This summer, I participated in a leadership student exchange program in Beijing, China. Through this program, I visited a few small villages on the outskirts of Beijing. It was a truly fascinating experience, as we got to speak with local villagers through an interpreter.
Photo: Alex Holyoake on Unsplash
It was an experience that really struck me; the life of these villagers is so different from my own life in so many ways. It also helped me to better understand communism and cultural views on the government.
The people we met were subsistence farmers who were employed by the government as “foresters.” They made under $2,000 per year, a figure that shocked everyone on the trip. However, they were happy with their lives. The government rebuilt one village after a large flood. They had enough food to eat, they had a playground and a small cultural center, and they had electricity and running water. There were schools in the neighboring towns, and a medical clinic accessible by an hour-long bus ride.
One of the most surprising things I learned in the villages on this trip had to do with Rural Democracy. China is a communist country in which citizens do not vote to elect leaders. In villages, leaders and councils can be elected. Because villages are so small, the Chinese government allows villagers to vote directly for their village leader, like a mayor. They also vote to elect members of a town council. All candidates must be approved by the Communist Party committee, a separate committee that meets in each village, and it is still more democratic than any other part of Chinese society. Votes are carried out by literally tallying votes on the walls of local government buildings. It was fascinating to see the proof of Rural Democracy so clearly visible on the wall.
While there are stories of corruption and dissatisfaction in local elections, the locals we spoke with were very happy with the way their village was run. They had not had a contested election in years because their village leader was doing a good job, so nobody ran against him.
However, it is unlikely that these villages will last for many generations more. The people we spoke with predicted that their village will eventually merge with other villages because all the young people were leaving. Usually, these villages very rarely, if ever, leave their rural area. However, their children are moving to find better jobs and opportunities beyond the scope of their village.
Meeting with Chinese villagers was probably one of the most eye-opening interactions I have ever had because I learned so much about a completely foreign way of life. Having grown up primarily in urban America, I had never had the opportunity to talk with a villager about their life, not to mention a villager in a communist country who takes part in democratic elections. It was an experience that I will always treasure.
Hi, my name is Kathryn Kuhar and I am a 19-year-old sophomore at Harvard College studying Government. A fun fact about me is that I’ve lived in Hawaii, California, Belgium, and Turkey.