At village elections this month amid the orchards of Pinglu county, in central Shanxi province, the issue of the moment was falling apple prices. Chen Jiangong, 34, contemplating how to cast his vote for village chairman, complained: "Right now I have 3.5 tons of apples in hand. If I sell at present prices, the money will only just cover what I spent on fertiliser. We need more markets for our apples."
Fang Nu, 40, voiced a grievance of voters the world over: "Taxes should be reduced," she demanded. Cynicism had overtaken one 69-year-old man: "The problem with the village leaders is that before they become leaders they are okay, but after they become leaders there's some chemical reaction that happens in their brain and they only make themselves rich instead of leading all the villagers to get rich," he said.
Under Communist Party rule, village elections are the only example of one-person, one-vote democracy in China. Launched in the mid-Eighties, they were originally introduced to replace the village communes that were dissolved after the Cultural Revolution. At the time, few outside China paid much attention.
Now they are suddenly a buzzword for visiting Western politicians eager to defend a policy of "constructive engagement" with China. "Remarkable," declared the United States Vice-President, Al Gore, on his visit to Peking last month.
"We are seeing the beginning of a system of elections which will, I believe, move steadily up the scale from the village to the province, and ultimately to the highest national level," predicted Baroness Thatcher in Peking last November.
Not in her lifetime, a more realistic observer would add. But on the ground this month in Pinglu, a poor backwater along the Yellow river, peasants were making their voices heard in a manner which the communist authorities appeared unable to manipulate.
In Xia Zhang village, population 780, those eligible to vote gathered outdoors this month in the village recreation area. They were there to choose a village chairman, deputy and committee member for the next three years. Given the role of apples in public consciousness, it was only right that the 24 voting booths should be red-painted cardboard apple boxes.
Xia Zhang was on its fourth round of village elections, and under a banner reading "Cadres Elected by the Village work for the Villagers", the candidates, who had been selected days earlier in a preliminary free vote, took to the hustings.
The incumbent chairman, Li Shixing, elected in 1994, was reluctant to be re-elected. "Due to my limited ability, I did not do a very good job for the people since the last election," was Li Shixing's opening bid. "I feel I disappointed people's trust and support in me. So I wish that you, like in the past elections, vote for those able or young people who are capable of bringing benefits to the people, making people rich, instead of voting for me."
Li Shirong, the 41-year-old deputy chairman, was the main challenger for the top job. He offered "to make our village richer and richer". He explained: "The hottest issue now in the village is how to improve the village economy, get richer and richer
Everyone involved in organising or observing China's nearly one million village elections agrees it is impossible to generalise. But it is fair to say that with each new round of elections, procedures have become more democratic, mainly as a result of education by China's ministry of civil affairs. Peasant power is increased because voters can "write in" any name if they do not like the candidates. About half the most recent round of village elections have used secret voting booths, and one-third of village leaders standing for re-election have lost their positions. "It is a kind of training for villagers to learn what democracy is," one ministry official said.
Xia Zhang's voters duly lined up, recorded their presence with a red ink fingerprint, collected a ballot paper, and made their choices. The message that voting was a private affair had been well taught. "I won't even tell my husband, it is not allowed," said 33-year-old Yu Liuao. No one would divulge their choice to a foreign reporter.
A village chairman and his committee controls the village budget and runs the community's day-to-day affairs. But any elected village leader must also co-exist with the village Communist Party Secretary, who is certainly not chosen by universal franchise. In Pinglu, only about one- third of the 228 village chairman are party members. Well aware that the future of free village elections would be jeopardised by any suggestion that they undermine Communist Party power, ministry of civil affairs officials prefer to stress that the system can improve the calibre of grassroots party members. It is estimated that about one-third of non-party village chairmen are co-opted into the party after election.
In Xia Zhang village, they called it "singing the ballots" as the results were tallied and marked on a public blackboard. No candidate had reached the necessary 50 per cent mark in the first ballot, so two days later there was a re-run. Li Shirong took the chairmanship, and a "write in" candidate, Chen Jianxing, emerged as the deputy.
So what of Lady Thatcher's prognosis of grassroots democracy rising through the Chinese political system? There are no plans by the Chinese government to extend direct elections to town and county government leaders. In a one-party state with a tightly controlled media, a peasant in Pinglu county (population 230,000), is not going to be given the information necessary to decide whom they want as county chief.Reuse content