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China's Little Election That Could(n't)

There's a lot of talk these days in China about anniversaries. This year marks the 90th since the May 4th student movement that introduced Mr. Democracy and Mr. Science to China. The 60th since the founding of the PRC. The 20th since the Tiananmen Square crackdown.

But this year also marks the 10th anniversary of another event in China - an election that took place in a township in Sichuan. What's happened since then arguably tells a lot more about the course of political reform and China's handling of the West than all of the historical odes about the May 4th Movement, the upcoming triumphalism of the PRC's 60th birthday or the knee-jerk jeremiads we can expect looking back at June 4th.

The election in Buyun was kept quiet on purpose. "Ssshhh: This Is a Secret Election," ran the headline in the Post on Jan. 27, 1999 about the vote to see who was going to run the little Sichuan township. The reason was that the election marked the first time in Communist China's history that folks from one of China's 14,600 townships had decided who was going to run their government. China's villagers, on the other hand, had already been voting since 1987 for village chiefs in many of China's 625,000 some odd villages, but a village is not part of China's governing structure. The townships, however, are. So this election meant democratic elections were oozing into China's government, into its core.

The initial reaction was delectably confusing, indicative that Buyun's vote had touched off a squabble inside the Communist Party. Within a few days in January 1999, China's Legal Daily published two pieces that contradicted one another. (This happens all the time in the West but in China it's almost unheard of.) After blasting the election as illegal on Jan. 15, the paper said on Jan. 23, "History will remember Buyun Township for its effort to promote direct election of township magistrates. ... Will Buyun become a landmark of China's political reform?"

The paper made a clear parallel between the electoral breakthrough in Buyun with another first in a village in Anhui province called Xiaogang, where in 1978 China's economic reforms began. A few weeks later, on Feb. 26, Chinese Central Television weighed in with a report that concluded that Buyun "is another step forward in the process of deepening rural reform."

Then, after two smaller, less ambitious township votes, township elections were halted. There were no public attacks on the votes in the state-run press; the results were allowed to stand. There were just no repeats.

What happened next, however, was curious and illustrative of how China - in some ways -- has grown wise in the ways of PR. Despite the fact that this type of experimentation was over, Chinese government officials kept talking up Buyun and other elections to foreign visitors, leaving prominent Americans with the impression that democratic reform was still very much on the table. After the Buyun election, I heard this kind of talk from Chinese officials routinely.

But the clearest example came when Premier Wen Jiabao hosted a delegation of Americans in October 2006. In a trip report by John Thornton, chairman of the board of the Brookings Institution, Wen was quoted as predicting that direct elections would move from the village level up to the townships, then counties, then even provinces. But as Yawei Liu, the director of the China Program at the Carter Center, noted in a great article published this month in China Elections and Governance Review: "Wen's description of the path of China's political reform seemed to be designed purely for foreign consumption."

Liu's proof? Two months before Thornton met with Wen, another senior Chinese official - writing in Chinese - had already closed the door to that type of reform. In an article that appeared on Aug. 30, 2006, in Seeking Truth, one of the most authoritative of the Party's publications, Sheng Huaren, secretary general of the Standing Committee of the NPC, stated that the direct elections of township leaders violated the constitution and that in upcoming elections such practices would be prohibited. Sheng nodded to the "Color Revolutions" then roiling Central Asia and noted that, "Internationally, the enemy from the West is intensifying its strategic scheme to westernize and divide China. They make a big fuss about 'democracy' and 'human rights' and attempt to penetrate China through grassroots elections. These are new issues and new problems that are out there, unavoidable, that should not be neglected and must be handled with the utmost attention."

There's been talk in the last year that the party is again interested in political reform. Citing a speech last December by China's president Hu Jintao, some experts have predicted that the party is interested in "intra-party" democracy first, meaning it's willing to experiment with letting party members vote in real elections for seats on powerful party committees that control townships and elsewhere. Like Buyun, there have been a few experiments. And like Buyun, Chinese officials have been talking them up to foreign friends.

So, let's take a shot of maotai to commemorate the Buyun vote. And remind ourselves that when we deal with China, it's important not just to listen but also to watch.

