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TUESDAY, JULY 24, 2007

Chinas experiment with village elections

Pallavi Aiyar

TUESDAY, JULY 24, 2007

An upbeat note on the economy

n predicting a GDP growth rate of 9 per cent for this year, the Prime Ministers Economic Advisory Council headed by C. Rangarajan, is more optimistic than other institutions. On ination too, the recently released Economic Outlook 2007-08 is upbeat: it expects the Wholesale Price Index to be contained at below 4 per cent. The Reserve Bank of India in its annual credit policy review had forecast a growth rate of 8.5 per cent and ination at 5 per cent. The National Council of Applied Economic Researchs growth estimate is even lower at 8.3 per cent. The Economic Advisory Council has based its optimism on the behaviour of the South West monsoon so far and the generally favourable global environment. If its forecast comes true, the economy would have grown by 9 per cent for three years in a row. But, both industry and services, the main growth drivers, are expected to slow down marginally to 10.6 per cent and 10.4 per cent respectively and agriculture is expected to register a 2.5 per cent growth. There are uncertainties however. The report card on the monsoon is not complete. The nal picture will not be available with regard to its quantum or the spatial distribution until much later. It is not clear whether the ination estimates would hold in the context of the recent surge in global oil prices. The rising rupee has forced the government to grant exporters a package of sops costing Rs.1,400 crore. Almost certainly the merchandise export target of $160 billion set by the Commerce Ministry will have to be scaled down. Software companies too are feeling the impact of the strong rupee on their gross margins. The Economic Outlook reckons that the government will not be able to achieve the targets set under the Fiscal Responsibility and Budget Management Act by 2008-09. The release of the Sixth Pay Commission report would add to the scal worries. In what is bound to become the framework for future policy debate on capital inows, the report has recommended curbs on external commercial borrowings that rose sharply to over $16 billion last year from just $2.72 billion in 2005-06.While non-resident Indian deposits too are to be discouraged, the Economic Outlook would leave the equity ows, whether as portfolio or as direct investment, untouched. The RBI could mop up to $25 billion out of an estimated $57 billion and add to reserves without breaching the domestic money supply target of 17.5 per cent. Although it might be possible to contain the current account decit within 1.5 per cent of the GDP, the widening trade decit and the consequences of certain types of debt ows are major areas of concern.

eep in the countryside, away from skyscraper-lled boom towns such as Shenzhen and Shanghai, millions of villagers in Chinas 700,000 villages have been involved in an ongoing experiment with democracy that grabs few headlines outside of the country but has, some experts say, been responsible for fundamentally changing Chinese political culture. Over the last decade or so, direct elections to village councils have gradually been made mandatory across China so that for the rst time in the 5000-year history of this former empire, villagers are learning about ling nominations and secret ballots. In China, peasants have for centuries borne the burden of the actions of capricious rulers at the centre. The ability to elect their own leaders is thus revolutionary. The broader signicance of village elections for Chinas political culture, however, remains contested. Are they simply a limited experiment aimed at ensuring better compliance with Central government directives in the potentially restive countryside, or do they hold within them the seeds of genuine political change across the system? Direct elections to village councils date back to experiments carried out in the late 1980s, but it was only in 1998 that these were formalised into law and made mandatory. Following the collapse of the village commune system after the economic liberalisation initiated in 1978, certain leaders within the Communist Party began pushing for village self-governance as a means to counter political apathy and violent rebellion by creating mechanisms of participation and conict resolution. Moreover, it was felt that leaders elected by villagers themselves would nd it easier to implement central government policies regarding taxes and family planning. Since 1998 elections to village councils, which comprise between three and seven members, have been institutionalised and are now carried out every three years. The councils main responsibilities lie in deciding the allocation and use of communal land, the running of village enterprises, and the implementation of family planning directives. Councils can also decide local matters like village subscription to newspapers, the renovation of a school building, or the in-

