To reach Huili, you maneuver for hours along a narrow and rutted mountain road traveled by endless lines of dust-spewing coal trucks. Unlike the booming provinces of China's coast, Shanxi is still poor; 12 percent of its population earns less than the official poverty level of $48 per year. Before China's economic reforms began in the late '70s, Huili was part of a commune, where most workers labored in state-owned coal mines, lacked electricity, and ate poverty rations.
Since 1988, under China's economic reform programs, Huili has been permitted to develop a host of locally controlled town and village enterprises. Four small mines are run by the village government, and villagers own shares in mini-factories that wash coal, make slag and produce building materials. Average annual village income has risen from $72 to $566, according to local officials.
I barged into houses unannounced around the village, accompanied only by my translator, and villagers proudly showed me color televisions and small refrigerators. The owner of a new, private gas station sported a private house and a privately owned car.
This kind of economic change led to the Chinese government's decision to permit local democracy in places like Huili. The decision was purely practical.
After the demise of the communes, villagers were unhappy about paying taxes to Communist Party officials who weren't providing services. ``Peasants were asking why they should pay, and that provoked a lot of conflict,'' says Wang Zhenyao, who runs the nationwide election program for the Ministry of Civil Affairs in Beijing.
``If the government wants to get the money, they must let the people know how the money is spent,'' Wang added. In other words, no taxation without representation. Elections also gave villagers a tool to root out corrupt Communist Party leaders, especially after the rise of village industries filled local coffers.
By offering a choice of candidates for village chief and village council in a majority of villages, local elections became a safety valve to release political tensions. ``Elections make this society more stable; we have often had peasant rebellions in Chinese history,'' Wang told me.
The godfather of village elections, conservative party elder, Peng Zhen, 93, also saw the balloting as a way to strengthen the Communist Party. Forty percent of newly elected village chiefs aren't party members, but many join up after taking office.
Are these elections really democratic? As with everything in China, the answer is yes and no. Four rounds of village elections have now been observed by a host of U.S. academics, as well as such U.S.-based organizations as the Ford Foundation, the Asia Foundation and the International Republican Institute. The latter three provide help in training election monitors and teaching villagers how to vote by secret ballot.
The general conclusion of these foreign observers is that in a majority of cases rural voters have a meaningful political choice. Increasingly, candidates are nominated by democratic primaries, and villagers get to vet their local budgets in town hall meetings.
In Huili, the story is mixed. The last elected village chief died recently and the local Communist Party chairman Xu Guochang, 38, is running for the office. It's not clear whether he will have any opposition.
But when I asked Xu why he was running, since he already held the key office of party secretary, his answer was telling. He said his party post would be at risk if there were no further economic progress in Huili, but since the village chief controls the local budget, he didn't have total control over local economic affairs.
So Xu is aiming to hold both jobs, running on a platform promise to raise average per capita income 10 to 20 percent each year by improving local factories. He says he recognizes that if he can't keep his promise, he may lose both jobs. Villagers told me they like Xu because he did a good job in a previous post as manager of the slag factory.
The bigger question, of course, is whether the Huili experience can go national. So far China's leaders have sharply limited electoral choice to the village level, while suppressing all wider political activism.
Clearly, the expansion of elections is the hope of Wang Zhenyao and his young staff at the Civil Affairs Ministry, which has become a haven for would-be political reformers. Wang has sent junior staff to Taiwan to study its democratic experience, but points out that Taiwan's transition from authoritarianism to democracy took 40 years.
Wang predicts it will take at least 10 years for elections to percolate up to the township level. He notes that Deng Xiaoping predicted in 1987 that China might have national elections after 50 years.
But the same economic logic that prodded party elders to permit local elections in China will create popular demands for accountability at higher levels. If China's economy keeps growing, its leaders will be forced to listen to those demands. Imagine where Huili could lead.
Trudy Rubin's column appears on Wednesdays and Fridays.