Planet China

Punchy politics

Video footage of a fiery village meeting in Chahe near Tangshan in Hebei province has been doing the rounds this month, with clips from Phoenix TV showing punches being exchanged, chairs thrown, and windows smashed,

Clearly visible behind all of this chaos: a banner proudly announcing “Enhancing Democratic Consciousness and Suitably Exercising Democratic Power”.

Rule changes in the late 1990s have allowed more villagers to elect their own local leaders, often people with ancestral ties to the area. But they have to work alongside a more senior colleague in the Chinese Communist Party’s eyes – the village secretary, who is more likely to be an outsider and who will have been selected by provincial bosses.

Casting the Party men as perpetual villains of the piece would be a mistake, however. Many of the local elections lack oversight and rigged results are a distinct possibility. Nor are the elected heads guaranteed to govern in the interests of their constituents. Four years ago, a row over dodgy land sales in Wukan in Guangdong made headline news, with villagers rising up to demand that Party bosses fire their elected elders.

Unsurprisingly, disagreements between rival powerbases are common. And so it seems in this particular contretemps in Chahe: during an argument that begins with the village head criticising the village secretary, the latter tries to grab the microphone, while a relative of the village head then grabs it back, before a fearsome woman throws it straight through a nearby window. Then it’s a free-for-all, as people pile in from all sides. Forget direct democracy, this is grassroots grappling at its finest.

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