The Micro-Politics of Local Elections

Dong Luo

China’s undemocratic elections are usually attributed to a national political culture. But manipulation most often unfolds at the local level: through insidious practices rather than structural constraints.

After eleven years of official experiments with democratic elections in villages, a new electoral law, “The Organic Law of the People’s Republic of China for the Villagers Committee” (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Cunmin Weiyuanhui Zuzhi Fa), finally went into effect in China in 1998. By the following year, direct elections had already taken place in most rural areas.

The practice of direct elections in rural China, however, has not resulted in democratic politics. This is due to a number of reasons. China’s democratic political reform has been accompanied by tensions between democracy and centralism, and in spite of the practice of direct elections, the local authorities have never given up on manipulating elections through administrative interference in order to maintain control over villagers’ political discourses and actions. Moreover, local interest groups, such as former and current party cadres, dominate the electoral process in villages. Mass media and some academic publications have begun to expose these electoral manipulations to the public. They have found, for instance, that township governments refuse to accept newly elected village cadres whose politics do not align with the local governments’ interests; in such cases, township governments administratively define these elections to be failures. Similarly, local interest groups directly manipulate local elections through bribery and threats. In these cases, villagers are forced to vote for a pre-determined slate of candidates. However, the purpose of this essay is not to list cases of election fraud. Nor do I want to discuss yet another highly publicized election scandal. Rather, I want to argue that Chinese scholars and journalists have understood electoral manipulation in an oversimplified manner.

Most of the attention has been focused on the more exciting and sensationalist types of electoral manipulation, such as cases involving bribery and violence. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and governments at all levels also prefer to concern themselves with this more common form of electoral manipulation because they can utilize these local scandals to demonstrate to the public their resolve to stamp out corruption. Unfortunately, these governmental entities have failed to expose more insidious and sophisticated efforts to restrict democratic elections in rural China.

In early 2014, in a village in southwest China that I call Kuangcun, I began noticing another genre of electoral manipulation. With no signs of contestation, bribery or threats, the election was ostensibly legal and the process appeared to be publicly transparent. However, by employing a set of micro-strategies, the local interest group in Kuangcun skillfully manipulated the election process and achieved its desired outcome.

Located in a small plain between two mountains, Kuangcun is an administrative village in a hilly area in the northeastern part of Sichuan province. The village’s adult population numbered about 1,200 at the end of 2013.[1] Since China’s market reform began in the 1990s, Sichuan, as an inland province, has become one of the biggest migrant labor-exporting areas. In most rural areas there, including in Kuangcun, all or almost all laboring farmers migrate year after year between their village and various cities in order to make a living. As migrant workers (nongmin gong), they are identified neither as traditional peasants nor as regular urban workers. The villagers who are left behind tend to be the elders, children, and adults with disabilities.

The election was ostensibly legal and the process appeared to be publicly transparent. However, by employing a set of micro-strategies, the local interest group in Kuangcun skillfully manipulated the election process and achieved its desired outcome.

There are two kinds of migrant workers in Kuangcun. The first type work for service sectors in developed coastal cities, such as Shanghai, Guangzhou, Qingdao, and Suzhou. This group of migrants is almost entirely composed of young people. They work in cities for eleven months a year except for the period around the Spring Festival, one of the most important festivals for the Chinese. The other type of migrant worker is mainly employed in the construction industry in underdeveloped cities of the northwest and northeast. These migrants are mostly middle-aged. The cold winter in northern China make outdoor work impossible, so these migrant workers must return to Kuangcun very early in the year, before the Spring Festival begins. The map depicts the trajectories of the two groups of migrants.

Electoral Manipulation

Kuangcun launched its triennial election on February 10th, 2014, with twenty days to go before the Spring Festival. A new village head was to be chosen from two candidates as well as two new members of the villagers committee from among four candidates.

The election meeting took place in front of the villagers’ committee office, which was located off the road in the village center. That day, the village was enveloped in a thin morning mist, as if it had been released into the atmosphere by the chatter and bustle of villagers. Walking on the only path to the meeting place, I passed by a mini store, in which several middle-aged women and elders were talking loudly about household affairs. “Let’s go to election meeting right now!” (Zou wa, kaihui qie) an elder said to the group excitedly, holding a wooden stool in his right hand. Gradually, more and more villagers appeared, bringing stools to sit on at the meeting place.

I quickly realized that there were few young people in sight. Most were working in the cities and could not return home to Kuangcun until a few days before the Spring Festival. The few young villagers who were present worked in the construction industry, and who had already returned home to escape the early onset of winter in the country’s northern regions. As a result, most of the participants were the elders followed by middle-aged women, with the remaining being children and middle-aged men. There were few young men and no young woman present. This was the composition of the electorship present (barring the children).

