While monitoring village elections in northeastern China with a U.S. observer team, I wandered through the hamlet of Heng Dao, dropping in on a farmer-turned-mechanic who had geese and pigs in the front yard but a stereo and color television inside his brick hut. Our interpreter asked him what happened to the loudspeaker that the Communist Party had in his "brigade," as small villages were known in Mao's day. The loudspeakers were used to blare out instructions and propaganda from the party.
"We took it down last year," the villager said. "No one wanted to listen to it anymore."There are many things you learn observing village elections in China, but the overriding impression is this: Not only is China's move toward a free market irreversible, it is now being driven as much from the villages up as from Beijing down. When people say that in China today the government's only ideology - and basis of legitimacy - is its ability to keep incomes rising, they are so right. Ideologically, the Chinese Communist Party is dead.
In the village campaign speeches we heard, the Communist Party was mentioned in only the most perfunctory references. Instead every candidate dwelled on his commitment to be "practical" or "pragmatic" in finding ways to raise village incomes. Sure, the party is still in control, but without any message. None. That's why they've taken down the loudspeaker. There's only one message from the party to the masses now: GET A JOB.
Almost no one is beyond the frontiers of globalization anymore, even Heng Dao village. As China becomes integrated into the global market, the Chinese regime is being forced to reduce subsidies to state industries, reduce social benefits and pressure the whole society to become more competitive. That leads to pressure on the provinces and then the counties, and ultimately it trickles down to Heng Dao, where water buffalo share the roads with motor scooters. Listen to the campaign speeches for village chief here and tell me they don't sound as if they're running for mayor of Toledo, Ohio.
The incumbent, Jiang Ying: "I have tried to be very pragmatic in leading the village on the road to wealth. Our annual income is now 2,300 yuan per year. The budget is much smaller, and during my tenure we've gotten many cadres off the village payroll. If elected, we need to introduce more science and technology into agriculture, get more enterprises here and speed up procedures for generating wealth . . . (because) the whole world is turning into one big market for merchandise."
I asked him where he got such ideas. The village has only one phone. He answered: "I read newspapers. I listen to radio. We have a window-frame factory here. Right now we only sell locally, but we were told that if we improved the quality, we can sell abroad, make more money."
His challenger, Chen Guoshuang, vowed: "I will bring happiness to the village. I will use more technology, which is the key to bringing wealth. First, we must diversify our economy. Families in Brigade 8 planted strawberries in hothouses and made much profit. We are near the paved road. We should be in the shipping business. One of our villagers did that last year and earned 10,000 yuan."
So there you have it: Tip O'Neill was wrong. All politics isn't local. All politics is global. Almost everyone now is feeling the same pressures, constraints and opportunities; almost every government, no matter how big or small, is having to put on the same Golden Straitjacket - which increases economic growth but shrinks political choices.
Just ask Chen Guoshuang, Jiang Ying and the mayor of Toledo.
New York Times News Service