NOWADAYS in China anyone – man or woman, urban or rural resident – can make their voice heard. They can vote for the representative they trust, assert their legitimate rights, and exert influence within their community or social group. This situation supersedes the past one where fixed mindset prevailed of unquestioningly obeying leaders and excessive caution in words and actions.
Democracy at the grassroots level in China is reflected in a span of processes that include authorization, decision-making, participation, deliberation and supervision. They constitute a complete structure and system whose social function becomes steadily more important.
Democracy at the grassroots level is an important part of people’s democracy in China. Its expansion in scope and depth consolidates the foundations of the country’s economic and social development. It also signals proactive reforms to China’s political system.
Evolution of China’s Grassroots Democracy
In 1986, after hearing their villagers committee’s work report, more than 80 percent of residents of Beilaohao Village, Lishu County in Jilin Province, birthplace of notorious Qing Dowager Empress Cixi (1835-1908), demanded the right to directly elect villagers committee members. They believed the incompetency of village leaders had failed to lift the village out of poverty. Until then, elections had been mere formalities in villages, as villagers merely voted for candidates that higher authorities had nominated. “The county government agreed to an election,” then deputy county magistrate Fei Yuncheng recalled, “No one imagined it would set a precedent for grassroots election in China.”
The new election mode, whereby the electorate directly nominates villagers committee candidates, has been promoted throughout China’s countryside. The year 1988 saw publication of the Organic Law of the Villagers Committees, which provides that “Villagers on the electoral register should directly nominate candidates in villagers committee elections.” Since then, general elections have become the legal norm in village-level governance. “Direct election is an important indication of rural democratic political reform,” former director of the Civil Affairs Bureau of Lishu County Xu Qian said. “It constitutes restoration of farmers’ democratic rights, and hence a major innovation of Chinese farmers under the leadership of the Communist Party of China.”
A U.S.-based research organization lists China’s method of election among the world’s six democratic election modes. As of now, 95 percent or more of China’s villages elect villagers committee members, thus paving their way to democratic self-governance.
Urban communities also practice democratic management. The publication in 1989 of the Organic Law of the Urban Residents Committees of the People’s Republic of China clarified the function of neighborhood committees in achieving urban community autonomy. Nowadays most urban communities directly – as in the relatively affluent southeast coastal areas – or indirectly elect residents committees. In a direct election, residents whose names are on the electoral register may elect committee members by secret ballot. Some communities have also established resident representative assemblies. Selected from different resident groups the assemblies, along with committees, speak on residents’ behalf and give consultations on community matters.
Workers’ conferences are a fundamental form of democratic management in many companies and institutions. China promulgated the Company Law and the Labor Law in 1994, and the Trade Union Law in 2001. These three laws gave rise to corresponding regulations with regards to workers’ conferences, effectively transforming them into coordinating systems between the nation, enterprises and workers that guarantee workers’ democratic rights. Today, 94.34 percent of companies and institutions of public ownership with labor unions have established the system of workers’ conferences. Only 10 percent of private and foreign companies in China that have labor unions, however, have instituted this system.
Professor Wang Changjiang of the Party School of the Central Committee of the CPC and member of the National Committee of the CPPCC (Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference) believes that bestowing authority through elections is the source of democracy and denotes the onset of public power. Without sufficient authorized democracy, other manifestations of the democratic principle are nullified.
Let the People Decide for Themselves
All people, whether in rural areas, urban communities or enterprises, have the right to vote and to be elected. By being elected as a representative or voting for their trusted representatives, people directly or indirectly express their views, participate in collective decision making and conduct supervision.
Wang Xiangwa’s house in Nanposi Village of Gan’gu County in Gansu Province collapsed in an earthquake on July 22, 2013. After discussing the matter, the villagers council agreed to allocate a RMB 20,000 subsidy to Wang’s family to rebuild his home.
In May 2013, 90 percent of local villagers attended the Nanposi Village election meeting. They elected 25 representatives to the villagers council and the supervisory committee from 1,650 residents of 358 households. Wang Xiangwa was among those that voted for representatives they believed were suitable for these positions.
This was in complete contrast to the previous situation whereby village cadres made decisions on village matters and merely informed villagers of their decisions. The villagers council, which meets to discuss village matters, now
consists of representatives of villagers and four village cadres. Wang Jiwu is one such villager representative on the council. In earlier times, Wang was thinking that it was risky expressing views in a close-knit community. Nowadays Wang and his many fellows on the council can raise any topic they deem relevant to their village.
“In recent years, Yueyang has held democratic discussions and consultations – the indigenous vehicles for democracy. This democratic mode of negotiation effectively expands participation of the common people in China’s rural areas,” NPC deputy and head of the villagers committee of Fenghuang Village of Yueyang City in Hunan Province Yang Li said.
Liu Jinghua, resident of the Anhuali Community in Anzhen Subdistrict of Beijing, has witnessed similar changes. “Before, the local government would notify us of new policies. It now consults with us before proceeding, and supervises results according to our assessment. This democratic change has made us feel like joint owners of our big home,” Liu said. After raising, in her capacity of neighborhood community representative, the matter of insufficient parking space at one meeting of the subdistrict office, the local government responded by adding 200 parking spaces.
