Village Elections, Public Goods Investments and Pork Barrels Politics, Chinese Style

A key issue in political economy concerns the accountability that governance structures impose on public officials and how elections and representative democracy influences the allocation of public resources. In this paper we exploit a unique survey data set from nearly 2450 randomly selected villages describing China’s recent progress in village governance reforms and its relationship to the provision of public goods in rural China between 1998 and 2004. Two sets of questions are investigated using an empirical framework based on a theoretical model in which local governments must decide to allocate fiscal resources between public goods investments and other expenditures. First, we find evidence—both in descriptive and econometric analyses—that when the village leader is elected, ceteris paribus, the provision of public goods rises (compared to the case when the leader is appointed by upper level officials). Thus, in this way it is possible to conclude that democratization—at least at the village level in rural China—appears to increase the quantity of public goods investment. Second, we seek to understand the mechanism that is driving the results. Also based on survey data, we find that when village leaders (who had been elected) are able to implement more public projects during their terms of office, they, as the incumbent, are more likely to be reelected. In this way, we argue that the link between elections and investment may be a rural China version of pork barrel politics.

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Scott Rozelle