‘Village Democracy Spreads the Wealth’: Interviewing Yale Researcher Nancy Qian

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.


4 thoughts on “‘Village Democracy Spreads the Wealth’: Interviewing Yale Researcher Nancy Qian”

  1. Looks like there are a number of interesting possibilities for further study here, Dr Emmett! I would personally be quite interested in seeing the study on how religious preferences and social capital affect the election process. Actually, I would also be interested in seeing how variations in how democratic a locality is affects the governing bodies above it – the city- and province-level governments. One of the minor points Lily Tsai made in her book Accountability Without Democracy is that these ‘mid-level’ governance institutions seem to be pretty thin and unaccountable, leading to dysfunction and miscommunications between the local-level government and the central government; it would be interesting to see if the local governments have ability to exert upward pressure.


  2. I’m with Matthew, one little study opens the door to a thousand more. What I’m curious to know is how the central government feels about localized power shifting to a new generation and money being awarded to public works projects which don’t necessarily rake in the cash. From my distance I’m under the impression that China’s cadre system is essentially feudalistic and that lower level representatives are protected by higher-ups so long as they toe the line and kick money up.

    Any case studies come to mind where a populist local representative has been chased out of office for upsetting the centralized government?


  3. This data has many caveats and significant limitations which may restrict its generalizability. Nonetheless, it is probably the best there is. So I wonder what the ccp will do with it. If the ccp wants to spread the wealth for her citizens, and local democracy appears to do so effectively…well, I suspect the logical answer for the ccp would be to bury it, and censor it on weibo.


  4. “The researchers did not interview or collect survey data from villages in ethnic minority regions, such as Tibet or Xinjiang.” I wonder if this really means that they avoided ethnic minority villages or just that they didn’t study villages in large-scale ethnic Autonomous Regions like the TAR or the XUAR. I don’t know if there are any village elections in the Tibet Autonomous Region — I suspect there are not — but I read about an election that was held in a Tibetan village in Qinghai, so I know there are nonzero village elections in Tibetan areas. According to the description that I read, the voters and candidates in that case addressed local issues exclusively and didn’t touch on Tibetan separatism or other issue — no doubt what the authorities were hoping for. My guess is that, if there were free elections in Tibetan villages, 95%+ of them would follow that pattern: local issues only, nothing subversive. However, I doubt village elections will become widespread in Tibetan areas, because the government wouldn’t want to deal with the other <5% of elections that do take up separatist themes.
    Something I wondered about during the Wukan elections that still doesn't seem very clear to me (I haven't read this paper yet; maybe it's addressed) is the interplay between the Party and the People's Government at the village level. I would imagine that the elections are for government rather than party offices. Do they share power with party officials who can overrule them — or is that only the case at higher levels of government?


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