Although direct elections have been held in Chinese villages for some time, village committees in many localities still have minimal oversight by villagers and village conferences. More seriously, in some locales, village committees have discretionary powers beyond their intended scope of influence because the collective estates under their management are expanding. In Wuyi County, Zhejiang Province, the County Party Committee chose to address this escalating problem of how to check and supervise village committees by setting up a practical democratic supervision and management system.
In April 2004, Houcheng Village became the trial site for a Supervision Committee of Village Affairs (SCVA), which was expanded to include the county in August 2004. It consists of three members, and is elected by the villagers’ Representative Conference (a civil society organization). Village affairs and management all remain under its direct supervision; even the Village Party Committee must submit to the final authority of the SCVA.
To avoid conflicts of interest, members of the Village Party Committee and the elected Village Committee and their direct relatives are forbidden to serve in the SCVA. The SCVA has the power to audit meetings, inspect expenses incurred, propose suggestions to curb corruption, and accept impeachments of the Village Committee. The SCVA also has the right to demand the Village Committee hold a villagers’ representative meeting to deliberate on infractions in Village Committee member conduct. If the Village Committee refuses to hold such a meeting, the SCVA may appeal to town and county government offices for assistance. By introducing the SCVA’s supervision, management of village affairs by citizens has expanded from simple financial oversight to every aspect of village governance. While the Village Committee is in charge of financial disbursements and administrative decisions for the village, the authority of the SCVA and the Village Representative Committee (both elected bodies) return final power of decision to village citizenry.
By forming this checks-and-balances mechanism, abuses from the Village Committee may be checked relatively efficiently and completely. Because the Village Representative Committee has the right to arbitrate between the SCVA and the Village Committee, the SCVA’s power also has a check to prevent it from taking over the infractions observed in village committees. The Village Committee and the SCVA maintain completely different membership and, while the SCVA has the power to propose measures to fight legal or fiscal abuses in the Village Committee, it is the Village Representative Committee that has the final opportunity to decide to undertake the SCVA’s recommendations. Final veto rights lie with the Village Representative Committee.
Since its establishment, the SCVA has made serious inroads in fighting legal violations. For example, the number of complaints received by the Discipline and Inspection Committee of Wuyi County in the second half of 2004 decreased by 32% compared to the same period in 2003, and most of the complaints still under investigation are issues continued over from previous eras of village administration. The introduction of the SCVA’s financial oversight has also curbed expenditures by the Village Committee: in Houcheng Village, the allocation fund for subsidizing rural land has been fairly distributed under the SCVA’s supervision, leading to an increase in total village income by 900,000 yuan (approximately $116, 147 U.S.). The SCVA’s penetration into the most local levels of village government also encourages the integration of citizen participation, grassroots government, and rural leadership in a harmonious and productive fashion.