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    How Village Mergers Hinder China’s Grassroots Governance

    Ever-expanding electoral boundaries and jaded cadres are impeding policymakers in the countryside.

    Back in 1984, as China’s market-oriented reforms began to dramatically alter the face of the country, people’s communes across the nation closed down. While townships retained the trappings of formal government, villages were largely left to administer themselves. Village self-government developed rapidly during the ’80s and ’90s, especially after a legal provision was passed in 1998 allowing for popular elections in the villages — a move that attracted great public interest both in China and abroad.

    Beginning in 2001, the government started implementing what became known as tax-for-fee reforms, which aimed to emancipate farmers from what they perceived to be an excessive tax burden. The state paired this with further reforms that allowed for so-called village mergers. The official line was that merging the jurisdictions of individual villages would reduce the number of Party cadres in rural areas, increase policy efficiency, and lower administrative costs. By 2007, when I was conducting survey work in China’s northern Hubei province, village mergers were already a widespread phenomenon.

    Three years ago, in the wake of the government’s urbanization drive, some areas launched a new round of village mergers. Shaanxi and Hunan provinces, located in northwestern and central China respectively, undertook structural reforms in the countryside in 2014 and 2016. This new round of mergers sought to carry out so-called new-style urbanization — a byword for further enlargement of villages and townships.

    Village mergers are a classic example of what happens when systemic rural reform is carried out without taking on-the-ground village self-government into account. They prevent villagers from being able to govern themselves and shatter the social basis of self-government. It also has a detrimental impact on democratic elections and governance, and on village cadre management.

    First, village mergers expand the electoral boundaries beyond the social circle of any one village. The growth of election districts naturally brings with it problems related to electoral mobilization. Village mergers lead to larger and larger election districts, but voters remain familiar only with those candidates from their own “natural village,” a term that designates small, informal communities within the newly merged villages that exist independently of administrative boundaries. Villagers vote for the candidate with whom they are most familiar: the one from their own natural village, not some unknown quantity from down the road.

    As a result, candidates hailing from larger natural villages have a proportionally greater chance of being elected, whereas those from smaller natural villages have a much tougher route to victory.

    As election districts grow, candidates must mobilize voters and get them to the polls in order to win. This process is known as lapiao, or “pulling votes.” Candidates who try to convince voters from other natural villages to vote for them often embroil themselves in vote-buying. Gifts of cigarettes, alcohol, and dinners out are quite common during election periods.

    One villager I interviewed said that in the days leading up to an election, the local dogs could be heard barking constantly. That was how you knew people were engaged in electioneering. The dogs didn’t bark at people from the same natural village. Locals joked about this phenomenon, saying: “A single election can work a whole pack of dogs to death.”

    As village administrative units have grown in size, democratic decision-making has become increasingly difficult. It becomes ever harder to organize villagers and get them to participate in their own governance, and conflicts often arise when trying to allocate resources and roll out public projects. This has led some smaller villages to miss out on the benefits of preferential government policies, injuring the cause of impartiality and justice in governance.

    Due to ineffectual villager participation, the logic of administration takes precedence over the logic of self-government, and overtakes democratized forms of governance. However, modes of governance that focus excessively on administrative procedure are unable to meet the needs of many small farms and cannot push back against the excessive demands of some farming households. This has led to a rise in the number of families who refuse to comply with village policies and act as thorns in the side of local government, also known as “nail households.”

    Put simply, at the village level, the minority currently decides matters for the majority. This clearly runs counter to ideas of impartiality and justice. The rise in the number of nail households and in the prosperity of village tyrants harms the healthy development of village self-government and goes against the interests of the villagers. It also influences public perception of the Communist Party and results in good policies being unable to achieve good results.

    Finally, village mergers have led to a reduction in the number of cadres on the ground. But after a merger, what happens to all the extra cadres? Often, they continue to hold positions in their natural villages on an informal basis. They might work as low-level village clerks tasked with updating statistics and disseminating information, or become informal family planning cadres, or act as leaders of small village groups. They remain important because they are the ones most familiar with their own natural villages. Grassroots governance relies on them, and as the scope of governance continues to grow and village cadres become less and less familiar with their election districts, they grow increasingly dependent on these people to carry out important work.

    After a merger, however, the income of these informal cadres plummets much lower than their formally contracted counterparts. While formal village cadres can earn between 10,000 and 20,000 yuan per year ($1,450 to $2,900), the informal work of village clerks and group leaders garners closer to 1,000 yuan a year.

    While informal cadres receive a pittance in comparison with those who hold formal office, they are given vital and time-consuming work, and are responsible for complex conflicts. Poor treatment naturally influences their stability and morale, which in turn impact the effectiveness of basic government functions. In other words, while village mergers have stripped down the ranks of cadres, in practice villages are still reliant on many former officials to do the legwork of governance, except that now these people have essentially been reduced to second-class citizens.

    In reality, the number of people in government hasn’t gone down, and work efficiency has declined. Many informal cadres have chosen to quit, leading to systemic instability. This has caused conflicts between the informal village cadres and the increasingly professionalized local administrators.

    Village mergers have come to be seen as a classic example of how administrative thinking at higher levels ultimately fails those on the bottom rungs. Village self-government has fallen on hard times.

    Translator: Kilian O’Donnell; editors: Yang Xiaozhou and Matthew Walsh.

    (Header image: Voting ballots are counted following the election of a village committee in Wanfu Township, Zhejiang province, Dec. 23, 2013. Liang Zhen/IC)