Bought-and-paid-for elections in villages erode China’s grass-roots democracy

By Hu Yuwei Source:Global Times Published: 2018/2/5 18:48:40

Central government vows to crack down on corruption in rural regions

A village election in Shanxi Province has drawn nationwide attention to the prevalence of bribery and corruption in grass-roots elections

Candidates openly give local residents cash, oil and rice in exchange for their votes

Winners aim to "reimburse" themselves later from village funds

A villager casts his vote during a village committee election in Gengdian village, Chiping county of Shandong Province, on January 21. Photo: VCG


Late into the night at a small rural Chinese village of just 29 households, the lights of each household were still turned on. The village, which ordinarily would have been asleep, was as bustling as on the eve of the Lunar New Year.

It was the night before the village's general election. The homes had left their lights on as a signal to invite each candidate to come inside and "buy" their vote.

This scene was described by one of the residents of Sanxian village in North China's Shanxi Province. The resident told the Global Times that buying votes frequently happens at many Shanxi village elections, "and some villagers don't turn off their lights until accepting money from every candidate."

A similar scenario happened in Nailin village of Shanxi on January 6, which drew nationwide attention. China Youth Daily reported that each candidate running for village head had paid each villager 1,000 yuan ($159) each. Screen shots of text messages and photos of villagers counting their money were posted online.

"For anyone who can secure Wang Junsheng's votes, please come to the butcher shop to collect your money, 1,000 yuan each," reads one public message in a WeChat group with 187 members titled "Nailin Village Community Management." China Youth Daily journalists visited Nailin village and spoke with the residents. One elderly man said that on the election's first day, two candidates each paid him 500 yuan and the third paid 600 yuan. On the second day, one of the candidates paid him an additional 1,000 yuan.

Local villagers calculated that all three candidates paid the villagers a total of 10 million yuan in addition to gifts such as jugs of oil and bags of rice. None of the villagers bother to deny that they accepted the money and gifts, and some of them even appeared envious for being paid less than their neighbors.

On the first day of elections at Nailin village, which was June 6, candidate Wang Xingming offered 600 yuan to each of his prospective supporters, which instantly put him in the lead with 1,700 supporters. Another candidate, Du Yongzhong, appeared in person at the village at 4 am on the second day to hand out 500 yuan and a bag of rice and a jug of oil to each resident. As a result, Du boasted 1,200 supporters.

Wei Junsheng, another candidate who initially also distributed 500 yuan to each supporter, issued a last-minute announcement in the village's WeChat group that he would pay an additional 1,000 yuan to every supporter in exchange for their vote. Wei then won the election.

Newly elected Director Wei is a 50 year-old local who runs a hotel and a parking lot. The candidate, who ran for and lost two previous elections, was described to media by villagers as "dawdling away his time and bumming around in past decades."

Lucrative opportunities

Nailin villagers revealed to media that the money used to buy their votes did not always come directly out of the candidates' own pocket, but also from village funds.

Even though they are happy to accept the money, many questioned what makes such a small leadership position worth paying so much money? One informant said that with the high number of factories in the area, the village director collects land-use fees that he can later use to "reimburse" himself for the cost of his election bribes.

The position offers additional lucrative opportunities for collecting bribes, illicit financial transactions and other garden-variety corruption such as compensation for farmland or subsidies for coal resources and natural gas. "It is not surprising that some are willing to pay big bucks for these posts," a Sanxian villager said.

One resident of a northern Shanxi village with abundant coal resources told the Global Times that bribery in local elections is a long-standing tradition, especially in some naturally resourceful regions.

"For each election, from village director down to deputy village head, we receive bribes ranging from thousands to tens of thousands of yuan. Some also promise to give each supporter a considerable 'thank you' fee. Those failing to keep their promises will eventually suffer revenge from indignant villagers," said the man, who declined to give his name.

Hard to define

Standards about what legally counts as a "bribe" in village elections are not clarified in any articles of law for reference. The only relevant law - The Organic Law of Village Committees, revised in 2010 - has a syllabus but no detailed regulations about bribery behavior.

In the "Research on the Problem of Bribery in Rural Grass-roots Elections in Guangzhou" launched in 2011, experts revealed three difficulties in cracking down on electoral bribery: difficulty in defining bribery, difficulty in obtaining evidence and difficulty in handing down punishment.

Though there are many ways to expose bribery, with social media presently one of the most popular forms, in practice very few reported bribery cases are verifiable, the research suggests. Typically, only candidates who suffered both financial and electoral losses are likely to report and disclose the details of their own dirty deals in order to bring down the winner.

Voters who were paid less money than their neighbors also tend to report the bribes and provide evidence against the culprits. In Nailin's case, because Wei Junsheng did not pay each supporter an equal amount of 1,000 yuan, those villagers who were dissatisfied with their lesser payment began complaining publicly online.

But in recent years, the practice of corruption at the grass-roots level has become more cunning. Experts found that many bribes were paid not directly by the candidate or his close relatives, but by their "campaign team," which has a clear labor division that shields the candidates. Some public banquets and entertainment that used to be thrown in order to woo supporters are now held under the banner of "wedding" or "funeral."

China on Sunday released a package of policies as the "No. 1 central document" of the year, calling for rural vitalization as part of the country's great rejuvenation. The document emphasized stronger anti-corruption efforts in villages and urged the government to seriously investigate and deal with fraud found in poverty alleviation.

Important exploration

The recently disclosed cases have ignited discussions over whether ordinary Chinese residents can practice their legal voting rights properly.

Some have argued on social media that many people at the grass-roots level are still poorly educated and therefore less capable of self-government.

China introduced the practice of self-administration and direct elections at the village level in 1998, when the first election law for village committees, the Organic Law of the Village Committees of China, was released.

However, Chen Youxi, a renowned lawyer and professor at the Law School of Renmin University of China, suggests that such elections should take place first in larger pilot cities, as there is a higher degree of civic culture and a better supervision system.

"Undeniably, China's grass-roots democracy signifies an important exploration of the reform to the political system. However, after more than a decade of experimenting, China's grass-roots democracy today trudges on amid scandals," Chen told the Global Times.

Chen Hao, a researcher at the Supreme People's Procuratorate, said that China's massive population migration into urban centers has resulted in an "empty nest" syndrome in the countryside, where left-behind senior villagers, who are generally poorly educated, are less able to achieve effective self-government.

He said it is unfair to simply blame the villagers for corruption, and that their behavior precisely demonstrates what is lacking in grass-roots democracy - "supervision over the power of village officials."

Such restriction and supervision can be better secured in some villages with a more mature structure of power architecture. In some villages in South China, the "village representative meeting" system, promoted in the revised Organic Law of the Village Committees, plays a more significant role in improving the capability of a village's self-administration. In these examples, the function of the meeting is gradually extended from democratic decision-making to village supervision.

Wuqing district of Tianjin, for instance, has set up independent "financial management groups" and "village supervision panels" for reviewing the monthly report of village committees. The results are directly linked to the appointment and removal of village cadres, as well as everyone's salary performance.

Newspaper headline: Garden-variety corruption

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