The Rise and Fall of Electoral Democracy: A Social Evolutionary Approach to Direct Election Experiments in Local China

Abstract

This paper analyzes the emergence and evolution of direct elections (DE) for officials at township-level government in China using social evolutionary theory. The explanations provided by existing research using modernization theory or rational choice theory are not sufficient for fully understanding innovation and change of grassroots democratic institutions across China as a whole. This paper argues that the experiment of DEs at the township level is an institutional reform driven by external forces. Under the pressure of financial crisis, a small number of county-level political elites challenged existing thinking and initiated this institutional innovation. The diffusion, continuation and subsequent breakdown of this innovation was the result of the interactions between the external actors of local political elites, the central government, and public opinion led by media and scholars following major fiscal structural changes. Our research finds that during the period of continuation, it is the central government who plays the most pivotal role amongst the external actors and continues to determine the future evolution of this institutional innovation. This paper concludes that a social evolutionary approach has strong explanatory power regarding analyzing institutional changes around local elections.

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Fig. 1

Notes

  1. 1.

    Although many political reforms at township level in China have been called “public nomination and direct election”, there is great difference between them. Some are all local residents directly electing their township government head, some are all party members directly electing the local CCP secretary, some are resident representatives (usually ranging from one to three hundred) electing the government head or party secretary. The detailed information can be found in cited papers. See also: Wang, Z. and D. Ma. 2015. Participation and Competition: innovations and cadre election and selection in China’s townships, Journal of Contemporary China. 24 (92): 298–314 [2].

  2. 2.

    Most reformers were local political elites in charge of personnel organization, such as Zhang Jinming in Suining, Luo Chongmin in Honghe, Song Yaping in Xian’an, and Qiu He in Suqian.

  3. 3.

    Xiang Cheng, 2005, “Grass-root Democracy in Sichuan Intends to Imitate ‘Super Girl’ Model”, Southern Weekend, 15 Sep. 2005, (online version: http://news.qq.com/a/20050915/001357_2.htm, accessed date: 4 Dec. 2010) [40]

  4. 4.

    The statistical result was provided via personal communication with Professor Junfeng Liang, a professor of the CCP School of Hebei Province.

  5. 5.

    A professor at Peking University told the author in private that in 2012 President Xi Jinping rejected a political reform plan on the selection of party cadres designed by Vice President Li Yuanchao. The main content of this plan was to expand the range of the electoral democracy experiment implemented in the Hu-Wen era. The alleged reason for Xi Jinping rejecting this plan was that electoral democracy would threaten the CCP’s control at the grassroots level.

  6. 6.

    Li Fan has participated and observed the direct election of Buyun Township as a scholar. However, he had little participation in the process. More information can be found on Li, Fan “Come with the wind: my experience in Buyun Village direct election”. Information about Honghe can be found on Tian, Shubin, Ziqiang Li, and Yan Wang, “Do not be afraid of danger when doing reform: interviewing Luo Chongmin, the Party Committee Secretary of Honghe, Yunnan Province”, China Comment, Vol. 21, 2004.

  7. 7.

    See: Xinhua News Agency, “The Opinions on Strengthening the Construction of Socialist Deliberative Democracy (关于加强社会主义协商民主建设的意见)”, http://news.xinhuanet.com/2015-02/09/c_1114310670.htm (latest accessed on 23 June, 2017)

  8. 8.

    Interview notes on Oct. 15th, 2013, No. 2–13–10-15-001.

  9. 9.

    This evaluation is based on a large number of interviews with local officials in many areas during 2008–2013.

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Acknowledgements

The authors would like to thank Professor Jessica Teets and two anonymous reviewers for their helpful comments and suggestions. The authors also thank Dr. Tracey Fallon for her proofreading help.

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Ma, D., Pang, M. The Rise and Fall of Electoral Democracy: A Social Evolutionary Approach to Direct Election Experiments in Local China. J OF CHIN POLIT SCI 22, 601–624 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11366-017-9510-y

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KEYWORDS

  • Social Evolutionary Approach
  • Institutional Innovation
  • Direct Election
  • Township