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.