China's Village Elections Hint at Democracy BY: Kevin Platt, Staff Writer of the Christian Science Monitor

Article excerpt

In a little-noticed experiment with elections, China has in some ways surpassed American democracy.

In nearly a million villages across the world's most populous nation, election candidates are conducting what their American counterparts can only dream about: cost-free campaigns.

For the first time in its millennia-long history, China has made its villages a testing ground and a school for the rudiments of multicandidate voting. The simplicity of the fledgling elections couldn't stand in greater contrast to the intricately financed political battles waged across the United States. The elections are subject to irregularities, and political parties that oppose the ruling Communists are banned, but some scholars say the polls may be laying the seeds of a more democratic system for future generations. These small steps toward more pluralistic politics are "actually a revolution if compared with China's autocratic past," says a government official in Beijing. The 1949 Communist revolution was aimed at replacing China's millennia-long tradition of imperial rule and highly stratified society with economic egalitarianism under the party's leadership. Yet Chairman Mao Zedong replaced emperor worship with his own personality cult and continued to use violence to wipe out any real or potential opposition to his rule. Since Mao's death in 1976, the Communist Party has resorted to using massive force only once to silence dissent, during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. Yet leaders at the top of the party pyramid continue to appoint their underlings, with no input from the public. And it is clear that the village elections are aimed at preserving the party's leading position by assimilating the divergent forces that have been unleashed by China's economic reforms. "In the past, China's centrally planned economy was matched by class-struggle politics," says Wang Zhenyao, a senior official at the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs. "But the last two decades of economic reforms require a new means of balancing increasingly diverse social and business interests," adds Mr. Wang, who is also a chief architect of the village elections. A university lecturer in Beijing, who prefers anonymity, describes the voting process as he has seen it: "In many grass-roots elections, every adult peasant is called in from the fields, lined up, and given a bean. "Each farmer walks up to a table containing several clay bowls with names inscribed on them and places the bean in his favorite candidate's bowl. The only problem is that in some places the voting is public but the ballot counting is secret," the professor says. Inviting foreign observers In a major step toward opening China's evolving political system to the West, President Jiang Zemin invited a seven-person team from The Carter Center of Atlanta to observe elections in a handful of "model villages" earlier this month. And Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida is scheduled to lead another observation of Chinese elections later this week. Robert Pastor, who headed the Carter Center team, said after observing votes in two provinces that it was hard to generalize from such a small sampling, but endorsed China's fledgling moves toward democratization."We conclude that China's village elections are a significant and positive development in empowering China's 900 million farmers." "Of course, these were the very best examples of China's village elections, but I was impressed by the transparency of the voting procedures and the officials who supervised them," says Anne Thurston, one of the Carter delegates. Ms. Thurston, a scholar who has commuted between the US and China for the past 18 years, says the elections, and Beijing's growing willingness to cooperate with the West, were "a real step forward. …