Although all the young people in Kuangcun, myself included, had grown up in a social context where our parents and elders all believed that so-called “democratic elections” were impossible, I saw that there were still a small number of young people present and who still wanted to vote. In rural areas, young men and women, especially those who work in developed coastal cities, are more likely to have opinions that clash with local interests. They are also more likely to take an interest in local democracy. After all, they tend to be exposed to democratic ideas in the cities, and they tend to follow the events of the country more closely through social media. Chatting with friends from Kuangcun over QQ, a real-time communication software that is very popular in mainland China, and reading their shuoshuo (a Chinese version of tweets) in QQ spaces, I realized that many were interested in the right to vote and local politics, more generally. Overhearing several elders announce that, “Today’s young people tend to ‘make troubles’! They are annoying!” (Xianzai de nianqingren zhen fanren, xihuan tianluan!), also indicated to me that the young migrants who were away had opinions that challenged the existing structure of authority and the traditional order. They were no longer submissive in the way that their parents had been.

There was a general awareness that this group of migrants might change the outcome of the local elections. And for this reason, the election date was set to a time when they were away. The date was determined by the county and township authorities in consideration of the “troubles” that young people would make. If the election had taken place ten days later, I am certain that the election results might have unfolded very differently.

Kuangcun consists of nine teams that are lower level organizational units. Correspondingly, the meeting place where the voting was to take place was also divided into nine sections. Voters sat in the sections to which they belonged, while the rest stood aside. I estimated that there were about 300 voters at the meeting. This number was equal to the number of households but fell far short of the total number of eligible voters—1,200. It failed to meet the quorum under the current law. By convention, however, the voters present would still receive 1,200 ballot papers and vote on behalf of their family and even neighbors who were absent, so as to meet the quorum. However, nobody had an accurate count of the number present because there were no attendance registers.

The electoral committee consisted of three elders and the only village party branch secretary who held the post of election committee chief.[2] After a chatting briefly with some voters, the chief announced the opening of the election meeting. Nine team heads went up to him and got a stack of ballots. The chief then explained how to vote by checking off or circling the names of the candidates the voter supported (zai ni zhichi de mingzi shang huaquan huo dagou) and crossing out the names of other candidates (bu zhichi de, jiu da yige cha).

The Unspoken Rule

By talking with villagers and my acquaintances in Kuangcun, I learned the following about the six candidates.[3] The two candidates for a village head were Wan Quan, the present village head, and Yang Hai, a cook, who used to be the accountant of Kuangcun nearly a decade earlier but had held no position since. Wan Quan ranked first in the list of candidates both in ballot cards and on the bulletin board, while Yang Hai ranked second. In posters, the former’s name was printed in a weightier and bolder font than the latter’s. The four candidates for the two committee members were Zhan Zeng, the current accountant of Kuangcun, Hui Quan, one of the nine team heads, as well as Jian Guo and Yu Lu, who were villagers who did not hold any positions.

It’s worth mentioning that the voters had no access to the process of nominating candidates, which had been directly determined by the local interest group and the township government. The ranking was not random. Voters were well aware of the “unspoken rule” (qian guize) that only the candidates who ranked first were favored by the township government and local interest group. But few villagers present dared to go against this rule. After the election meeting, a middle-aged woman told me bluntly: “We all knew that whoever ranked first were the candidates we should vote for.”(Shui dou zhidao gai xuan diyige a.)

The villagers were chatting loudly with each other, as if they were in a noisy market setting rather than an election meeting, while the nine team heads walked off with the stack of ballots in hand.

The Politics of Pens

A pen is not a necessity in the daily lives of most villagers. It was unsurprising, therefore, that villagers showed up at the election meeting without the requisite pens. I wondered how they could mark anything on their ballots. Then, several team heads went to retrieve a few gel pens from the rostrum. Noticing that there were not enough pens to go around, a middle-aged woman suggested the following idea, “Just let Liu circle these names of candidates on our behalf!” (Womenzhe jiu laoliu hua yige quanquan jiushile!) After several villagers echoed this advice, they shouted “agreed!” (Jiushi!) accompanied by laughter.

A team head handed the only gel pen he had to a man named Liu. At the same time, three other villagers also got gel pens from other team heads so that they could vote on behalf of other villagers. I took a gel pen out of my bag and lent it to someone sitting behind me. At this point, five gel pens were available. The five villagers then got five stacks of ballots. Their left hands holding ballots, their right hands clutching gel pens, they squatted down and started to circle the candidates they wanted and cross off the names of the candidates that they didn’t. Their hands and eyes moved regularly from left to right, from top to bottom.

What entailed “success”, it seemed to me, was that everyone had followed the unspoken rule and the final results aligned with the interests of the authorities.

After a short while, the only doctor in Kuangcun, a middle-aged man, arrived at the election meeting. After taking some ballots from Liu and four other villagers, the doctor took out a fountain pen from his medical kit, circled and crossed off names as the others had done. It seemed to me that everyone present was well aware that these six pens would determine the outcome of this election. But the events unfolded so spontaneously and so smoothly, that I firmly believe that the six villagers had not been pre-selected to fill out ballot cards on behalf of other voters. The voting ended within twenty minutes. Two team heads collected all the ballots and handed them over to the chief. The next step was to count the votes, the outcome of which, at least theoretically, could pose a challenge to the local interest group. Additionally, villagers’ dissatisfaction could increase this risk; many privately suspected a few cadres of having embezzled public funds from reconstruction projects following the Wenchuan Earthquake of May 2008. Given this risk, it was entirely possible that the local election officials would not count the votes in public.

