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SEPTEMBER 27, 1999 VOL. 154 NO. 12

BUYUN: A Step Forward for Democracy, 1998
Power to the People

When farmers in Sichuan's Buyun township went to the polls in December 1998, they were making history. It was the first time since the communists came to power that citizens anywhere in China have directly elected a chief executive at the township level. The election caused such a stir that no one has yet dared repeat it.

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Buyun is remote and poor: of its 16,000 people, more than a quarter survive by doing manual labor outside the township. But Buyun nonetheless has become a symbol of China's democratic development.

In late 1998, the term of Buyun's township chief expired. Villagers wanted someone who could help rev up the economy. Since China had already been experimenting with direct elections for lower-level cadres (rural village committee chiefs), county officials decided not to simply appoint a replacement, but to let the people choose.

After an initial round of balloting, the list of candidates was narrowed to three: a teacher, the director of a local village committee and the deputy head of Buyun's township government. They held 13 debates, including two at the local fair. Citizens asked tough questions, about pollution, corruption, taxes. "Whoever gets elected will be closer to us," said one peasant. "We can supervise him." On Dec. 31, 88% of Buyun's 7,100 eligible voters cast their ballots. The winner: the township government man, Tan Xiaoqiu, who took just over half the votes.

News of the election stirred debate across the country. A signed article in the Legal Daily criticized it as a violation of the constitution. The Communist Party's Publicity Department banned media coverage, though many journalists defied the restriction, sensing, apparently, that the experiment had strong support among many officials. In the end, Beijing kept curiously mum. Tan is doing well in the post.

Li Fan, a political scientist who helped organize the election, is director of the World and China Institute, a private think tank in Beijing

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