Traditionally, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members at the district or county level choose leaders for village-level Party activities. This is a model of top-down administration; in an effort to increase citizen participation in the local Party leadership selection process, in 2001, Pingchang County Party officials selected Lingshan Town to initiate a pilot program in new election techniques. By 2004, Lingshan Town’s reforms had spread to one-third of the towns of Pingchang County.
Innovators initiated a new, limited democratic process for the selection of village-level Party Committee members: those who meet the basic eligibility requirements (for example., Party membership) can sign up freely to participate in elections. From this pool of volunteers, all local party members and representatives of the community choose a selection of formal candidates. It is from this pool of formal candidates, approved both by the Party and by the community, that the Party hierarchy chooses a team to be the village’s new Party Committee.
The purpose of this multi-stage selection process is to publicize the qualifications of individual Party members and activists to the public, and to encourage community investment in their local Party Committees. By encouraging election of Party members by other local Party cadres and selected village representatives, the Party in Pingchang County has introduced a measure of democracy to their village-level politics.
In the process of choosing formal nominees from the pool of interested Party volunteers, would-be candidates must participate in a series of public debates and question-and-answer periods to share their views with the public. A selection committee of local Party members and village representatives then casts its votes by secret ballot to choose formal candidates for office from the initial group of volunteers. The offices available for nomination include all local Party posts excluding Secretary and Deputy Secretary.
By introducing a degree of direct competition to Party leadership selection, Pingchang County innovators encouraged ambitious Party members to hold themselves accountable to their constituents. The reforms also require a greater degree of transparency in basic Party politics: public information sessions have become a platform for villagers to question their representatives directly, questioning their political allegiances and proposals.
The inclusion of public representatives in the secret ballot process for choosing formal candidates is a genuine innovation: Party politics have always been closed to villagers who do not belong to the CCP. These reforms generate a greater degree of citizen participation and supervision over local CCP activities. By guaranteeing both Party and villager voting rights, Pinchang County’s innovations have improved relations between the CCP and villagers, and between individual cadres and their local constituents. The emphasis on ambition and direct competition in this new election process also benefits younger cadres trained in innovative methods of governance, thus improving the general governing capacities and impeding the institutional inertia of local Party offices. The greatest beneficiaries of these reforms may be the villagers themselves: according to statistics, towns that have instituted these new election procedures have achieved relatively more in building infrastructure for the economic development of their residents.