In Rural China Enterprising Villagers Are Elected to Leadership

“Everything for the peasant!,” proclaims village head Ding Jingang, as trailed by his entourage, he strides down the main road of Tihucun, a rural community located in Shaanxi province in central China.

For the benefit of foreign reporters as well as his own followers, Ding spent part of a recent evening expounding on the campaign slogan that landed him in office three years ago as head of his Village Committee, China’s most local governing unit.

“The old leader, he only spoke of the past, but he had no plans for the future,” says Ding, explaining his political success.

In a sign of changing times, Ding, who is not a member of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), was democratically elected over his CCP rival.

Village elections are a relatively new aspect of life in a place where much remains unchanged. Tihucun, a two-hour drive north of the provincial capital of Xian in China’s sprawling farm belt is home to roughly 3,000 people, most of whom make their living tending crops on small, privately owned plots of land. Eighty-year-old farmers hoe away at their fields and old women spray pesticide on their apple trees, which yield fruit that garner the equivalent of a few cents per kilogram but sell in Beijing for about half a dollar. A chalkboard in the center of town displays the local news while the local bank advertises low interest loans and declares in bold lettters painted onto its side, "The bank is the friend of the peasant."

Under Deng Xiaoping, the first village elections were held in China in 1980, serving as a model for a broader test run in villages across China eight years later. In 1998, the practice was formally promulgated into law. According to the Atlanta-based Carter Center, democratic elections at the village level are now held regularly in all of China’s nearly 620,000 villages with hundreds of millions of peasants taking part in the voting. This has provided new opportunities for community leaders, some of whom have leveraged their own resources to win political office.

Enter Ding Jingang. As a successful construction company owner, Ding gained standing among his neighbors for investing his own money into repaving the town’s roads. A charismatic leader with a prominent gut, puffy red cheeks and an easy laugh, he dresses like the common people in work slacks and an untucked white shirt.

Even if popular leaders like Ding are now able to gain office, though, some China scholars point to the cold calculations of the Communist Party in explaining the impetus behind village elections. According to these scholars, the contests were initiated to improve the collection of local taxes and fees. “China’s leaders, egged on by younger reformers, have sought to introduce greater democracy,” write David Zweig and Chung Siufung in a recent article in The Journal of Contemporary China. “These reforms, they hope, will increase villagers’ willingness to invest in capital construction projects, such as new roads, under the assumption that if their own elected officials call on them to do so, they will.”

In Tihucun, Ding doesn't disagree. The village chief says that so long as he can convince the villagers to invest their own money into public projects the government will foot 80 percent of the town’s development and social service costs. Yet Ding’s daily tasks are often decidedly more personal in nature. “My greatest challenge is family issues, couples arguing. It is so hard to know who is right,” Ding says, with a good-humored chuckle.

In Xiejiagiao, a small mountainside village in Zheijang province on China's lush southern coastline, headman Yang Guanshi has been in office barely a month and is already having second thoughts about his political career.

“I didn’t want this job but [one of the] old leader[s] called me so many times that I finally accepted,” says Yang, explaining his decision to run for office.

Yang, 41, is a slim, soft-spoken man dressed in a pink-collared shirt. In May, he defeated a CCP incumbent in local elections. This was only the eighth such contest held in Zhejiang province for village committee leadership, a term that typically lasts three years.

As the owner of a local painting company, Yang was known for painting schools. Each year Yang’s company was given just 45 days, the schools' summer vacation, to repaint 20 different schools located in and around his village. With democratic contests now held to determine political leadership, it was Yang's deft management of his local company that made him a candiate, even against his own better judgement.

Xiejiagiao, Yang's village, has a population of about 810 people and stands out for its visible prosperity. New footbridges cross the rivers that run through the town and lush green fields line the roads. Located just outside of Hangzhou, a city of about 6 million, Xiejiagiao was selected in 2003 by the next-level-up county government to become a “modern village.” The guidelines for this program required villagers to invest their own money to clean the rivers, widen the roads and rebuild houses.

The locals, many of them already prosperous thanks to the area’s successful walnut farms, showed they were up to the task of modernization and several installed solar panels on the roofs of their houses. The government then came in with a second round of funds and in 2005 rebuilt 45 homes. Yang keeps a framed photograph of his refurbished house in his desk drawer. He says that the county government in nearby Linan is investing another 3 million RMB, about $430,000, to turn his village into a tourist resort complete with parks and pavilions.

Despite this promising outlook, however, the rigors of building democracy from the grassroots up isn’t for the fainthearted. When asked if he will seek higher office if his tenure here is a success, Yang says, "This has never happened before." He then adds wearily, “After three years I am done with this job. I don’t make a lot of money and the work is very demanding.”

Still, like many another politician, Yang is already thinking about his legacy in office. “I just want to be remembered here,” he says, smiling wistfully. “You really have to dedicate yourself and contribute alot.”