I would argue that the jury is still out. Fortunately for our purposes, this question has been fought over many times in China's recent past. By revisiting earlier debates about whether and under what conditions elections can promote - and even obstruct - democracy, we may be able to think beyond the confines of our own time.
In the last years of the Qing dynasty, the governor of Shanxi province believed that the electoral process could be used to unify the country without the need for China to adopt comprehensive democracy.
His name was Zhao Erxun.
Zhao was responsible for restoring social order in Shanxi after thousands of Chinese Christians and foreigners were killed there in the Boxer Uprising. He became convinced that this explosion of violence was the result of an overly centralised national government being kept ignorant about social discontent by opportunistic and power-hungry local leaders.
In 1902 he proposed a solution - to allow local property-holding villagers to nominate, through a formal ballot, a slate of candidates for their district chief, from which centrally-appointed county magistrates would then select one. It was village democracy with stabilisers: if the public voted for the wrong candidate, their educated superiors could nudge them back onto the right path. Above all, the semi-elected local official would remain detached from the official governmental apparatus - officially, the county magistrate remained the lowest-ranking branch of the government, so as to deter anyone from thinking that having an electoral mandate gave them inherent legitimacy to rule.
Initially nothing came of Zhao's plan. But within a few years his vision for a kind of Confucian-inspired "tutelary democracy" was co-opted by other imperial reformers seeking historical precedents for reform. Zhao inspired the establishment of "schools for self-government" in various parts of China. These schools encouraged literate local leaders to run for election, and educated them about how elections were run in other countries. Some older officials were skeptical; one wrote:
Originally conceived as a conduit of information to the central government and subsequently seen as a training-ground for future citizens of a democratic state (different franchise qualifications applied for local and provincial elections - in some provinces, the latter electorate was three times as large as the former), under the Kuomintang the fragmentation of political authority was reflected in the realm of ideas with various political experiments.
Reformers disillusioned by the KMT's use of limited local self-government for non-democratic "state-building" travelled in numerous directions. Some joined the Communists, and began fomenting revolution in the countryside. Others, like Liang Shuming, formed the Rural Reconstruction Movement (RRM).
The movement rejected both the KMT's centralising interference in local affairs and the CPC's insistence on the need for class warfare to achieve democracy. Instead, in the 1920s-30s, Liang and other idealistic activists set up hundreds of research institutes and experimental zones to promote awareness amongst villagers of their democratic rights.
Their aim was to reverse what they perceived as a century of decline in the importance of the village as a political unit in Chinese society. Before the decline had set in, China had been stable as assertive village communities (structured around large patriarchal lineages) had each acted a check on the regional ambitions of the other, ensuring a rough balance of power. The effectiveness of the lineage system as a power-balancer was undermined by intrusive powers centralised in the levels of government above the villages, and the concurrent elections - the combination of both these trends turned the competition between rival lineages and their respective natural villages into a winner-takes-all contest.
The question these reformers had to confront was whether "the ballot box was powerful enough to thwart intimidation by local power-holders". If villagers were just going to be bribed or intimidated to vote so as to uphold the status quo, then elections seemed pointless; if something like Zhao's 1902 proposal was adopted in order to undercut "local bullies", then all effort and political ambitions would be re-directed from the village to the county government, and the project of 'reconstructing' the villages would be undermined.
"In the local organisations, inner-Party democracy is meant to strengthen discipline and increase combat effectiveness, not to weaken them."
-- Mao Zedong, 'The Role of the CPC in the National War', Oct. 1938.
At the same time as Liang and the RRM were trying to foster a democratic consciousness in areas under KMT control, in the base area of Yan'an the Communists were also experimenting with village democracy.
In what would serve as a precedent for re-introducing village elections four decades later, the CPC practised decentralisation in the 'liberated' areas and organised semi-free elections (the so-called 'bean-counters') at the level of villages, cantons, districts and regions. Everyone over the age of 18 could vote, but the choice of candidates they could vote for was screened by the Party - Communists, leftists and liberal democrats would each receive a third of the total number of representatives.
