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
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
"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
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
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