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Comments (15)

generalyuefei Author Profile Page:

If I be a leader of China, I will set June 4th as holiday, name it "National Embarrassment Day", require all government officials to wear a gun on that day to symbolize the official shooting at our students and young kids. Surely make all our people proud! Like 2008 Olympic! And Have our people put huge banner on Tian Men Square, says: "Officials, Are You Voted by people?"

generalyuefei Author Profile Page:

Those leaders of the organization that poisoned our babies received their death sentence; I wonder what about those who shoot our young kids?


generalyuefei Author Profile Page:

PRC government is more democratic than Taiwan.

Taiwan politician dare to slap their opponent / people's face as symbol of Democracy; But our government dare to shoot their opponent / student as their democratic symbol and rights.

So I think PRC is much more democratic than Taiwan government.

Do any other government in the world to fully carry out their democratic power?

Only China! God Bless My Country!

Observer88 Author Profile Page:


What you say may be true. Ever wonder though, if Chinese people's impressions of the pros and cons of Taiwanese democracy are based only upon the stories that state-sponsored censored Chinese television chooses to focus on? Only a fraction of the Chinese population has actually traveled to Taiwan after all. I imagine that if a Chinese person spoke with most Taiwanese who have traveled to China that those Taiwanese would never ever consider moving toward a PRC type of system.

Donald2 Author Profile Page:

One place which has strong influence on China is Taiwan.

Years ago, when Taiwan visitors showed their wealth, mainlanders wonder: arn't they suppose to be living in the "Deep Water, Firing Heat" and need to be liberalted? How come they have a better life than us? At that time, Taiwan has influence over mainland.

When ex-president Chen Suei-Bien was charged with corruption while he was in office, the whole China watched and were amused - even a president can be charged; when DPP legislator slap other's face during legislation session, Chinese shake their heads.

Unfortunately, the childish democracy in Taiwan does not impress mainland Chinese. A simple question Chinese can ask is: Under which system will you be better off? I am afraid for most Chinese, the answer is less and less likely the system of democracy. It's a lost opportunity.

simplesimon33 Author Profile Page:

After Nixon’s China visit in 1972, whole bunch of China apologists appeared in US academia, news media and government who kept dishing out the baloneys like ‘China is culturally different and so should not be pushed for democracy’, ‘Give China time to move toward democracy’ and ‘Continuous interaction and exposure between China and western democratic societies will force China to open up’! Now we know better. And watching how China manipulates Western governments and news media about democracy in China as John Pomfret suggests, is NOT going to bring democracy to China either. Besides the whole world has become too dependent on Communist China with a capitalist mask to even bother about such minor tidbits as human rights, freedom of speech and democracy.

shane_beck Author Profile Page:

There will never be real democracy in China. It's as simple as that. Ultra nationalism, yes. Ultra capitalism (of the state sponsored kind), yes. Democracy, never.

Doubter1 Author Profile Page:

iewgnem :
China will do what works, not what religion dictates. If the election worked in creating this social harmony they wanted, they will let it continue, if it does not, they will not, simple as that, don't expect China to destroy itself over ideology again, no matter how much you may wish to see it happen.


I agree the above statement completely. China had political, ideological experiments and suffered from them as a result. The European and their descedents from North Amerca brought communism and socialism trash to naive Chinese and now they want to sell new fad of European ideals to Chinese. Is china better off without Western democracy? How many Chinese people wish China to be a Yeltsin Russia with chaors, bloodshed, and low or negative growth?

thmak Author Profile Page:

Thanks to Pomfret for mentioning that the free and democratic election of village Chiefs in
China have been going on since 1988 and serving notice to other anti-China posters here that China is as free as it can be. This is a grass root free and democratic process that diectly affects the locals well being. Through this process, the locals really control their local government. As for township, provincial and other national elections, the locals cannot really control their interest as their interests are diluted by the interests of other locals elsewhere. So their votes in these kinds of broad elections are just symbolic as examplified by American presidential vote.

jimeglrd8 Author Profile Page:

