A trade-off between monitoring and direct control
The lack of implementation of unpopular central policies poses an issue to the autocrat. Autocratic leaders often struggle with maintaining control to implement their policies across an entire society. “Dictators sitting in capitals are trying to control rural villages,” Padró i Miquel explained. In large countries like China, villages are often culturally and even linguistically diverse and therefore are difficult to monitor continuously. Introducing local elections meant that candidates were often well-known by their peers and active members of the village community. This greatly improved the corruption and shirking. “If the villagers have a choice, they won’t pick the guy who is corrupt,” Padró i Miquel explained.
The findings demonstrate that election incentives and increased local accountability leads to an increased implementation of popular policies and a reluctant implementation of unpopular policies. Those who implement popular policies are more likely to be re-elected. The researchers use public goods expenditure and land availability to households as examples of popular policies at the time. Officials who provided more public good expenditure were elected at a higher rate. Further, the findings show that elections were followed by increased public expenditure to address electoral promises.
Conversely, the framework demonstrates that Village Chairmen who instituted unpopular state-mandated policies were re-elected at a lower rate. For example, the One Child Policy, which attempted to limit Chinese families to one child each, caused wide-spread discontentment. The researchers found that the Village Chairmen likely helped their villagers to circumvent it, undermining the control of the central government. Similarly, policies to expropriate village land for infrastructure projects like roads or airports were also extremely unpopular; the study found that Village Chairmen were also less compliant with its implementation. Since Village Chairmen had been elected by their constituents rather than appointed by the state, their selective lack of compliance risked lower consequences.
The researchers argue that China’s dramatically increased fiscal capacity led to an undermining of village autonomy starting in 2003. Between 1980 and 2015, China’s per capita GDP increased from about $740 to over $8,000 and government revenues increased by more than twenty times. Throughout the 2000s, the government began to undermine VCs as well as invest in information collection systems that would notify them if local officials deviated from central policies. County governments that were in place to supervise villages began to visit more often and take more managerial and fiscal control. This was first codified in the 2003 Tax and Fee Reform, which prohibited village governments from raising their own revenues by setting their own fees. County governments further instituted more managerial practices including the cadre-in-residence program, in which county officials spent multiple days a week in a village. As counties increased revenues, they gained more vertical control.
Interestingly, the researchers also found that distance from county capitals mattered. Consistent with the logic, the more remote a village was, the more likely they were to retain their autonomy.
The organizational framework provided by the paper demonstrates that there is a trade-off in delegation due to divergent interests between citizens and the autocrat. Improved performance thus comes jointly with weaker autocrat control. When the autocrat becomes richer, therefore, they are more likely to invest in vertical structures. This helps explain China’s policies surrounding VCs post 2002. However, the researchers emphasize that there were other forces driving recentralization, including shifting priorities and changes in party leadership.
This research explains why autocrats introduce local elections as a means of monitoring instead of a move towards democracy or more political openness. Local elections are cheap alternatives to vastly improving the means of vertical control.
The researchers note that these insights can be applied to countries beyond China. For instance, General Suharto’s regime in Indonesia saw a similar phenomenon of decentralization and recentralization, and similar cases can be found throughout recent history across the globe – offering rich potential for further research.
Research Summary by Anusha Sarathy. Infographic by Nils Enevoldsen. Banner image: An 400 yuan postage stamp from 1954 shows a Woman Worker Voting in the First National Congress.