Does village democracy in China bring greater income parity to poorer populations along with feelings of satisfaction and empowerment?
When I reported last month on the release of an American-funded, multi-university study examining the effects of village democracy on public goods expenditures in China (see “Village Democracy Spreads the Wealth” (07/01/2012), I had not yet been able to reach any of the study authors for a direct interview.
Naturally, many questions remained unanswered, particularly those related to the limitations of the research and the caveats that always underlie good news.
To recap briefly: The international study, jointly undertaken by academic researchers at The London School of Economics, Yale University, Johns Hopkins, and Peking University’s China Center for Economic Research, concluded that local elections and village democracy in China are actually increasing prosperity and local villager “buy in” to better governance.
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 increases local expenditures for public projects by as much as 27%. Examples include irrigation for poorer village farms and more spending for public schools. Moreover, villagers themselves are willing to part with money to invest in these projects through increased taxes; virtually none of the expenditure increases come from regional or central government coffers.
Another major finding of the study is that village elections — which have been rolling out in China since 1982 — actually results 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 empowered to redistribute farmland originally leased to enterprises (which disproportionately benefits village elites), thus boosting agricultural income among the poor.
Why, then, does China continue to report an escalating number of “mass incidents” — riots, demonstrations, uprisings — as many as 127,000 a year (New York Times), with land disputes accounting for 65 percent of rural “mass conflicts” (China Academy of Social Sciences). If village elections are working so well to redistribute wealth, why is the income gap between richer and poorer in China growing ever wider?
Obviously these questions are complex. “Democracy doesn’t guarantee happiness; we also have protests in fully democratic countries,” observed Nancy Qian, one of the study co-authors, an assistant professor of Economics at Yale University. “Just because things are better in the villages doesn’t mean it’s enough,” she continued. “We don’t have the data over time to find out whether elections have increased or decreased local protests.”
I reached Qian while she was taking a speeding Amtrak in New England. She added a number of qualifiers about the democracy study. First, study data did not touch at all on civil rights. The researchers did not interview or collect survey data from villages in ethnic minority regions, such as Tibet or Xinjiang. They did not collect or collate data on democracy protests or any other kind of Chinese protest, whether local, county, or provincial. So there is an apparent gap in knowledge about democracy, public money and satisfaction. Not only is it tough to get reliable data on the numbers of [village] protests (“You know you’re not getting a random sample,” Qian said, since both Chinese media and government tend to suppress reports of protests). “As researchers, you’d be worried about protests you’re hearing about and what you’re not hearing about,” she added. Available data may be unreliable. But the relationship between local democracy and the freedom to protest is one that Qian would like to explore.
Further, the democracy study did not look at whether greater democracy at a local level promoted richer and more elite folk to elected positions. Qian acknowledges “there is a lot of turnover [in elections]; and the people who enter office today will be very different from people who were in office before. They are younger and more educated; and they may not have been from the Party before. They’re not part of the original elite.”
Such issues as localized corruption, black jails, forced abortions in the countryside, and the relationship between village governments and the prosecution of crimes by police were subjects untouched in this broad-based study. These real-world factors are like commas in a long embedded sentence with the main idea at the end — and that idea, according to Qian, is that village democracy in China apparently improves public life overall and helps to redistribute both land and income from the richest families to the poorest ones. However, the question of how democracy actually shapes the lives, thoughts, and options of people in specific villages, in specific regions of China, remains open.
In the near term, Qian and her colleagues will add further dimensions to their study. “We want to understand whether elections work to benefit people with higher social capital, and also to look at the role of religion and how that affects how elections really work,” she said.