The village of Guanghua lies in Sichuan Province, a rickety eight-hour train-ride east in a crammed sleeper from the provincial capital, Chengdu. Just after 9 on a bright morning earlier this month in Guanghua, I watched as 500 villagers were seated on low wooden stools in the village's primary school courtyard.
Since 1949, many production brigade meetings have been held in this courtyard, but on this morning, the villagers were gathered to participate in Guanghua's third direct village council election.
A couple of dogs played in the courtyard as the two candidates for chairman drew straws to see who would speak first. Banners hung around the courtyard with slogans like "Fully use your right to vote - before you vote, think carefully, seriously, and vote by yourself." In the crowd of mostly 30- to 60-somethings, blue and green Mao suits were paradoxically as common as beepers which went off throughout the meeting.
But this was not a meeting about grand political philosophy. Rather, a forum mostly for thoughts on how to take the local product - bamboo - to the market, raise the farmers' living standards, and have more transparency in the village's accounting records.
The two candidates for chairman laid out their platforms. The incumbent party chairman, also the concurrent village Communist party chief, recycled party chants, pledging to "focus on science, technology, and the promotion of material and spiritual civilization." He never directly addressed what many felt was the key issue - how to recover the past few years' losses at the village's bamboo factory.
His rival was a 25-year-old college graduate who had travelled to over 20 cities around China as an advertising agent. He returned to Guanghua only two weeks before the election and was nominated to run against the incumbent, who just happened to be his father. Unlike his father, he is not a Communist Party member.
The son's plan was well-developed and practical: to combat gambling, use land responsibly, implement compulsory education, attract capital to help make their bamboo products more competitive, and, of course, maintain a respectable welfare system for the elderly.
The incumbent won, just barely receiving a majority of the vote. The son plans to marry, stay in the village, and prepare for the next elections.
In China, there are more than 100 million villages consisting of more than 900 million peasants. More than 75 percent of China's total population lives in rural areas and votes for their village committees every three years. Yet, until recently, the elections have been one of China's best kept secrets.
The current structure of the village elections has evolved from the defunct commune system which allowed indirect participation in the selection of village committees. But elections are now more participatory and party control has been dramatically relaxed.
Peasants now directly nominate and vote for members on the committees and are involved with practical administrative issues. Candidates for committees neither have to be party members nor approved by the Communist Party.
The relative political autonomy of the villagers could be a formal recognition of their importance within China. Historically, Chinese peasants have led more revolutions than in any other country - including the revolt which brought the Communists to power. It may also be a measure of a haughty and dismissive attitude on the part of China's urban political elite with a desire to placate potential unrest over the economic disparities between urban and rural areas.
The question is whether these elections are an anomaly or a harbinger of an emerging civil society and political pluralism. If Zhu Rongji's ambitious new agenda of economic reforms succeeds in breaking the "iron rice bowl" command economy, the role of a one-party state could be called into question. And then, who would need a Communist Party?
There are the examples of Chinese democratic processes already in place - Hong Kong, now a "special autonomous" region of China, and Taiwan, a full-fledged Chinese democracy. Many Chinese may begin to wonder - why them and not us?
It may be that this is precisely what the Communist Party is anticipating as it looks ahead to a larger vision of a modernized China within the next 50 years. If the party intends to maintain legitimacy and meet the needs of a modernizing population, it must reconcile not only the full administrative return of Hong Kong in 2047, but also consider the effects of a possible unification with Taiwan. Village elections may be the experimental first step.
But do these elections signify any real democratic change in China? Social and political reform has progressed in a stable but tentative manner. But it's easy to imagine the political thaw being set back by economic troubles.
Nonetheless, it seems telling that the village elections withstood the political clampdown following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crisis and have since taken hold in the countryside.
Ironically, the most effective way Western democracies can support this political thaw is to stand aside and let the evolution of a "democracy with Chinese characteristics" run its natural course. We should know by now that trying to impose Western standards and expectations mostly forces the Chinese to buckle.
Unknowingly these farmers are sowing the seeds of Chinese democracy, though it may take a generation or two with continuous party support for it to sprout and flourish. Nonetheless, at some point this empowerment - once truly understood by the villagers and vis-a-vis the democracies in Hong Kong and Taiwan - just might take on a momentum all its own.
* Susan Lynne Tillou is coordinator of Asia programs at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington. She was an observer at four village elections this month in Sichuan Province at the invitation of the International Republican Institute.