An Unusual Sort of Democracy

Li Fuzeng and his wife make pancakes in their snack shop in Dangxi. Li said he received the equivalent of $50 for his and his family's votes in the village council election last month.
Li Fuzeng and his wife make pancakes in their snack shop in Dangxi. Li said he received the equivalent of $50 for his and his family's votes in the village council election last month. (By Edward Cody -- The Washington Post)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, June 20, 2005

DANGXI, China Li Fuzeng was busy making pancakes, he recalled, when an acquaintance stopped by his little snack shop on the morning of May 19 and unexpectedly handed him the equivalent of $50.

The money was a significant sum in the economy of this farming village in eastern China, and Li knew something would be expected in exchange. He was right. The quid pro quo, Li recounted later, was his and his family's votes in village elections the next day.

"My friend said, 'Vote like this,' " Li said, "and he handed me a list of candidates."

Li's account of what happened that morning has become part of a bitter struggle between the local Communist Party apparatus and a group of discontented farmers who want new leadership for their village. The vote-buying at Li's pancake stand, the farmers allege, was but one episode in a campaign during which thousands of dollars were spent to make sure that people in tune with party leaders would be elected to the seven-member council.

The uproar in Dangxi, a village of 3,200 residents on the fringes of the city of Jinan, about 200 miles south of Beijing, is emblematic of the Communist Party's difficulty in retaining support among peasants as China makes economic development its main mission, often at the price of farmland. The conflict also dramatizes the limits on China's village elections, which the government depicts as grass-roots democracy but over which local Communist Party branches and traditional leaders often retain control.

Elections have been held in a growing number of China's 700,000 villages since the experiment began in 1987, and Dangxi joined the trend. Over the last decade, the village has elected several councils. But farmers here described an unusual kind of democracy. Voting, they said, was organized by the Communist Party secretary, Jin Yansi, and one of his followers carried the ballot box from home to home, handing villagers ballots to deposit in the slot.

Assured of a compliant village council, said Zhang Tingfu, leader of the dissident farmers, Jin helped arrange development deals that reduced Dangxi's cultivated land from more than 2,000 acres to around 400 as new buildings rose where crops once grew. More than 100 farming families lost their land during the 1990s, Zhang said, and in return received only $100 each in compensation. In place of their fields, he said, a stone quarry and a private high school were developed.

Zhang, 58, who plants corn and wheat on his own 1.2 acres, said he and a group of other farmers went to the quarry in the summer of 2000 and pulled down the walls to protest the loss of farmland. At the same time, Zhang said, he started a campaign to demand that village elections be organized by secret ballot so new leaders could be chosen who would, he hoped, close the quarry and return the fields to farmers who used to work them.

"We wanted to protect the land and they wanted to develop it," said Zhang, a peasant with short gray hair and a determined mien. "That's why Jin and his supporters did not want us in power."

Jin and his family had run the village for years. His cousin was party secretary for more than a decade, with Jin his deputy. Jin took over in 1996 after his cousin died, Zhang said, and was not used to any challenges to his authority.

In response to the agitation, however, the voting was moved to a meeting hall for elections in April 2002. County authorities said that this time the balloting would be secret, as required by law. But Zhang said he and other villagers found the ballot boxes half full before anyone had voted. In protest, most villagers boycotted the proceedings and the elections had to be declared invalid, he said.

"We have two groups in our village, one for Zhang and one for Jin," explained Cui Huanmei, 60, a farmer's wife whose brick home stands on a narrow lane full of fat black cows lounging in the dust.

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