Electoral Reforms In Sichuan Aid Populist Local Official

October 27, 2004

The 21st Century Business Herald carried a series of extensive reports (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) this summer on Li Zhongbin, the reformist county/district (xian/qu) head and party secretary of Xindu district, Chengdu. These illustrate both recent government moves to introduce elements of intra-Party democracy and the ways in which such reforms may be leveraged by populist local leaders seeking to enhance their own personal power.

Appointed as county head in 2001 and county party secretary in 2003, Li is a highly populist official, apparently enjoying overwhelming support among local residents. His tactics include extensive visits to rural areas, attacks on government inefficiency and corruption, and an effort (altered in the face of provincial opposition) to eliminate the agricultural tax in his district.

According to the reports, Li has introduced "direct elections" (zhixuan) for 299 village party secretaries, all school heads, and (early this year) the first such election for a township party secretary. The precise nature of the Xindu elections is not clear. However, they may resemble those which the Sichuan Party Organization Bureau has announced will be carried out for all village party heads in Sichuan. Candidates require approval of township level officials to be placed on the ballot. Victors are encouraged to stand for the position of village committee chairman.

Li's other reform tactics involve allowing limited forms of public participation in governance. One such example involves the use of inviting selected "representatives" (including local people's congress (LPC) deputies, enterprise representatives, and ordinary citizens) to rate local party and government leaders on a range of issues, including ability, corruption, and "democratic tendencies," and releasing the results in an effort to force those with poor performances to resign. Another includes inviting a similar set of outside "representatives" to participate in local government committee conferences and vote on pending measures.

Some of these practices are consistent with Communist Party efforts to employ quasi-democratic measures to strengthen basic-level Party organizations. In an interview, one of Li's colleagues on the local party committee suggests that the direct election for the position of Mulan township party secretary is aimed at increasing party enrollment among younger residents and helping weaken older cadres' hold on power. Similarly, broader provincial moves for direct elections of village party chairman appear directed at making them stronger candidates for the village committee position.

However, some of these reforms also appear to be an effort to solidify Li's own personal control over local government institutions through a mix of populist tactics and quasi-democratic participation. Expanded popular participation (through elections, ratings, and conference voting) may allow him to outflank entrenched political rivals. Critics note, uneasily, that Li's reform measures heavily reflect political control based on personal prestige and power (renzhi) rather than rule of law (fazhi). Indeed, since first assuming the role of county head in 2001, Li has forced out the heads of the local court, procuratorate, and Public Security Bureau (PSB). Li's reforms also contain a paramilitary element, including 1) employing ex-military officials to conduct training for government agencies, 2) organizing formation drills and unified exercises for various judicial, PSB, and procuratorate police forces, and 3) reorganizing some government administrative responsibilities under the control of security forces. Li himself has apparently characterized young officials under him as graduating from Xindu's "Whampoa Military Academy."

Direct elections generally create difficulties for Communist party administrative practices. First, they complicate party efforts to shift cadres from position to position and area to area, as they run the risk of angering local constituencies who support "their" officials. Second, elections result in highly unclear channels of authority within local government, making local officials less responsive to the higher level supervisory organs which traditionally control them. (In an interview, Li himself identifies this tension as a major problem with further development of his reform policies.) Such constraints on internal Party power structures may be used effectively by local officials such as Li to gain a degree of freedom of action for themselves.

In summary, the Xindu experiments appear to be a positive example of local Chinese political reforms imposing greater constraints on the actions of central government authorities through the use of popular participantion. However, the risk remains that these reforms may be used to reinforce the personal power of particular local officials, rather than to create a stable set of open, democratic institutions.