ELECTIONS IN CHINA


In December 1998, Buyun township, a remote rural area in central China’s Sichuan province, held the country’s first direct elections for a township head. By law, township heads are appointed by local Communist party officials, and such an election was thus unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Candidates included two Communist party members and one non-member.

Buyun, like many of China’s rural areas, has seen a rise in protests against rampant official corruption and onerous tax burdens. In an effort to quell this unrest, Buyun’s party officials—apparently lacking formal approval from Beijing but with the tacit support of high officials at the provincial and national government levels—decided to experiment with democracy.

Although later articles in the press made clear that further such township elections were not encouraged, they also praised the initiative of Buyun’s leaders. The party paper Legal Daily commented, "This direct election shows completely that democracy is not a patented product from the West." However, the paper also pointed out that the election violated the Chinese constitution.

Significant responsibilities reside with government officials at the township level, including collecting taxes and maintaining social services. Therefore, while Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other senior Chinese officials have paid lip service to the development of democracy and the expansion of the electoral process, the Chinese government has not thought it prudent to introduce elections at this level yet.

Previous political reform in the Chinese countryside was mandated from above by changes in the Chinese constitution. Elections at the lower village level for village committees and village chiefs began in the late 1980s. As in Buyun, they were originally introduced to forestall rural unrest and ensure a stable countryside. By allowing villagers a choice in the selection of local leaders, the least popular and most corrupt officials could be removed, improving relations between villagers and lower-level cadres and limiting the arbitrary exercise of power.

According to official statistics, elections have been held in more than 90 percent of China’s villages. However, critics have charged they are often not conducted in accordance with democratic standards. International observers have been present at only a handful of elections. In January 1999, the Chinese

In December 1998, Buyun township, a remote rural area in central China’s Sichuan province, held the country’s first direct elections for a township head. By law, township heads are appointed by local Communist party officials, and such an election was thus unprecedented in the history of the People’s Republic of China. Candidates included two Communist party members and one non-member.

Buyun, like many of China’s rural areas, has seen a rise in protests against rampant official corruption and onerous tax burdens. In an effort to quell this unrest, Buyun’s party officials—apparently lacking formal approval from Beijing but with the tacit support of high officials at the provincial and national government levels—decided to experiment with democracy.

Although later articles in the press made clear that further such township elections were not encouraged, they also praised the initiative of Buyun’s leaders. The party paper Legal Daily commented, "This direct election shows completely that democracy is not a patented product from the West." However, the paper also pointed out that the election violated the Chinese constitution.

Significant responsibilities reside with government officials at the township level, including collecting taxes and maintaining social services. Therefore, while Chinese President Jiang Zemin and other senior Chinese officials have paid lip service to the development of democracy and the expansion of the electoral process, the Chinese government has not thought it prudent to introduce elections at this level yet.

Previous political reform in the Chinese countryside was mandated from above by changes in the Chinese constitution. Elections at the lower village level for village committees and village chiefs began in the late 1980s. As in Buyun, they were originally introduced to forestall rural unrest and ensure a stable countryside. By allowing villagers a choice in the selection of local leaders, the least popular and most corrupt officials could be removed, improving relations between villagers and lower-level cadres and limiting the arbitrary exercise of power.

According to official statistics, elections have been held in more than 90 percent of China’s villages. However, critics have charged they are often not conducted in accordance with democratic standards. International observers have been present at only a handful of elections. In January 1999, the Chinese government invited a team from the Carter Center for Democracy to observe balloting in two villages in Sichuan. Members of the team commented that while they were impressed with the openness of the authorities and the high voter turnout, real choice was limited because of the methods used in candidate selection and in the implementation of voting procedures. Voting irregularities were also common.

Currently elections in China allow for a limited choice of candidates and are seen as reform within the system. The introduction of multiparty politics is unlikely. While non-Communist party members may run in elections, candidates may not question the paramount role of the Party, which still brooks no organized opposition. The Chinese point to elections as evidence of the development of democracy. Some Western analysts have also argued that such experiments in democratization indicate major changes taking place in China today and reflect genuine political reform. Several American nongovernmental organizations such as the Carter Center, the Ford Foundation, and the Asia Foundation have even begun working with Chinese officials for grassroots political exchange. Other observers, however, have charged that elections in rural China have little practical significance in China’s political process.

Today, there is still considerable diversity among the 1 million villages in China regarding the implementation of elections. Nevertheless, the elections have served to provide rural Chinese with choices they did not previously have, and many villagers have welcomed the opportunity for greater political participation and a voice in the selection of local leaders.

These political developments in China’s countryside have in recent years joined issues such as human rights, trade, and Taiwan as topics which help form both American opinion and U.S. policy towards China. Indeed, the vast majority of China’s 1.3 billion people live in rural areas and cannot be ignored in a discussion of China’s future development.


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