I am an American and have lived in Beijing for four years. I first came to China in 1988 and have spent many years learning as much as I could without knowing how to speak or read Chinese. I admire China and its leaders but I do not admire Communism. It appears to me that China is closer to being a Capitalist country than a Communist one. Most Americans really don't understand how government works in China. Many labor under the mistaken belief that China is a dictatorship and that Hu Jintao is a Dictator. That is far from true. If China were to elect its top leaders Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao would win by a landslide. And, unfortunately, neither of them really controls China. They have influence without control. With SAR's, provincial governments, autonomous regions and thousands of isolated townships it is difficult to know who really governs China. Throw in the powerful leaders of the Peoples Liberation Army and it is clear that China is not controlled by any one person. Regardless of who actually controls China it is clear that China faces many serious problems. The gap between the rich and the poor, between urban dwellers and those who live in the countryside, between the educated and the uneducated continues to grow. Eventually unless the Chinese find a way to reduce this gap the future of China will not be good.

ermes Author Profile Page:

The May Fourth Movement spread in 1919: this year marks the 90th (and not the 80th) anniversary.

tzukung1 Author Profile Page:

"Sheng Huaren, secretary general of the Standing Committee of the NPC, stated that the direct elections of township leaders violated the constitution and that in upcoming elections such practices would be prohibited."

Also: "some experts have predicted that the party is interested in "intra-party" democracy first, meaning it's willing to experiment with letting party members vote in real elections for seats on powerful party committees that control townships"

One of the historic problems of the Chinese people is that there really has been no system of Balance (Iching? )in which a complimentry control of political power brought harmony. In the Imperial days, either an imperial migistrate intervened in local politics to bring justice or a nearby warlord deposed a local clan rule's despotism and greed by force.

But it is only in townships that had acheived a city-state check and balance structure that the town prospered for a long time. That meant that the governing elite was chosen and periodically renewed, note renewed, by a consensus of citizens. This mere leadership accountabilty to the citizens (largely very literate, a necessity to success) of the city-state was in many cases the reason that the town maintained long-term growth and stability. The peoples' consensus did not need to be imposed; no matter what catastrophies befell when Beijing or Chiangling lost the Mandate of Heaven (Tianming), a measure of peaceful Balance could be maintained.

Perhaps a constitutional system in which the local accountability of conduct is established by multiple party members being candidates in an election. It is not necessary for consensus government to be brought to all levels of government as the decadent Westerners have done provided the local party members have been selected for their abilities and ethics in municipal and provincial governance.

jc2000 Author Profile Page:

I think this also indicates some conflicts within the CCP. There are some pro-democracy people and some more reserved people on the top. Mr. Wen was Mr. Zhao's protege so he is probably on the pro-democracy side. Mr. Hu was Mr. Deng's protege so he is probably on the other side.

Like another comment pointed out, China follows a rather pragmatic path these days. So pro-democracy or not is nothing about ideology. Both Wen and Hu are for a strong China. Wen probably believes a democratic system can improve the government's accountability. Hu probably believes different voice must be silenced in order to achieve the best efficiency. It's a good sign that these two can actually work together well.

generalyuefei Author Profile Page:

I pray for the victims who died on Jun 4th, those fcking leaders must know how their parents would feel for all these years, what if their kids died on that day.

The government is responsible, but the current leaders don't have to feel shame to admit it.

They were not in control 20 years ago, I bet they were pro-students too.

Now if they deny it, they continually shame themselves, they bring their former leaders responsibility to themselves.

If there are any small events, they should be quiet.

If there are massive, then it is a good time to shake off their shame for them.

It is good chance, lets see how these people's dear parents deal this matter.

As long as they deny it, this stink will never end.

Like 1989, there were two doors, they picked the violent one, let's see what choice they pick this time.

They can fck their 60th year celeberation, are there some really communists people in Beijing now? All rich capitalist busters!

iewgnem Author Profile Page:

China will do what works, not what religion dictates. If the election worked in creating this social harmony they wanted, they will let it continue, if it does not, they will not, simple as that, don't expect China to destroy itself over ideology again, no matter how much you may wish to see it happen.

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