national and local governance institutions still voted in by representatives, the introduction of direct voting for the country's over 900 million rural people - the first time in China's history - was a great democratic achievement.

The autonomy scheme was so successful that the NPC finally replaced the trial code with the finalized Organic Law of Villagers' Committees in 1998.

The success of village elections has undercut scepticism of the prospects of democracy in rural areas, where the economy is backward and education is poor.

Chinese farmers have shown great enthusiasm in assuming their political rights, with an average turnout of above 90 per cent in villagers' committee elections.

Many villages have innovated very good practices in the democratic management of public affairs.

Some had worried that the lingering patriarchal clan tradition in rural areas could undermine the justice of villagers' autonomy. However, investigations show most villagers are rational in casting their votes.

To most rural residents, selecting committee members who can lead them toward a better future is far more important than the interests of the patriarchal clans to which they belong. They have begun scrapping the irrational patriarchal clan complex and participating in the build-up of democracy in a pragmatic way.

Their actions prove that the democratic system is a tremendous cohesive force which helps people make right choices about their communities.

The pursuit of democracy is the common will of the people and there can be no logical excuses to obstruct it.

Villagers' autonomy has undoubtedly affected the interests of some, because they can no longer appoint village heads or influence village affairs for selfish reasons. It also brings subtle changes in the relations between villages and the townships above them.

Investigations reveal that most opponents of the direct vote in villages have vested interests.

However, the unswerving line of the Communist Party of China, seen as the representative of the broad masses to forge ahead with times, to adhere to grassroots democracy, will endure.

Still, there are many jobs to do to improve villagers' autonomy.

It is necessary to consider how to reduce the costs entailed in villagers' autonomy.

Nearly every link in the autonomy, such as elections, movements, organizations and meetings, needs money. The cost is quite a heavy burden to the villages.

Aside from financial support from upper-level authorities, some aspects of villagers' autonomy may need to be reformed to make it more economical and efficient.

For example, the term of villagers' committees can be extended from the current three years to five, a uniform term of office in township, municipal, provincial and national legislative and administrative organs. This will not only reduce the cost of frequent villagers' elections but make villagers' committees more far-sighted in decision-making.

It is also important to prevent the tendency toward the irrational application of voting in every aspect of villagers' autonomy.

Some villages, with a biased understanding of democracy, decide on every local affair, big or trivial, all through villager referendums.

With such a practice village leaders can avoid taking personal responsibility for mistaken decisions. It results in extremely slow work and runs counter to legislators' original purpose to create efficient and responsible grassroot autonomous units.

The democratic election of village leaders is only the first step. The work of villagers' committees needs to be standardized to promote rural economic and social progress. The committees should always be development-focused and make public affairs and financial information transparent.

The great undertaking of villagers' autonomy will lay a solid foundation for the development of democracy in China.

(By Li Jiangtao, a researcher with the Guangzhou Academy of Social Sciences)

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