A recent study suggests that China’s village elections have led to some concrete improvements for local residents since the early 80s, despite widespread meddling by Party officials. Among the reported benefits are greater and more equitable infrastructure investment and a significant reduction in income inequality. From China Real Time Report:
… [T]he economists found some solid pluses for local democracy. Villages with elected officials spent substantially more on irrigation, primary schools, roads and trees plantings – and agreed to tax themselves to pay for the improvements. The economists figure that about 70% of the funding for these improvements came from the villages.
Villages with elections also showed a substantial reduction in income inequality. “Elections caused the households that were the poorest before the election to gain the most income, 28%, and the households that were the richest before the election to lose the most income, 29%,” they calculate. The authors argue that elected leader improved irrigation, which helped those with the worst land, and divied up fields in a way that helped the poorest villagers. Similarly income from village enterprises was redistributed on a more equal basis ….
But the positive gains don’t necessarily portend a bright future for democracy for China. Village democracy could have the opposite effect. If elections reduce local grievances, the ruling Communist Party may feel less pressure to change. If that’s the case, the economist write, the elections could become “an instrument for local governance that improves citizens’ satisfaction of [sic] the autocratic central regime.”
Village elections made global headlines earlier this year when Wukan held its first votes since a dramatic stand against local officials in December. Wukan has been trumpeted as a potential model for the rest of China, but there are others: Dongguan’s Yantian, for example, where the migrant workers who make up 97% of the population are excluded from elections by the original inhabitants, or the village in Beijing’s Daxing district where an independent campaign was allegedly derailed last year by bribery and police intimidation.