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"Domesticating" Democracy: Electoral Assistance under One-Party Dominance

Xiangfeng Yang seeks to provide insights into the successes, constraints and potentials of international "political assistance" in China and its broad impact on China's political reform and international relations.

September 18, 2008


Research Question and Hypotheses

Through this project I sought to gain a greater understanding of the mutual engagements between international actors and the Chinese government through the examination of their ability to cooperatively advance rural governance and village democracy in China. My focus remained on the Carter Center and the Ford Foundation, two major non-governmental organizations that are instrumental in providing funding and technical assistance as well as international spotlight to the Ministry of Civil Affairs. The Ministry of Civil affair is the central government organ that is legally in charge of implementing the Organic Law on the Villager Committee and responsible for supervising village elections throughout the country. The proposed research question rested on a larger puzzle; while there is no doubt that the Communist Party did not give in to domestic and international demands for democracy by relinquishing its power of control, especially considering the tempestuous US-China relations in the wake of the Tiananmen Square incident, how was it possible for some prominent American institutional entities (including those with strong links to the US government) to have been involved in a profound reform process that granted voting rights to nearly 1 billion people in China? It was from this conundrum that I devised the following hypotheses:

  • Owing to lax control from above, international actors were able to collaborate with "liberal-leaning" MCA and provincial and prefectural officials to push for electoral advancement using financial and other incentives;
  • Such collaborations are only permitted when they do not threaten the supremacy of the Party, whereas efforts such as township level elections are halted immediately upon hitting the boundaries;
  • Boundaries notwithstanding, they are fuzzy and therefore negotiable as long as the right strategies are used;
  • The American origin and association with the U.S. government of these organizations hinders rather than facilitates their work in China.


My fieldwork formally began in Hong Kong and Guangzhou.In addition to collecting pertinent materials from bookstores and libraries such as the University Service Centre at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, I was fortunate to be able to converse with several scholars who specialized on the subject matter of my research. Through my interaction with these scholars I was given a panoramic view of China's political reforms in the context of its foreign relations in the 1990's. During my short stay in Hunan I was not only able to witness some forms of pre-election informal lobbying and campaigning but  additionally able to interact with villagers about their own understanding of their rights and changes thereof in their daily dealings with local officials.

Upon leaving Hunan I ventured to Beijing where I remained for the majority of my trip. My plans to visit several provincial localities, with the exception of a trip to Zhengzhou, were derailed by both the massive earthquake in Sichuan as well as the stringent limitations placed on travel to and from Beijing due to the impending Olympic Games. As a result of these restrictions I was not able to interview Mr. Wang Zhenyao, the bureaucrat famous for pushing hard for village elections who is currently responsible for disaster relief in the ministry. Despite these hurdles, I was able to secure assistance in reaching out to the Ford Foundation's grantees in these unreachable locations from Foundation's program officer in public policy. I was ultimately able to establish contacts with a wide range of people knowledgeable on subjects relevant to my research, some of which were civil affairs officials, practitioners, activists, scholars, journalists, and graduate students at institutions including the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Renmin University. 

Progresses and Reflections

Over the summer I took note of some newly published works and research that strongly related to my own project. One of the works that most notably pertained to my research were Dr. Tan Qingshan and Dr. Lang Youxing's chapters in Yongnian Zheng ed. China's Opening Society: The Non-State Sector and Governance which exclusively chronicled American NGOs' participation in rural governance and elections. Although Tan and Lang's works were comprehensive in detail they lacked in theoretical depth and were not methodologically vigorous. Upon reviewing the aforementioned work, I felt compelled to refine my research focus and incorporate the following elements from historical and comparative perspectives in order to make my project more interesting:

  • American vs. European: Considering the amount of financial and human resources the European Union has poured into village elections (mostly through the Village Governance project), such a comparison can help shed some light on hypothesis No. 4. At the strategic level, did the Chinese government prefer to work with Europeans over Americans?
  • Governmental vs. NGOs: The initial focus on NGOs may be too limited as some of them clearly have strong government links. In the broader spectrum, from being the government to government-affiliated to truly non-governmental, does the nature of the foreign agency matter, or to what extent it matters, in their interactions with their Chinese counterparts?
  • Village Elections vs. Human Rights: In the 1990's both issues were internationally addressed and subsequently improved. To what extent did different Chinese governmental institutions that were in charge of respective policy areas matter to the intensity and scope of cooperation?
  • 1990s vs. Early 2000s: Why has international cooperation seemed to have stalled? What has changed and what has not from the Jiang Zemin era to the Hu Jintao years? What can be revealed about the new dynamics of Chinese politics and foreign policies?

My research continues as new questions are posed and new evidence is brought to light. I am extremely pleased with the progress made thus far and hope a presentable paper will be completed soon. I remain very grateful to the US-China Institute for the indispensible financial support without which this great summer would not have been possible.

Xiangfeng Yang is earning a PhD at USC's Politics and International Relations Doctoral Program.