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Democracy: Made in China

Posted on Dec 15, 2010
AP / Greg Baker

Residents fill out forms before voting in local legislative elections in Beijing in 2006.

By Steven Hill

(Page 2)

Stirrings of electoral democracy at the local level

While professor Yu Keping’s democratic theory for China sounds bold, his practice has been decidedly pragmatic and incremental. He is shrewd about the anti-democratic forces within the Communist Party—of which he is a prominent member—as well as the weight of China’s long authoritarian history. So he has promoted the idea of a “democracy cascade” in which elections gradually work their way up to the national level from successful local efforts. This strategy has led to some modestly impressive results.

Mostly unknown to Americans is the fact that China has begun widespread experiments with electoral democracy at the local level. While hard numbers are difficult to come by, China probably holds more elections than any other nation in the world. Under the Organic Law of the Village Committees, all of China’s approximately 1 million villages—home to some 600 million voters—hold elections every three years for local village committees.

The village councils have powers to decide on such vital issues as land and property rights, which are central to local development and the source of increasing tensions (as people are moved off their land, often involuntarily, for the alleged good of China—and all too often to line local officials’ pockets). The central government mandated direct village elections in 1988, soon after the dismantling of the collectivist commune system. The aim then and now was to relieve social and political tensions and help maintain order at a time of unprecedented economic reform. In the past few years that need has become more urgent than ever as more than 70,000 protests and other outbreaks of social unrest have been reported annually in villages across China, oftentimes in reaction to land grabs by local officials.


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But Pan Wei and other critics scoff at these local elections and question whether they are genuinely democratic. Election committees controlled by the Chinese Communist Party often play a significant role as gatekeepers, in many villages deciding most of the candidate nominations. Many of the local elections are rigged, they say, lacking a secret ballot, meaningful oversight or independent review. Vote totals and percentages are not consistently disclosed. Moreover, according to Pan, the premature introduction of democracy actually could undermine the rule of law and modernization, and he points to examples like Rwanda and Angola.

“Democracy in China, at this particular time, would lead to chaos,” he says. He sees little electoral future in the near term, and believes that a better model for China is evident in places like Singapore and Hong Kong, which have developed successfully without robust representative democracy.

But Robert Benewick, a research professor at the University of Sussex who has studied local elections closely, says that village elections have been growing more competitive, with the use of the secret ballot becoming more common. For those elections where there has been real competition, with bona fide independent candidates running, researchers claim to have evidence of positive impacts.

Yao Yang is a soft-spoken economist who met with me over lunch one day in Shanghai to discuss his research about the impact of local elections. In a study that looked at 40 villages over 16 years, his research found that the introduction of elections had increased spending on public services by 20 percent, while reducing by 18 percent the spending for “administrative costs,” which is bureaucratic-speak for corruption. I asked Yao about Pan Wei’s skepticism, but he only smiled shyly and said, “People can say whatever they want. But I have the data to prove it [my thesis].”

Despite the critics, the Chinese leadership seems impressed with the potential of electoral democracy. Premier Wen has suggested that the village elections might be extended to the next level of government—township administrations—sometime over the next few years.

China’s modest experiments with local electoral democracy have been supplemented with exercises in what is known as “deliberative democracy.” These take the shape of New England-style town hall meetings, review hearings and public consultation exercises. China hired Stanford University professor James Fishkin to draft a randomly selected, scientifically representative sample of citizens from the city of Zeguo to participate in a process so they could decide how their city should spend a $6 million public works budget. Fishkin’s signature “deliberative polling” method employs technologies such as the Internet, keypad polling devices, handheld computers and more to convene representative assemblies of average citizens for several days.

The Zeguo exercise was considered hugely successful and has been replicated in other places. Interestingly, it jibes well with the governance vision of Pan Wei and others who want to see China develop into a sort of high-tech “consultative dictatorship” in which the leaders use various technological means to keep their fingers on the pulse of the people, a kind of 21st century version of Plato’s philosopher-kings ruling for the good of society.