But that day, to my surprise, the counting process took place publicly, surrounded and guarded by a fair number of villagers, including all of the young men who were present. What would they do if the result failed to meet their interests? I never found out because the results came out as expected: Wan Quan won the position of village head with 937 votes out of 1027. Both Zhan Zeng and Hui Quan won the election for committee members with a big majority as well. The chief declared the meeting’s close, and handed out candy to celebrate the success of the triennial election. But what entailed “success”, it seemed to me, was that everyone had followed the unspoken rule and the final results aligned with the interests of the authorities.

The Micro-Politics of Elections

Although half a year has passed, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about the elections in Kuangcun. With no trace of bribery, fake votes, cheating or other common forms of scandal, and simply by employing micro-techniques that shaped the voting process, the local interest group managed to achieve its desired outcome, unhindered.

Young migrant workers who worked in the service sectors of big cities could have derailed the local elites’ plans. For this reason, the election date was set in such a way that these young men and women could not have an opportunity to vote. This meant that only those who were left behind—the elderly and middle-aged villagers—were the ones who determined the election outcome. In order to further ensure the results of elections against any uncertainty, the local interest group limited the available number of pens, so that only six villagers, well-versed in the unspoken rule of voting for the top-ranked candidates, could vote. These three strategies worked together synergistically and successfully.

Some might argue that the villagers of Kuangcun did not care about that election and were largely indifferent to its results. There may be some truth to this claim. Unlike villages that are located on rural-urban fringe zones, in which villagers are active in democratic elections and will even go so far as to express their rights through media outlets if there are scandals in the elections, Kuangcun has no valuable resources for cadres to contend for and to embezzle, such as the land profits that accumulate during the process of urbanization.[4] So, for villagers in Kuangcun, who won the position of village head or who got voted to be the other cadres was largely irrelevant.

But I find this argument unconvincing. In fact, there were still many projects, such as road works, water conservation projects, and agricultural subsidies from the central government that could have raised the stakes. Not only that, but villagers were also concerned about the politics and affairs of Kuangcun, and this was why they did suspect some cadres of having embezzled public funds. So I argue that the difference in valuable resources does not explain the differences in electoral processes between Kuangcun and rural-urban fringe villages. Rather, it is that (a) villagers in urban fringe areas have more access to ideas about democracy and the electoral process which can then mobilize them to exercise their right to vote and (b) these villagers more likely to stay in their villages to participate in local political affairs rather than migrate to make a living.

What led to the results of the election that day in February, was the fact that the young people who could have made “trouble” were intentionally excluded from the elections. What mattered were the three strategies of manipulation in the context of a village inhabited by farmers-turned-workers.

Those who study China have generally attributed undemocratic elections to larger political and cultural factors. Similarly, Chinese media the CCP and local governments have only taken note of the more common and sensationalist forms of manipulation. But when one considers the actual practice of politics on the ground, it becomes immediately apparent that electoral manipulation can unfold in a micro and mundane manner as well. This more insidious form of manipulation in village elections, unfortunately, has been ignored.

The question still remains, however: how does China create the conditions for truly democratic elections, particularly in migrant labor-exporting rural areas? This is something that people in China have to work out over time. But, one thing is for certain. The path to democratic elections in rural China will be a long and winding one unless two conditions are met: first, migrant workers must be allowed to become formal and regular urban workers and, second, that rural economies must be developed so that villagers can have the option of making a living without having to migrate to faraway cities. Then, and only then, will it truly be possible to have democratic results in local elections.


Dong Luo is working on his master's degree in sociology from Wuhan University, China and his research interests are mainly in the area of political sociology and urban sociology. He has recently published in the Hong Kong Journal of Social Science, Sociology (人大复印资料《社会学》) and presented at the 2012 Annual Academic Meeting for China's Sociology (中国社会学2012年学术年会).


References and Footnotes

  1. Only a citizen aged eighteen or over has the right to vote in China according to the Constitution of the People's Republic of China (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Xianfa) and the Organic Law of the People's Republic of China for the Village Committee (Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo Cunmin Weiyuanhui Zuzhi Fa).
  2. The village party branch secretary, or “Cunzhishu”, is elected by the CCP members in the village and is more powerful than the village head.
  3. All the names of candidates have been changed.
  4. With the increasing urbanization of urban fringe district, part of agricultural land must be transformed into land for urban construction, and villagers can get land compensation fees from land developers. But under the Household Contract Responsibility System (Jiating Lianchan Chengbao Zeren Zhi), rural land for agriculture and homesteads are collectively owned and just used by villagers. This means that it is not villagers themselves but the villagers' committee that directly negotiates the land compensation fees with urban land developers. These negotiations afford cadres in the villagers' committee with plenty of opportunities for embezzling funds and making secret deals with developers.