Village Democracy Actually Spreads the Wealth (Did Anyone Ever Doubt it?)

Last December’s spectacular ten-day confrontation between Wukan villagers and local CCP riot police in Guangdong amply demonstrated how organized grassroots protest can morph quickly into organized electoral politics.

Three months after the rioting, in which villagers drove out authorities and barricaded themselves against police, villagers went to the polls to elect a new seven-member village governing committee hailed by Al Jazeera “as a model for greater democracy in China following an uncompromising confrontation over land grabs and abuse of power.

In foreign media, Wukan was quickly held up as a village template for civic activism and democratic reforms. But though this Guangdong fishing village might be considered one of the exceptional models of rural rebellion —  villagers won unusual freedoms to hold new elections, install a respected rebel leader as the new Party secretary and reclaim portions of sold-off land –in actuality village elections in China have been going on for decades.

Since 1982, in fact, when the Communist Party began allowing local elections, villages throughout China have implemented polling in stages, then in waves. Timing of the first village elections was staggered over years and then decades, determined by local town, city, or county CCP officials who assessed the comparative “readiness” of the village to democratically elect its local leadership.

Today, though, village democracy in China seems to be working effectively — surprisingly so. In the largest study ever undertaken on rural village elections and their impact on local economies, a cooperative research team at The London School of Economics, Yale University,  Johns Hopkins, and Peking University’s China Center for Economic Research jointly concludes that local elections and village democracy are actually increasing public prosperity and “buy in” to better governance.

“We find that elections significantly increase public goods expenditure [and] the increase corresponds to [local village] demand and is paralleled by an increase in public goods provision and local taxes,” wrote Monica Martinez-Bravo (Johns Hopkins), Gerard Padro i Miquel (London School of Economics), Nancy Qian (Yale University), and Yang Yao (Peking University).  “We also find the elections cause significant income redistribution in the villages,” they continued.  “We show that the main mechanism underlying the effect of elections is increased leader incentives.”

Based on 2006 and 2011 surveys conducted by the authors along with economic and election data collected between 1982 to 2005, the study was published in May as a working (not yet peer-reviewed) paper of the National Bureau of Economic Research (Washington DC), a private, non-profit organization.  Funded by grants from Harvard University, Brown, Stanford, and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the study can hardly be called “transnational” at its source, but the authors claim independence from the opinions of NBER, or presumably, any other institution, whether Chinese or American.

Measuring both economic and social effects of local elections in 217 Chinese villages randomly selected from 29 Chinese provinces, the study’s major finding is that village democracy not only increases public expenditures for worthwhile projects  — examples include irrigation for poorer village farms or more spending for public school teachers — but that villagers themselves are willing to part with money to invest in these projects.

In fact, virtually none of the increases in public expenditure came from regional or central governments, the study found.  Instead, village residents “bought into” the projects and paid increased local taxes and fees, strongly suggesting that leadership and constituents were “aligned” in supporting the projects.

The numbers are also dramatic. Public goods expenditures increased by as much as 27% in the “democracy villages,” according to the study.  Moreover, the research confirms earlier studies suggesting that village elections, albeit in a fledgling state, actually reduce corruption because elected officials are held more accountable by villagers than appointed ones.

Spreading the Wealth in Farmland

The second major finding of the study is that elections result in redistribution of land and agricultural income to poorer families. “Elections increased the ratio of the income of the households that were in the poorest 10 percent over the households that were in the top ten percent by 21 percentage points,”  the authors stated. How? Elected village officials are prohibited from imposing recurring taxes on income and production. But they are empowered to redistribute farmland originally leased to enterprises (which disproportionately benefits village elites). Redistribution in turn affects agricultural income, helping the poor increase their share.

In addition, elected village officials have power of management over certain village enterprises which allows them to redistribute wage income.  This can directly benefit poorer village families — and apparently does.

Not that all elections (or elected officials) are alike.  According to the researchers, many first-time village elections generally have few candidates willing to run.  Some villages are run by rich families — clans and village chiefs sharing power.  It’s difficult to break their grip. In several cases, elections have been delayed because regional officials were dissatisfied with certain villages’ responses to centralized policy (i.e., One-Child policy).  And in others cases, local officials’ collusion with police and large land owners delayed or hampered the electoral process.

In addition, before the late 1990s, only the local CCP branch was allowed to nominate candidates for village elections.  Residents had little power of choice, and could only vote bad performers out of office.

In 1998, however, open nominations became national law. Villages were able to choose their own candidates, and many did — by the thousands. The more progressive CCP leadership believed that village democracy would actually promote public welfare. Further, elite power holders might be persuaded to relax their grip somewhat if local elections resulted in continued stability and economic prosperity.

So much for ideals.  How then, does this village democracy study square with the thousands of local “anti-corruption” cases and periodic sweeps of rapacious officials in local and regional government? If village democracy is working, how come so many Chinese towns like Wukan periodically erupt into demonstrations or even rioting? If village elections appear responsible for redistributing income with greater parity among rich and poor, why is China’s rural vs. urban income gap growing ever wider?

The authors haven’t addressed these questions.  But if elected officials indeed perform better for their constituents than appointed ones, the lessons of village democracy might certainly apply to larger government bodies in China.

We’ll wait and see.


A.Emmett is a Beijing-based professor of journalism.  Her personal blog, “China Through Blue Eyes,” can be found at



5 thoughts on “Village Democracy Actually Spreads the Wealth (Did Anyone Ever Doubt it?)”

  1. Pingback: Hao Hao Report
  2. Wow. Very thought-provoking piece, Ms Emmett.

    And I’m quite glad I checked out your blog, too. Good to see another China expat blog in the ‘sphere which leans at least somewhat to the left!


  3. Democracy in the Chinese village level helps to reduce wealth disparity and the land grab problem, but not on a national level.


  4. Then maybe, even on a local level, they should introduce it to the entire country, uniformly and without exception. And then we’ll see where that leads…


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