I'm Robert Lawrence Kuhn and here's what I'm watching: How what China calls its "Whole-Process People's Democracy" works at the primary or "grassroots" level, where I've had first-hand experience. Indeed, grassroots democracy at the local level is considered a driving factor for realizing Whole-Process People's Democracy at the national level.
President Xi Jinping, as part of his commitment to alleviate poverty and accelerate rural revitalization, stated, "The most prominent contradictions and problems in economic and social development and in people's livelihoods are at the grassroots level" and that the foundation of the Party's governance lies at the grassroots level, the so-called "last mile" of political administration.
In a sense, while there are many expressions of grassroots democracy, there are two basic forms: electoral democracy, where people actually vote for their local leaders, and deliberative democracy, where processes and procedures guide resolution.
The claim is that self-governing mechanisms at the grassroots level is what guarantees the direct and effective exercise of democratic rights by the grassroots masses, ensuring that they participate in democratic elections, democratic consultations, democratic decision-making, democratic management, and democratic supervision. Typical issues include resolving disputes between neighboring families within villagers, and in the supply of public goods and services between neighboring villages.
China states that the majority of urban and rural residents elect village (or resident) committee members through democratic elections, carry out democratic consultation in various forms, and make democratic decisions on community public affairs through village (or resident) meeting or representative meeting. They formulate village (or resident) self-government articles of association, rules and regulations, and conventions to implement democratic management.
President Xi noted, "The key to whether a country is democratic or not… depends on whether the people have the right to vote, and more importantly, whether the people have the right to participate extensively." The report of the 20th CPC National Congress called for improving "the institutional and working systems for direct democracy at the primary level to see that urban and rural communities can more effectively manage, serve, educate, and oversee themselves."
During my field work on poverty alleviation, I watched a "democratic appraisal meeting" in a remote village, where villagers discussed and debated who were entitled to be put into poverty status and thus become eligible for financial subsidies and other benefits. I witnessed one young man whose father had cancer being given poverty status and I watched villagers cheer when another man was voted out of poverty. Before the votes, there were lively discussions, with one elderly gentleman especially free with his opinions.
One cannot ignore the problems of grassroots democracy, such as where dominant families or allied groups can conspire, bribe or intimidate voters. China's central leadership is aware of these problems and has enacted detailed regulations on voting rights and election procedures of village committees to standardize grassroots elections and decision-making by strengthening laws and improving discipline, and by not hesitating to use punishment to reduce favoritism and fraud. Moreover, China's central leadership directs local officials to monitor compliance with rules, using unannounced inspections.
The challenge is to institutionalize grassroots democracy so it is no longer at the largesse of powerful local leaders but rather can more effectively manage, serve, educate, and oversee themselves irrespective of local leaders.
China's grass-roots democracy is a work in process.
I'm keeping watch. I'm Robert Lawrence Kuhn.
Script: Robert Lawrence Kuhn
Editors: Yang Yutong, Qi Haiming, Duan Jiaxin
Designer: Qi Haiming
Producer: Wang Ying
Chief editor: Li Shouen
Supervisors: Ge Jing, Adam Zhu
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