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Popular electoral support for party members in Chinese village elections : an alternative interpretation of elections results Williams, Erin Elizabeth

Abstract

Since the introduction of elections into Chinese villages two decades ago, many have viewed these elections skeptically. These skeptics point to the disproportionately high percentage of Village Party Branch members elected to Village Committees as a sign that the Party is manipulating the elections to reassert their power at the village level. They conclude that the contours of rural political power have changed little since the commune era. I argue, alternatively, that the reason so many Party members are elected to VCs is that many peasants see it in their interest to vote for them. I use two sets of arguments to support this view. The first addresses whether the elections offer peasants meaningful choices among candidates. I argue that if we use an expanded concept of how constituents approach elections, we must conclude that peasants do have meaningful choices. The second addresses the question of how peasants respond to material uncertainty. I use the moral economy/rational peasant debate to show that when faced with material uncertainty, peasants respond by being conservative in their choices. I conclude that reform-era agricultural and economic policies have left many peasants in China's central grain belt feeling financially vulnerable. Faced with such uncertainties, they have adopted a "safety first" principle of minimizing risk while maximizing opportunities within the existing political and economic arrangements. Furthermore, the post-Mao economic reforms have necessitated a change in the criteria for Party membership, particularly at the village level. Because the Party now prioritizes economic development, it also prizes those Party members or potential members who possess the skills that further that goal. Voting for Party members can therefore not be considered a vote for the status quo.

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