The theory behind these elections was laid out by Mao Zedong in his book 'On New Democracy' (1940). He saw the purpose of elections as being to consolidate the power of the CPC by learning from other parties how to win the trust of local residents - and only insofar as elections served that objective did he deem them acceptable.
By allowing a little political freedom, the CPC could observe closely the various groups in society and who they regarded as their friends and their enemies; they would later use this understanding of resentment to create a society in which everyone was assigned labels based on their most politically-convenient group identity. In doing this, Mao argued they were "destroying the roots of ultra-democracy" (what we would call 'democracy').
The New Democracy Mao envisioned was like a giant hall of mirrors in which something superficially resembling the real thing was reflected in every surface. In contrast to the KMT's relatively narrow state-building focus, local elections for the CPC would be a tool for social mobilisation - the goal was mass participation in the Party's violent political campaigns in order to distribute culpability throughout society, blur lines of responsibiltiy and encourage opponents of the Party to turn inwards, or against one another.
Ominously, the CPC re-centralised power in Yan'an in 1942 and launched the Rectification Campaign, a purge of heterodox views within the Party. At the same time Mao became national chairman of the Party, and the first signs of a cult of personality centred around him started to appear - what would become a further exercise in mass distraction.
In 1957 Mao launched the 'Hundred Flowers Campaign' - an apparent appeal to all sections of society outside of the Party to speak their minds, and offer constructive criticism of the government's failings.
I have chosen this quote because I think it taps into a very real suspicion of elections in the setting of authoritarian regimes: it is the fear that elections, rather than being a small, necessary but insufficient step towards democracy, may in fact be worse than nothing. It is the idea that allowing a modicum of political choice, without having the choice of peacefully changing the overall system, will not - as we are perhaps inclined to believe - give people a 'taste' for democracy, or an awareness of their fundamental rights, that they will then automatically generalise to the system as a whole; it might instead divert their energy and attention away from systemic change towards a constrained set of false choices and imbue them with a narrow, calculating - "machine"-like - mindset.
Machines that are more pliant, and do not think outside of the confines of the information that they receive as inputs - is this the corrosive effect of what Andrew Nathan has called "participation without influence"? Rather than questioning, and rising up against, their constraints, might people living under a dictatorship with democratic appurtenances come to fetishise these constraints, to see their rights as rooted in their citizenship rather than their humanity, and to focus their efforts on fighting others over the meagre scraps of freedom on offer?
History may be a tragedy and not a melodrama, but since our culture seems to make a virtue of having a short memory, the short-term really does matter. And the fundamental question I am exploring in this post is whether limited elections accelerate or obstruct the development of democracy, in the short-term (however so defined).
[Incidentally, I don't think this is just a question for dictatorships - in democracies such as the UK, where ever-increasing numbers of officials are now chosen by election, at all levels of government and in the public services, there is also an argument that the proliferation of elections has blurred lines of accountability through the system, making it harder for ordinary people to know who is supposed to be held responsible for what, and to coordinate their efforts to get justice.]
A fact about village elections in China that is crucial to understanding their present-day significance is that they were introduced by the CPC as a practical solution to a sudden power vacuum.
With the de-collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1980s, the communes that were the basic administrative unit of collective farming were also dismantled, leaving no official management structure in the countryside. At the same time, the CPC was suffering a severe legitimacy deficit as a result of corrupt cadres fleecing the rural population.
|How to vote: a government poster|
The 1982 State Constitution the CPC adopted directly-elected Village Committees - not out of a principled belief in democracy, or else elections would since have been extended upwards. Elections were chosen to recruit well-connected and competent people into the Party, to check regional strongmen and to reduce the obvious friction between rural cadres and locals in a part of the system that had hardest borne the brunt of Mao's misrule.
I have posted a PBS documentary below (the section on village elections starts 34mins in) that questions whether the elections present the voters with a political choice at all, since candidates are not allowed to represent particular interests, and some scholars worry that it has sapped the momentum of more ambitious plans for democracy.
