The village committee, first introduced shortly after the communes began collapsing in the late 1970s, is only one of several organizations governing political life at the village level. The village assembly, the village representative assembly and the local branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are equally important. Each is constituted differently. The village committee is the only organization currently mandated by law to be chosen by democratic election.
The concrete role of the village Party branch in a de-collectivized countryside is an ongoing source of contention, particularly because the ostensible autonomy granted to village committees necessarily usurps what limited power remains in the Partys hands. The debate continues: some have insisted that the village committee operate under the leadership of the Party branch while others have argued that the Party branch should simply support the village committee. On the role of the Party, the Revised Organic Law on Village Committees is deliberately ambiguous, saying only that at the basic levels it should exercise leadership according to the Party constitution.
The relationship between the Party branch and the village committee remains problematic. In many villages the former insists on its right to lead, thus assuming responsibility for the organization and conduct of elections. Many require that decisions made by the village committee be ratified by the Party. And, of course, in many cases the Party branch secretary and the village chief are one and the same. While villagers schooled in the new laws of rural governance are increasingly challenging Party interference in village affairs, most villages have limited means to fight back.
By law, the village assembly, consisting of either all adult members of the village or of one representative per family, is the supreme decision-making body at the village level, voting on all major village affairs. But because villages generally range in size from some 1,000 to 4,000 people, decision-making through such large gatherings is time-consuming and unwieldy.
Thus, from 1990, village representative assemblies came to be promoted as more realistic decision-making bodies for most issues affecting village life. While official reports say that representative assemblies are elected by all the people of a village, the method clearly varies considerably from place to place. Outsiders have yet to observe elections of this body, but the varying nature of its makeup suggests that members are often chosen by traditional means of appointment rather than election. In some villages, representative assemblies seem to consist largely of heads or deputy heads of the village small groups (former production teams) and/or senior male members of the village, respected for their experience, age and wisdom. In others, younger, more entrepreneurial types seem to dominate. Most representative assemblies also include members of the village committee and delegates from other basic level organizations, such as the local Womens Federation, the Youth League, the militia and representatives of the elderly. Representative assemblies have more power than village committees, and they often have more moral authority. They have the right to decide important village affairs and participate in their management, to oversee and vote on major expenditures, and, most notably, to supervise village heads and to veto decisions made by village committees.
Chinese descriptions of these assemblies suggest that the body is ordinarily viewed positively by villagers. Its members are presumed to be deeply imbedded in village life and in intimate contact with the popular will. Their decisions are presumed to have the good of the villagers at heart. Thus the village representative assembly serves essentially as a legislature, making the major decisions governing the villagers everyday lives. The village committee is responsible for executing those decisions. Oddly, foreign researchers have generally failed to notice the potential importance of representative assemblies, focusing their research instead on the village committee.
The role of this body is dual and sometimes contradictory. By law, the village committee is responsible for mediating civil disputes, maintaining social order and reporting popular opinion and proposals to the government. On the one hand, the village committee is charged with implementing decisions made by the village representative assembly. On the other, it is responsible for publicizing government policies and persuading villagers to follow them, even when those policies may not be entirely popularone explanation for why the village representative assembly is often the more popular body.
The village heads lack authoritativeness with the farmers, says a 1994 official report. This is partly due to the fact that the village organization is more of an administrative body in reality. And village heads often act on behalf of the government and cannot give too much consideration to the interests of the local community and farmers. Therefore, village heads are not always identified as one of the farmers themselves. What has aroused such outside interest in the village committees is less the power they hold than the requirement that their members be chosen democratically.