By Kerry Brown
At the heart of the big story of Chinese rural democracy is the many millions of smaller stories of those who have been touched by this immense process. Before looking at village elections, therefore, here is one single story, of one man, who tried to stand in a village election, and of what happened to him. It is concrete experiences of engaging in the whole process of rural democracy like this that give village democracy its tremendous significance and interest. This section is based on papers obtained in Beijing in August 2009.
Mr Wang Jinsheng is 55, a native of a rural area of the impoverished western province of Shanxi. Shanxi may well be the home of the Terracotta Warriors, near to the main city of Xian, and boasts a splendid history dating back thousands of years, culminating in its time as the capital of what was then China during the mighty Tang dynasty from the seventh to the tenth centuries. But it now lives as a place with its best days behind it. While the rest of China hurtles ahead, towards some kind of über-modernity, Shanxi suffers from a degraded environment, lack of infrastructure, a state owned enterprise sector dominated by heavy industry, and, in some of the more isolated areas, deep and entrenched poverty. Even so, those in its mining sector, because of China’s burgeoning energy needs and reliance on coal, which the region is well endowed with, have in the last few years made a killing. A poor province therefore has some of the wealthiest individuals in the country.
Mr Wang is one of these, albeit on a small scale. According to a local newspaper report, Mr Wang had been a ‘common mechanic’ before taking the opportunity to set up his own business in the 1980s, at the start of the great economic liberalisation process. He is now an energy and mining company president, but someone who has not forgotten his poor background, and who decided, fatefully, to put himself forward in his local village election. It was a decision that was to change his life. His case is typical of many of those new elites, especially business people, who are starting to want something more than the right just to make a lot of money.
Mr Wang had been highly supportive of charities and educational projects in the village in which he chose to stand. According to a reporter from the Xinhua news agency, the official news outlet of the Chinese government, he ‘had never forgotten his fellow villagers.’ At the end of every year, he had donated foodstuffs, and given everyone over 60 years old, the disabled, and the poor, 100 Chinese yuan (US$16.4). ‘Mr Wang, a rich man who does not consider himself rich, wants to let everyone grow rich with him.’
He had, however, started to harbour ambitions in a more political direction. A great part of this had been due to the current Village Committee leader, Mr Zhao. Mr Zhao had, according to testimony put together by Mr Wang after the events that subsequently unfolded, used his position to abuse the one significant power that now still remains in elected village committee heads – that of being able to disburse land and to approve building and commercial projects.