Zhu Guoping, secretary of the Hongchu neighborhood committee of Shanghai’s Changning District, holds that democracy is an extension of the socialist legal system. She believes democracy in Chinese communities should be manifest in deliberative democracy, whereby the residents handle relevant issues according to negotiations among themselves that lead to unanimous decisions.
“Democracy in companies at the grassroots level should be based on laws guaranteed by effective mechanisms with the system of workers’ conferences as a platform for workers’ involvement. This can bring the employees’ role into full play in an orderly way,” member of the National Committee of the CPPCC and chairperson of the National Committee of the Chinese Agricultural, Forestry and Water Conservancy Workers’ Union Sheng Mingfu said. “Currently, more efforts should be made to build effective mechanisms, including clarifying the ratio of employees to representatives to guarantee a quorum of participants, weeding out ineligible representatives and motivating and encouraging employees, thus guaranteeing institutionalized democracy,” Sheng added.
|A group of factory workers in Jiaxing, Zhejiang Province, receive their voter registration cards.
“Before being elected as representative of my fellow employees, my sole focus here was on making money. But now I can make comments on management as well as matters concerning workers’ rights and interests, and raise proposals to the boss on the annual plan and company operation,” a worker at the Fujian Jianzhou Group said. “We encourage employees to participate in management and decision-making through democratic management and discussions as well as meetings to exchange ideas,” group chairman Yang Renhui said.
However, participation in democracy requires knowledge of the law, a sense of participation, and awareness of one’s rights. Sheng Mingfu consequently believes that workers’ unions should play its role in guiding employees to pursue democracy through orderly channels.
Innovating Democratic Forms
Every village in China has a villagers committee. Those of certain large villages, however, have several sub- committees that are responsible for specific issues. In 2013, Anhui Province proposed that villagers recommend and elect members of a villagers council under a sub-committee, whose focus would be on negotiating specific public affairs. Villagers councils in Wangjiang County, which were established to take responsibility for village affairs concerning
public welfare, like road and bridge building, have raised a total of RMB eight million or more, expended more than 40,000 man hours and completed a spate of construction projects. The project initiated by the villagers’ council of Liulingwei Village in Taici Township to clear mud from irrigation canals and ditches has benefited 2,000 mu of farmland (15 mu= 1 ha.). Villagers councils that pool talents and strength have been set up in 95 percent of villages in Wangjiang County. They administrate village affairs like infrastructure construction, waste disposal, dispute settling and assessing eligibility of households for basic living allowances.
In addition, the village supervision system is also a vital innovation of the mechanism for villager autonomy. Growing economic development in rural areas endows village cadres with ever-greater power and funds. It was the obvious need for democratic and transparent decision making, standardized finances and heightened supervision that prompted establishment of villager supervisory committees.
“At the end of last year, village cadres submitted their expense accounts. After checking every item we found five receipts that were non-refundable,” member of the villager supervisory committee of Xiaoxian Village, Qian’an County in Songyuan City of Jilin Province Wang Dianjun said. One RMB 300 receipt that the committee did not sign was for an electric cooker. Wang explained, supervisory committees thus ensure that village cadres neither abuse their power nor be wrongly suspected.
The Internet is an important vehicle for community democracy innovations. October 2013 saw the setting up of a platform of public decision making for Nanjing property owners. It enabled them to choose their own property management company, decide on the use of house maintenance funds, and conveniently resolve other community-related issues. A few clicks of the mouse thus replaced the system whereby property owners’ committee members collected votes door-to-door.
There has been no standardized property management during the process of commercialization of urban households over the past two decades. The disputes that have hence arisen between property owners and property management companies make democratic negotiations essential.
Prior to establishment of the Nanjing platform of public decision making, many communities had set up their own websites for democratic negotiation. Their activities ranged from group buying schemes to lonely hearts clubs, planting trees to raising dogs, and from soliciting donations to expressing viewpoints on both domestic and international news items. After discussion online, residents could finally reach consensus.
Property owners that participate in community democratic online consultations have equal status and voting rights. This facilitates better communication and more innovative explorations of grassroots democracy.
Democratic innovations in companies directly address the fundamental issue of salaries. At the end of each year, Fujian Shenghui Logistics Group holds group negotiations in this regard. Before the yearly negotiation, the trade union, together with the HR department, usually carries out wage and salary surveys based on workers’ opinions. These are fully discussed in the group negotiation conference, in efforts to produce a salary scheme that constitutes a balance between the views of employees and of the employer. Upon the owner of the company and the head of the trade union signing an agreement, it comes into force the next year. In March of the next year another survey is carried out on the level of satisfaction with what has been agreed.
|The opening session on January 24, 2014 of the 11th CPPCC Shandong Provincial Committee that set a precedent by inviting 10 citizen representatives to attend.
Wang Changjiang believes that combining democracy and interests is vital since democracy should reach where interests exist. Only if the people exercise their rights and participate in strategic decisions with regards to the path of development can the country’s development mode be fundamentally changed and its sustainable progress guaranteed. This constitutes the core of fundamental public benefits.