Business, Politics Merge in Chinese Villages
As they get richer, China's entrepreneurs are becoming more politically active. In some parts of the country, 80 percent of elected village heads are local businessmen. Are they bringing democracy, or are they being co-opted by the Communist Party? In some villages, the lines between business and politics are becoming blurred.
The village of Xiacheng in Zhejiang province is part of a tiny revolution, which could slowly change the way China is governed. All villages in China now elect their own leaders. And in Zhejiang province, where many households run factories in their front rooms, they're choosing businessmen like Wu Houhui.
"In the past, it was glorious to be poor, it was revolutionary," Wu says. "Then, the Communist Party trusted poor people. Now, since economic reforms began, it's different."
He runs a small machining factory that makes tools. He isn't a Communist Party member, but he was elected head of the village of around 1,000 people. Wu says that nowadays, only successful people -- those with money -- are elected.
"Economic reform is like the big sea," Wu says. "You sink or swim, depending on your own ability. If you can't even manage your own household, what could you bring to the village?"
He has raised money for a road and new public toilets, and has organized regular trash collections. In some parts of Zhejiang province, 80 percent of village chiefs are independent businessmen, not Communist Party members.
They're largely young, dynamic entrepreneurs. And some spend their Saturdays at the local Communist Party school, attending classes on business management and negotiating tactics.
These theories don't have any political leanings, their teacher says. As long as they're useful, that's all that counts, he says. At this school, ideology is being jettisoned in the interest of pragmatism. These classes are a useful way of co-opting grassroots leaders into the Communist power structure.
But with economic resources and some decision-making power concentrated in the hands of one person, there's potential for abuse of power. Corruption is endemic in China.
One man, who didn't want to be named for fear of retribution, says poor people don't get elected because they're unable to buy votes by inviting voters to lavish meals.
Ma Jinlong, a professor at Wenzhou University, says the misuse of power can be a problem.
"Conflicts can arise over land use, because land is very limited," Ma says. "It would be easy for problems to emerge if an unscrupulous village chief commandeered land for his own company's use."
And other analysts go further still. Barbara Krug from Erasmus University in the Netherlands says the political activity of local businesspeople isn't driven by altruism. She says there's a "cozy relationship" between the business community and the government, "and it's really driven by the commercial interests of both groups."
"This model works beautifully when it comes to growth rates," Krug says. But it leaves out peasants and others who haven't organized themselves, she says.
But village leaders have only limited power. The real source of authority is the village Communist Party secretary. In Xiacheng, the party secretary is also a businessman, Lin Shengchun, the proud owner of a fleet of long-distance buses. And he, too, sees his aim as helping people get rich.
"I want to lead the villagers to prosperity," Lin says. "As party secretary, my task is not to talk about politics. There's no political side to it. Now our main motivation is building the economy."
Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.