Village heads are often called "zhima guan," which means they are about as insignificant as a sesame seed. That's why many people were stunned to hear that a farmer in North China's Shanxi Province spent 1.94 million yuan (US$230,000) to get elected to the position.
When Wang Yufeng, 32, entered the competition a year ago, the campaign for the position of head of the village committee of Laoyaotou in Hejin City was turned into a battle of bids, with Wang and the two other official candidates offering to pay each of the 1,300 villagers once they got elected. The sums offered ranged from 200 yuan (US$25) to 2,000 yuan (US$250).
Wang won the election in the end and paid every resident of the village, including babies, 1,800 yuan (US$210) as he had promised. The money came from his earnings in the transportation business and loans from his relatives, he said later. His two runners-up spent a total of 145,500 yuan (US$17,530) each to become vice-chairmen of the village committee.
The payments bewildered not only the people in the poverty-stricken but coal-rich village, but also many law experts when they heard the story a few months later. While some classed it as bribery, since it involved "trading votes for money," others argued that Wang had not violated the law, although personally they did not approve of the practice.
"He gave money to all the villagers instead of only those who voted for him," said a fellow villager. "And he gave the money after the election instead of prior to the process."
But Shi Weimin, a political researcher with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS) who has been following the development of democratic village elections in the country, insists that Wang's promise of giving money was "out-and-out bribery."
"Democratic elections should not allow money-for-vote exchanges," Shi says. "Paying money for votes is a violation of democratic principles."
In the words of Fang Ning, also a CASS political researcher, the payment of money, in any way, can alter the outcome of elections, which are supposed to be strict, open and fair, by making it possible for the cheque-payer to control the election process.
Caught in the controversy, Wang lost his position at the end of 2003, with the discipline department of Hejin city ruling last November that the election was at least tainted with bribery, if not a sheer case of bribery, and thus was invalid. The money Wang had distributed was retrieved and confiscated by the local government, while the township officials and the Party branch of the village who had monitored the election were penalized for their connivance in the bribery-tainted election.
Wang's case, a record in the history of village elections in China in terms of the huge amount of money involved, is not an isolated incident. With a new round of village committee elections in progress in 220,000 villages throughout China this year, with over 300 million villagers involved, sporadic reports of money-for-vote deals, though not as spectacular as Wang's case, have surfaced in Hebei and Shaanxi provinces.
These cases have aroused the government's concern. The Ministry of Civil Affairs, which administers and oversees grassroots self-government organizations including village committees, issued a circular at the end of March, urging local governments to make sure that village committee elections are healthy, fair and clean. It defines all vote-targeted actions involving money, goods or other forms of payment, transacted either by candidates themselves or through their agents, as bribery, and demands that effective measures be taken to stop such practices.
Hailing it as a timely warning, Shi Weimin points out that the circular alone is not enough for long-term effective prevention of bribery in village elections. "We need to put in place a more scientific and comprehensive legal system to guide the development of rural grassroots democracy," he said.
Though provisions for direct elections were written into China's Constitution as early as 1982 and the Organic Law on Village Committees was put into effect in 1998, so far there are no detailed and functional regulations on bribery in village elections.
"The recent occurrences of money-for-vote cases in village elections indicate there is a loophole in our legislation," Shi says. "We need a set of laws to regulate the election process and the behaviour of both voters and candidates, with clearly defined punishments for possible violations. Such regulations would carry more weight than a single administrative circular."
The legal system to guide the development of rural grassroots democracy, however, should not stop at the level of village elections, he says. "What is even more important is the design of legislation for post-election supervision of village committees and their heads and members."
He pointed out that now many candidates are eager to run for the position of village head, Wang's case being an example, precisely because of the profits that can be made after they are elected.
According to Qiao Xinsheng, a professor of law at Zhongnan University of Economics and Law based in Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, village committees, though neither administrative bodies nor government-funded institutions, are authorized under current laws and administrative regulations to control rural public resources including land and collective enterprises in their villages.
Winning these village elections, Qiao observes, means acquiring control of huge amounts of assets, and for those money-driven candidates, it is cost-efficient to buy the position, even at a high price, as in Wang Yufeng's case.
He suggests that village committee's control over public resources, the very thing that stirs candidates' greed, should be reduced or even eliminated and turned over to local governments.
Shi disagrees with Qiao on this point, maintaining that village committees, as self-government organizations of rural people, should control village public resources.
The key rests in the establishment of an effective supervision mechanism over village committees. "Without a powerful supervision mechanism, village committees may be tempted to abuse their power and get involved in corruption," Shi says.
Xiao Tangbiao, a professor with the Jiangxi Administration School in East China's Jiangxi Province, says that village committees with unlimited power will eventually make village elections meaningless. So he is calling for the establishment of a healthy interplay between village committees, meetings of village representatives, a watchdog body elected by villagers to supervise their village committees, and villagers' assemblies.
Xiao says that villagers or voters need a guarantee and legal guidelines that tell them where and how they can lodge complaints and start legal impeachment procedures if they are dissatisfied with election procedures and the behaviour of village committees after they are elected.
It is unavoidable that there exists unfair play like bribery, Xiao says, especially in a country where grassroots democracy is still very new.
Only in the early 1980s did China begin direct elections of village committees, self-government organizations in the countryside, to replace governance by People's Communes of the era of the planned economy.
The 20-odd years of development of the election mechanism, says Shi Weimin, has served as a workshop for the democratic process, in which farmers have learned how to exercise their rights and how to get involved in the political process through elections.
When the village election mechanism was first initiated, Shi says, there were doubts that poorly educated farmers might not know what to do with rights they were given and thus would hinder the construction of democracy in the countryside. However, facts show that education background is not a decisive factor in the shaping of people's political awareness, as farmers across the country have demonstrated an increasing enthusiasm for involvement in the election process.
"Of course, there will always be some problems, sometimes even big ones like the case of Wang Yufeng, but the problems will scale down when we put them into the context of rural democracy development," Shi says. "The promotion of direct elections among our 768 million rural dwellers demonstrates itself a great leap forward in the country's democratic construction."