Are they simply a limited experiment aimed at ensuring better compliance with central government directives in the potentially restive countryside or do they hold within them the seeds of genuine political change across the system?
stallation of cable television. Jing Yue Jin, a leading political scientist at the Peoples University in Beijing, says the success of these elections has been variable. Key to the village councils ability to effect discernable change in the lives of villagers is nance. In wealthier provinces where villages have signicant assets, usually comprising collectively owned enterprises, the village committee has greater power. The stakes are thus high in elections to these committees with the consequence that they are often ercely contested. In contrast, in poor areas where villages lack an independent source of funding, the village committees are largely toothless leading to political apathy and disinterest in the electoral process. Other than the monies derived from village enterprises, the councils are nancially wholly dependent upon the township government, the lowest ofcial tier of rural government. For most cadres at the township level, village elections are simply a source of trouble, says Dr. Jing. Indeed, for township ofcials the elections represent somewhat of a loss of authority. Used to untrammelled power they now have to contend with elected and hence popular village chiefs with agendas that may conict with their own. There have thus been several instances over the years where township leaders have subverted the election process, ensuring that their own yesmen are elected. A further complication is the legally ambiguous relationship between the council and the village Communist Party secretary. Prior to the introduction of elections, the village party chief used to be the clear and sole authority in the village. With the implementation of the new system, however, friction between the party secretary and the head of the village council has become commonplace. Dr. Jing adds the rise of gangsterism, vote-rigging, and return of clan-based loyalties as other challenges confronting the election process. However, the biggest obstacle to the success of the electoral experiment, he says, is the lack of a post-election management mechanism. The villagers can now participate in electing their leaders but once elected these leaders often return to acting in traditional, non-accountable, non-transparent ways, he explains. Jian Yi, an independent lmmaker who recently made a documentary on the history of village democracy, agrees that democratic management and monitoring of the village committee elected fails in most places since they are easily manipulated by party committees and township ofcials. Nonetheless, he remains guardedly optimistic regarding the broader impact of the electoral experience. In places where village elections are better conducted, people actually do learn the rules of democracy; how to negotiate and compromise rather than to start yet another violent revolution, he concludes. Yawei Lu, Associate Director of the China Elections Project, a programme run by an American NGO that works with the Chinese government in monitoring elections, elaborates: In the past the legitimacy of the government was thought to ow from the barrel of the gun. But, in todays China the legitimacy of the government, at least theoretically, comes from the people. Democracy at the village-level has been crucial for this. From the very beginning, village elections have been seen by democratic reformers within China as a starting rather than endpoint. The hope has been that the electoral process would eventually be extended vertically, to higher levels of township and county


Improving access to safe blood

ven 11 years after the Supreme Courts landmark judgment ruling out professional blood donation, the malaise continues to thrive in India. If anything, the judicial pronouncement has led to its taking on the new garb of replacement donation. Unlike voluntary donation that is purely altruistic in nature, replacement donation is born out of compulsion. Forced by many private hospitals and blood banks to nd donors to meet the blood requirements of patients, relatives often turn to professional donors. It is a pity that the illegal practice continues, though the national blood policy of 2001 stated: Institutions who prescribe blood for transfusion shall be made responsible for procurement of blood for their patients through their afliation with licensed blood centres. While the policy has underlined the need to phase out replacement donation within a set deadline, no sincere effort has been made to translate the intent into reality. Some States claim a high percentage of voluntary donation but how much of it is genuine is not clear. It is disconcerting that professional donors go scot-free even when detected and no signicant initiative has been taken to compel hospitals to source blood directly from licensed blood banks. Paid donation in the garb of replacement donation can be put an end to only when blood supply through voluntary donation matched the demand. Educating and motivating more people to donate blood and retaining such donors will be a sure way to stamp out paid donation. With blood camps as one of the effective ways of augmenting availability, there is a pressing need to promote such camps. The youth being one of the most forthcoming segments of the population in donating blood, more concerted efforts have to be made to conduct regular blood camps in educational institutions. While increasing supply through a larger number of donors is important, there should be a more rational use of blood and blood components. Vigorous efforts will be required to change the current practice of using whole blood instead of components. Blood separated into components can help meet the demand of a larger number of people in need. Also, when separated, the shelf life of certain blood components is increased. Initiating steps to increase availability without having in place the necessary infrastructure to store the collected blood will be to put the cart before the horse. In this context, a recent decision of the Tamil Nadu government to create more blood storage centres in areas with no blood banks is a welcome step towards improving access to safe blood.

