Inside a Zhejiang Village Election
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2017-05-19 11:27:38

ZHEJIANG, East China — Two days before the village election on May 5, there was little visible evidence of the contest afoot. No posters adorned the streets, the candidates gave no public speeches, and most campaigning took place behind closed doors.

The moment he stepped into the official meeting, incumbent Ye Xiupeng spotted Ye Yishan, his opponent in the race for village committee head. Unfazed, the 47-year-old took the seat farthest from the other Ye, a man 10 years his senior whom he had defeated in a 2013 contest for the same position.

The two men are distant relations, and this would be the second time they faced off for the leadership of the village committee, which administers local affairs in their home of Xumin Village, in Zhejiang province. Though there were only two candidates, the election was hotly contested because the village is set to finalize 100 million yuan ($14.5 million) in tourism investments — but village committees are also somewhat hamstrung by authorities above, other elected delegates below, and rules reining in their power.

Xumin Village in Zhejiang recently held an election to choose its next village committee head. By Wu Yue and Liu Jingwen/Sixth Tone

Villages are the fifth and smallest administrative division in rural China, and village committees are one rung below townships, the lowest official level of government in the country. At this level, the political contests can be more about connections than policy platforms. “Villagers usually vote for the candidate with whom they have closer ties,” Ye Yishan told Sixth Tone.

Politics in the village is personal, and things can get dirty. From vote buying to all-out brawls between candidates, village elections can be rife with misconduct, according to local officials and international academics. This year’s election came under closer scrutiny from the Chayuan Township government, the next level of administration above the village, in the hope that more oversight and transparency would help address these problems.

Villagers usually vote for the candidate with whom they have closer ties.

Township officials began preparing for the election in early February, and they called the meeting on May 3 to stress the importance of a clean and fair process. “The township government is trying its best to provide all the candidates with a stage for fair competition,” Chayuan Township Party Secretary Chu Genrong told Sixth Tone.

During the meeting, Chu informed the candidates — the two Yes and four candidates standing for membership in the village committee — that the township would honor the election results, no matter who won. “But if you’re not elected, complaints about the results will be useless without reasonable grounds,” Chu added. In the past, village elections have seen defeated candidates disrupt the work of elected officials long after the polls have closed.

At the meeting, Chu allowed all of the candidates to check the electoral rolls. Xumin Village has a population of 1,667, with 1,373 eligible voters on the books, but the administrative division is a recent construction: Xumin is made up of five “natural villages” that merged in 2006 as part of the central government’s plan to reduce the number of administrative villages in China.

Villagers gather to watch ballots being counted on election day in Xumin Village, Ninghai County, Zhejiang province, May 5, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Villagers gather to watch ballots being counted on election day in Xumin Village, Ninghai County, Zhejiang province, May 5, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

The main electoral battlefield will be Xujiashan, the most populous of the five natural villages, and the hometown of both Yes. Despite the development of tourism in the last decade, most of Xujiashan’s 200 or so permanent residents are left-behind children and elders. Tucked away on a mountain more than 16 kilometers from the county center, the village lacks sufficient industrial development to offer working-age people professional opportunities.

Life in Xujiashan is still centered on the land: potatoes, sweet potatoes, and other staples that have been planted there for generations. Ye Yishan, the elder of the two candidates, is deeply embedded in the farming economy in his capacity as a tractor driver. He has spent almost his whole life in the village and the nearby township, as evidenced by his strong local accent. Before the 2006 merger, he had served two terms as the village committee director of Xujiashan.

It’s more difficult to win votes in an administrative village such as Xumin, comprising five natural villages.

But the merging of five villages into one administrative unit has diminished the power of personal relationships and reputation. Since the merger, Ye Yishan has contested and lost three consecutive elections. Ye Xiupeng, on the other hand, has succeeded, despite spending most of his life working away from Xujiashan, first as a carpenter, then running mold-making factories.

Tall and burly, Ye Xiupeng speaks with authority. “It’s more difficult to win votes in an administrative village such as Xumin, comprising five natural villages,” he said. “It would be much easier in a single natural village.”

Known for its ancient stone cottages of distinctive gray and yellow masonry, Xujiashan is the only tourist destination within the heavily agricultural Chayuan Township that is recognized by China’s national tourism agency. According to Ye Quanjiang, Party secretary of Xumin Village, the development of tourism helped lift the annual per capita income to 13,000 yuan in 2016 — more than eight times what it was in 2007. As Party secretary, Ye Quanjiang is mainly responsible for the village’s external relations, while the village committee head is responsible for internal affairs.

A view of the polling station in Xumin Village, Ninghai County, Zhejiang province, May 5, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

A view of the polling station in Xumin Village, Ninghai County, Zhejiang province, May 5, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Both candidates contesting the village committee leadership tried to attract voters concerned about the area’s development, and about whether they would get a decent price when their land was requisitioned.

Ye Yishan hoped to gain an upper hand in the race by taking advantage of the land requisition issue, as some villagers have balked at the 20 percent cut that the village committee takes from compensation payouts. But he was cagey when it came to spelling out what he would do if elected. “I’m not yet the head of the village committee, so I can’t speak about the issue,” he told Sixth Tone.

His rival, incumbent Ye Xiupeng, accused him of fanning dissent. “The 20 percent cut has been in place for the past nine years to fund public welfare projects in the village, such as street lamps and health care insurance,” he said, adding that the policy was approved by delegates elected by each village household in a separate election.

According to Ye Xiupeng, it would be impossible for his opponent to repeal the 20 percent cut without the consent of the delegates — one of many checks and balances designed to limit the village committee leader’s power, and to curb corruption.

Villagers gather to watch ballots being counted on election day in Xumin Village, Ninghai County, Zhejiang province, May 5, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

Villagers gather to watch ballots being counted on election day in Xumin Village, Ninghai County, Zhejiang province, May 5, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone

The village sprung to life for election day on May 5, with voters arriving at the polling stations as early as 6:30 a.m., though the voting did not open until 7 a.m. Most left after casting their ballots, but some loitered around to peer through the window and watch the village delegates counting the fluttering red ballots, eagerly awaiting the results. Polls closed before noon, and the count was finished by early afternoon: Ye Xiupeng won 57 percent of 1,270 valid ballots.

Ye Yishan was disappointed, but he conceded graciously: “This election has been the most peaceful of any I have experienced,” he said.

Editor: Qian Jinghua.

(Header image: Villagers gather to watch ballots being counted on election day in Xumin Village, Ninghai County, Zhejiang province, May 5, 2017. Wu Yue/Sixth Tone)