YANGZHUANG, China — Every few months, elected leaders in most rural villages of China dutifully appear at outdoor blackboards and offer an accounting in yellow chalk of village finances.
Expenses as minor as telephone bills, transportation fees and the cost of ubiquitous red banners are all tallied. Income, mainly from rental of village land, also goes up in chalk.
The public tallying of village finances is part of a broader drive that reached its peak a little more than a decade ago when the nation's senior leaders ordered grassroots elections held in villages across China. Today, some 610,000 villages hold regular elections in a process once hailed as an initial step toward direct democracy.
In reality, the experiment in grassroots democracy has fallen short, outmaneuvered in some regions by local Communist Party secretaries who outrank elected officials. Vote-buying routinely mars elections, and many candidate slates aren't competitive. Some villagers in places like here in Hebei province, which nearly encircles the capital of Beijing, say election of village leaders has made little difference in their lives.
"It's not a real election," said Yang Weiyong, a 40-year-old corn and cotton farmer in this poor village. "It's just a procedure. We cannot decide who can be the party secretary. He has the real power."
Experiences with village elections vary widely across China, and in some areas experts report genuine competition between candidates. Advocates remain hopeful that the cumulative process of the village elections, despite their flaws, will one day help China if it further changes a political system that's been monopolized by the ruling Communist Party since 1949.
"Nowhere else have people in China tasted or tried electoral competition except at this level," said Liu Yawei, director of the China Program at the Carter Center, the nonprofit Atlanta-based group founded by former President Jimmy Carter.
Even reports of vote buying hold a measure of encouragement, Liu said.
"If you look at the ferocity of campaigning — even candidates paying 50 yuan (roughly $7) per vote — you see this intensity of participation," Liu said.
When a law enshrining village elections was enacted in 1998, Peng Zhen, a member of the ruling party's Politburo standing committee, overcame charges that it was a sinister plot from the West, saying that village elections would make common people masters of their own affairs.
"It is an important method to brush away thousands of years of feudal customs and remains," Peng said. "It is also a big reform of the country's political system."
In many parts of China, people embraced the change.
"There was tremendous enthusiasm for this in large parts of China in the 1990s," said Ed Friedman, a China specialist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
The vision was never fully realized, and has actually been rolled back in this decade by junior party leaders at the township, county and provincial level, some of whom are accused of enriching themselves through corruption and the desire to keep a lid on grassroots discontent.
"Local township officials don't like village leaders to be chosen by the people directly because they are going to lose control," Liu said.
That puts low-level party officials in conflict with Beijing, where some senior leaders view village elections as a way to address rural grievances and ensure that pressures don't explode into a wildfire that challenges the party's grip on power.
Dusty Hebei province is a region of corn, cotton and wheat fields, with a scattering of cattle ranches and tightly concentrated villages where dusty alleys separate simple brick homes. It is a bastion of loyalty to the party, and local party leaders strive to keep a firm hand on events.
In the tidy village of Qianpu, local party chief Han Yunshuan displays a ready grasp of details and offers a candid assessment of the party's power over elected leaders.
"The village leadership is under the party leadership," Han said.
He escorted a visitor into a village meeting room, where a portrait of Mao Zedong looked down from a wall. Detailed rules — the kind one might find at a swimming pool in the West — were posted on walls delineating responsibilities of elected officials.
They are told to "carry out Communist culture activities" and "resolve conflicts between people" and "improve harmony of family and neighborhood." Other tasks include ensuring that the party's birth-control policies are carried out, and that village finances are handled openly.
Elections in Qianpu began in 1993, long before the enactment of a national law, and some members of the elected village committee have remained in office ever since. As in many villages, loyal party leaders often go through a revolving door to elected village posts.
"I've been elected eight times," said Zhang Shuzhen, one of the village's 27 party members.
Han said several nearby villages did not conduct elections smoothly.
"We've heard some villages are messy," Han said. "Some villages have competing groups. They buy votes. . . . Sometimes the clans organize groups that oppose each other."
In a larger village, Langzi Qiao, a cluster of men stand or squat along an alley, puffing on cigarettes and debating among themselves whether they should risk speaking to a foreigner.
"The law (on elections) is good but they only carry it out part way," one man said.
Another man warned him to stop talking to a foreigner or the village party secretary would find out and make him "wear tight shoes" — an idiom meaning that he could face misery. "The situation in the villages is a lot more complicated than in the cities. Our leaders can affect our lives much more," he later explained.
A day later, a big black sedan with tinted windows and no license plate follows a journalist closely, and parks within sight in each village, putting a chill on all interviews. One village official said township leaders had decided to send the escort along with the journalist.
Amid such controls, proposals for elections at higher levels than villages have been set aside. A few townships in Sichuan and Guangdong provinces conducted elections early on. But a timetable laid out by a party research office in 1998 calling for mayoral elections by 2008, provincial governors by 2013 and some national level positions by 2018 has been abandoned.
"There are still people in government who say this is going to undermine their ability to govern," said Liu, the elections expert.
Liu said, however, that small-scale elections are now part of China's landscape.
"Nobody can turn back," he said. "There's only going forward."
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