government, as well as horizontally, to locallevel party ofcials. Although this hope remains largely unfullled, there have been some signs of the spread of elections beyond the connes of the village. Thus, for example, local party secretaries are now often appointed by a two-ballot process, wherein the rst ballot involves a popular vote on potential candidates with the second ballot restricted to party members. The importance of popularity even for party ofcials is thus gradually being recognised. Moreover, some experiments in direct elections at the township level have also taken place. However, these elections have been held without the formal consent of the centre and, although Beijing has on occasion chosen to ignore them, technically they remain illegal. Dr. Yawei is of the opinion that if China were to seriously attempt to expand elections across the political system, the experience of village democracy would prove to have been an excellent learning ground. All the challenges facing the electoral process at the village level will also exist at other levels and so they [village elections] would be very valuable. But Dr. Jing says that despite 20-odd years of experimenting with elections most scholars in the eld are disappointed with the results. The village councils have not been as responsive to the needs of the people as we had once hoped so that the link between elected leaders and improved life for villagers is difcult to establish, he asserts. Electoral democracy in China, Dr. Jing continues, has never been an unquestioned, a priori goal. It has rather been looked upon as a practical tool. The Chinese government today has a problem solving attitude. Their main concern is thus whether or not something works. Elections in villages have not been shown to directly increase the living standards of villagers. Thus the leadership has gone from being optimistic to less optimistic about these elections, he says. Dr. Lu agrees that Beijing is showing signs of giving up on grassroots participatory mechanisms as a way of developing rural areas and focussing instead on top-down funding for projects pre-determined by the Centre as necessary to create what is being called a new socialist countryside. Ultimately it is clear that the real significance of village elections will turn on the outcome of elite contestations over the direction of political reform in China. According to Dr. Jing, these contestations have begun to heat up of late. There are two main contending frameworks for political reform within the party, he says. The more traditional of the two follows the line of thinking espoused by Deng Xiaoping and argues that democracy is a linear but gradual process, so when the time is ripe direct elections should be extended upwards until they reach all the way till the central government. Thus Deng had predicted that China could expect to hold general elections by 2050. The other competing framework for reform focusses less on elections and more on non-electoral means of participation. Some scholars believe China does not need to copy the west for a political model but can forge its own way, creating a deliberative democracy that stresses dialogue rather competition, says Dr. Jing. While the details of how this deliberative democracy would function remain hazy, it is a concept that meshes well with the current Chinese leaderships emphasis on harmony and is accordingly nding favour in Beijing. The ultimate course that Chinas political reform will take is still far from obvious. Dr. Jing predicts that it may become clearer after an important twice-a-decade party congress is held later this year. In the run up to the congress, stability is paramount and no leader is willing to experiment boldly with reform. Afterwards, we hope the situation will become more exible, he smiles, concluding, In China it is not only economics thats cyclic, but also politics.


Madam President
It is heartening to see a woman at the helm of constitutional affairs. One hopes Pratibha Patil will function according to the Constitution, and not as a rubber stamp. And that she will prove to be the peoples President, not a particular partys President. G.V.P. Pavan Kumar, Hyderabad Ms. Patils election as the rst woman President is indeed a proud moment for us women. One thing that I would like to point out in particular is that Ms. Patil was extremely graceful and dignied through the phase when a lot was written and said about her and her family. This, in itself, speaks volumes about her maturity and sagacity. Ms. Patil is stepping into the shoes of A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. She has the responsibility of carrying forward the legacy of her predecessor, whose wisdom, honesty, and selflessness are unquestionable. One can only hope she does this with aplomb and does not end up being a rubber stamp President. Vani Venkat, Lucknow As a woman, I take pride in the fact that we have a woman as the rst citizen. Unfortunately, the presidential election, which should have been conducted with dignity, turned out to be a mudslinging match, with some parties even abstaining from the poll. V. Parvathy, New Delhi The smear campaign in which the NDA indulged has boomeranged against it. Ms. Patils victory is an important step towards establishing gender equality in India. Discrimination is linked to the age-old traditions of a patriarchal social order. Ms. Patils election should make a difference. Azeem Qasmi, New Delhi