Village elections were seen as a way of reducing grassroots resistance to unpopular policies in the 'reform era' - the hope was that villagers who had voted for the officials charged with enforcing those policies would ex post facto try to rationalise what they were doing. This was especially true of selective economic policies that saw rural incomes rise, but rural-urban inequality surge, as the graph below shows.
It was felt that elections would improve the flow of information from the grassroots to the centre, enabling problems to be addressed before they reached crisis-point - the option of having the township Party branch appoint the VC was thus explicitly rejected.
Large student protests broke the surface in 1986 and disturbed the CPC leadership. One of the sparks that ignited the protest was the Party's cynical manipulation of elections for committees in the Universities. Prof. Spence writes:
The policy was fleshed-out in the first Organic Village Election Law (1988): elections would be held every three years, principally by secret ballot; independent candidates could also run if they collected signatures from ten local residents, or received the blessing of a Party-affiliated organisation; and local Party-appointed Election Committees were set up to oversee the process, including vetting candidates.
Since 1998 elections for "an organ of self-governance of villagers" have been mandatory across the country; in the last 20 years over 700m Chinese have voted in over 650,000 villages. This graph charts the forward march of VC elections:
In terms of competitiveness, procedural fairness, turnover and public perceptions of legitimacy, the results have varied widely from place to place. The crux of the matter is the attitude of the Election Committee towards the election, and this in turn depends on the relations between the VC and the local CPC branch and township/county governments. In almost half of all villages the voters have exchanged Party incumbents for non-Party members, but almost all of these independents were Party-backed, and most of them went on to become members. The hope that these elections might provide a platform for voices outside of the Party was somewhat undermined during last year's local People's Congress elections when an official from the Commission for Legislative Affairs declared that: "There is no such thing as an 'independent' candidate. It is not recognised by the law."
Here is an excellent overview by Dr. Qingshan Tan of the China Policy Institute:
The issue of illegal land sales that was so central to the revolt in Wukan remains a legal grey area - the Constitution states that rural land is owned publicly by "collectives", which, since de-collectivisation, are formally represented by the VC. VCs possess key powers in law to disburse public land (all land is formally publicly-owned and leased long-term) and approve new construction projects. They are also empowered to re-allocate land if the residents have been absent for over five years - a worrying loophole in a system where the residency status of temporary migrants is so heavily politicised and manipulable.
As long as the CPC maintains a monopoly over national political leadership, there will be no rule of law in China, only rule by law, and these protests will continue to flare up when aggrieved parties are denied redress through the courts. Yet some experts believe that village elections have served to enhance the Party's control over rural areas by acting as a dynamic smokescreen for unpopular decisions taken higher up in the system.
For example, Mayling Birney has argued:
Twenty years ago, there was real hope that village elections would be the first step in an upward spiral of democratisation, much as Sun Yat-sen had envisioned. Instead, the talk today is about stagnation and "trapped transition." Village elections have given a new impetus to "inner-Party democracy" (dangnei minzhu) and policies intended to make the CPC more responsive to society, but this does not necessarily have anything to do with bringing multi-party democracy closer.
Essentially, I think the recurring idea that elections in and of themselves work as incubators of democratic consciousness is flawed because, detatched from the deeper philosophical notion of popular sovereignty and civil liberties, they are reduced to straightfoward calculations of self-interest. If you adhere to Schumpeter's minimalist/proceduralist view that democracy is nothing more than the ability to elect your rulers at periodic intervals, then the idea of "tutelary democracy" might appeal to you.
But if you think that democracy is not just about choosing from a menu of policies, but about the ability to select representatives who will use their reason to expand the boundaries of political possibility, then a whole array of other freedoms, including institutional mechanisms to make governments accountable, are part of that. Unfortunately, I cannot see a reason to believe that village elections are logically a first step in that direction, especially since even the VCs themselves lack effective Village Assemblies to hold them to account.
Sorry to end on such a downer.