Given China’s remarkable development over the past three decades under a succession of fairly competent leaders, this vision does not seem far-fetched, at least in the short term. But in the longer term, critics of this approach see the Chinese dictatorship—however consultative—choking off the creativity and entrepreneurial flourishing that is necessary to allow the growth of China’s business sector and macro-development. So Yu Keping and others have been nudging democracy forward in another direction that some think may have the most long-term promise—internal party democracy within the ruling Communist Party itself. The idea would be to rejuvenate the party from the bottom up by holding competitive elections for all party posts. This already has begun at lower levels, with votes for provincial and national party congresses showing electoral slates with 15 to 30 percent more candidates than positions.

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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, December 16, 2010 at 10:16 am Link to this comment

The 1998 movie “Elizabeth” about the royal hegemony gives great insight into these elites and how we haven’t a say in whether a country goes to war or not.

What I didn’t like too much was the spiritual suggestions that God favored England over Spain… which is hilarious… for BOTH were led be VILE and greedy/lost folks it seems… yet the ‘fairy tale’ story of ‘justice’ and ‘liberty’ juxtaposed against a backdrop of lies and killings.

Yet, very insightful when considering how the elites communicate with one another and lead their people into conflict over the most mundane of reasons… just to keep control and power in their hands… at the expense and cost of the common livelihoods.


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Napolean DoneHisPart's avatar

By Napolean DoneHisPart, December 16, 2010 at 9:37 am Link to this comment

I think you’re right patriot10101

I remember visiting China few year back and recognizing the similarities between their ‘old’ fiat currency, for it resembled the FED note.

I was dumbfounded, for at the time I ‘believed’ they were a different culture and political system altogether, yet they too have a central bank which produces fiats.

The elites of EVERY country is on the same page with other elites- Keep the commons down.

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By Napolean DoneHisPart, December 15, 2010 at 11:40 pm Link to this comment

What is interesting is that ‘the people’ of that country called China are doing something called resembling what we believe was had here, or is being done here…. but they too believe their votes are without hierarchical and class bias.  For their handlers will do what they will with what they have to work with, just like over here.

Now, if this type of ‘representative _________’ ( I don’t want to add the pigeon-holing term ) can be called something rather better defined like ‘self-representing’ political type of governance, maybe the idea of politics can be turned on its head.

In Venezuela, the lower and poorer classes learned to read their Constitution and what it meant, and procedure according to their writ was demanded by the informed and educated public.

Also, what if the idea of ‘president’ and that whole upper crusty and stuffy pedigreed be replaced by a body of regional representatives from non-money-bred origins ( I guess I"m referring to dissolving the federal government along with its alphabet agencies AND outlawing lobbying by mega corporations / reforming corporate charters to be brought back to public service centered intentions and not solely profit at any expense ).

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By lolwut, December 15, 2010 at 10:15 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The writer of this article is flatfooted by a ridiculous straw man from the Chinese Ph.D.? No wonder our country is in trouble.

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By Paco, December 15, 2010 at 12:47 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

The elevation of George W. Bush to the office of President does not represent a failure of democracy, it represents a failed democracy in which the electoral process was corrupted and defeated. 

Our electoral process has been contaminated by money and the consequent rise of moneyed power-brokers who determine who can run and who the winner will owe debts to.  In the first election of George W. Bush, the popular will of the voters was defeated by an activist Supreme Court that saw fit to over-rule the will of the voters and install the president they preferred.  In the following election, it was the rigging of the electoral count in Ohio that kept Bush in office. 

Democracy had nothing whatever to do with the presidency of George W. Bush.

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By ProfBob, December 15, 2010 at 10:40 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

We seem to assume that democracy is the best form of government. It might well be true if people were educated. But clearly in America they are not.
Second, we need to define what democracy really is. Is it merely one person one vote. Does it include free enterprise? Does it include government by lobbyists? Should earmarks be allowed? are we really talking about a republican form of government? How much free speech and gun ownership should be allowed in the real democracy?
  Third, if Plato’s philosopher kings are an ideal to be emulated, is not China’s government closer to the utopian ideals?
  Fourth, what is the function of government? Is it to aid the people in being happy, in being productive, in gaining pleasure or riches in any way they can?
  These are some questions that need to be answered. But based on the last 30 years of progress, it seems that China has progressed much more under their political system and has the United States.

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