Letters emailed to must carry the full postal address and the full name or the name with initials. so disturb Mr. Suroor. Muslims do not need the west to run their own affairs. In particular, they must stop patronising autocratic Muslim rulers. Our true path is independent of both Osama bin Laden and George Bush. J.S. Bandukwala, Vadodara I agree that the real challenge to Islamic society comes from the despotic regimes of most Muslim countries that are aided and abetted by the west. Any sensitive person should be angered by the U.S. foreign policy, particularly in Iraq. Everyone cannot be expected to be a mute spectator while a handful of business interests orchestrate war and butchery under false pretexts. It is amply clear from Dr. Mohammed Haneefs ordeal that the west has a fairly clear cut agenda if you arent in the Salman Rushdie frame of mind you may as well be a terrorist. Terrorism is a natural byproduct of the top heavy world order that doesnt lend an ear to the weak and despairing. Sanjay Ghosh, New Delhi The article says there are verses in the holy Koran that justify violence. Islam and violence are two extremes. The ultimate jihad in Islam is jihad against oneself or the jihad-e-akbar the struggle of a true believer against his or her own vile instincts. Syed Abbas Haider, New Delhi Struggle against aggression and persecution is a legitimate endeavour and not legitimate violence as mentioned in the article. Such legitimate struggle was resorted to by Islam in its infancy. Similarly, the Mahabharata is a narration of legitimate struggle (not legitimate violence) against the forces of evil. The killing of innocent people by some ill-advised Muslim youth is against the Koranic dictates and Islamic traditions. There are, therefore, no pernicious roots in Islamist ideology that propagate terrorism. Mohd. Masood Ali, Chennai It is unfortunate that a Muslim has called some of the verses in the Holy Koran irrelevant in todays times. Such statements lead rightwing Muslims-bashers to demand that the verses be deleted. Agreed, Muslims should condemn acts of terror more vociferously. But is the author unaware of the conditions of Muslims in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine? Zaki Mohammed Sameer, Hyderabad the universal axiom that good nally prevails over evil. Amritha Ramji, Chennai The Harry Potter books have a mesmerising effect on all those who read them. Ms. Rowling has created a piece of art that appeals to the young and the old alike. Hats off to the brilliant author who has captured the hearts of billions around the world! Abhinaya Ganesh, New Delhi What is alluring about the Harry Potter books is although the characters have grown up and are in their teens, their focus has not deviated from their mission which is to ght the world of dark arts and its lord. Ms. Rowling has retained the childhood innocence of the main characters. This clean image is most striking and welcome. Myrtle Maxwell, Kollam What is it in the Harry Potter books that keeps young readers hooked to them? While the racy plot and tight narrative have added to the fun, it cannot be denied that Ms. Rowlings books treat adolescents as adults the thick book with no pictures, no moral story to hammer into the mind of the readers, no bending backwards to explain in detail, and a language that is t for adults. In this respect, it is very similar to J.D. Salingers The Catcher in the Rye, which treated the emotions of the young as real and serious. Jims Varkey, Kochi

Debate or denial
Hasan Suroor in the article Debate or denial: the Muslim dilemma (July 17) would like Muslims to stop blaming the west for the violence caused by the jihadists. He feels Muslims are in a state of denial. George Bush will agree with the author. While I strongly oppose Al-Qaeda, I cannot overlook the role of the west in the havoc caused in Muslim lands. Wise western leaders such as President Jimmy Carter had opposed any regime change in Muslim countries. The example of Iran is too obvious where, in 1953, a duly elected Prime Minister, Mossadegh, was overthrown and later killed in a CIA coup. His crime: he opposed the Anglo Iran Oil Company paying more taxes in Britain, and much less royalty to Iran. The reaction eventually led to the theocratic revolution of Khomeini. Similarly Iraq was invaded in spite of worldwide protests and over 6 lakh civilians have died in the war so far. Yet there is hardly any reference to these horrors today. But an unexploded bomb in Glasgow can

Potter mania
The Harry Potter series has gripped us youngsters for 10 years now. Not only the books but also the movies have kept us glued to the narrations. Although the stories deal mainly with magic and wizardry, they also have normal characterisations. This intertwining realism has helped in attracting the elders too. It is no surprise that J.K. Rowling has let Harry live (in her latest book) as she cannot but support