China experiments with rural democracy
May 28, 1999
From Beijing Bureau Chief Rebecca MacKinnon
HEBEI, China (CNN) -- Han Weijun is his village's first democratically elected village chief, and he already speaks like a true politician.
"I ran for village chief to do good things for the country and the people," he says. "And I'm carrying out my ideas today."
Since getting elected last year in a landslide fueled by his youthful energy, Han has lived up to his campaign promises, such as redesigning the pig sties so that the pigs can grow up healthier, and fixing up the village school. He also worked on a project to develop a frog-farming industry, which provides a local delicacy.
"In this day and age, you need a village chief with brains," said Li Zhong, a frog farmer. "That's why we voted for him."
Hebei's experience is not unique. One-third of China's villages have held at least one round of democratic elections with all the trappings -- a choice of more than one candidate, secret ballots and a public vote count. The idea is to make local officials more accountable to the people they serve.
These elections are not just window dressing to make China's communist regime seem more democratic, according to observers from the Atlanta-based Carter Center who have monitored ballots across the country.
"The village elections that we've observed are very real," says Robert Pastor of the Carter Center. "In the places where people are given a real choice, the people are ruling. And the leaders are very deferential, very respectful and courteous."
Democracy, however, does not mean the end of the Communist Party. Han, himself an upstanding party member, has clear limits placed on his power.
For example, he can hold a meeting to plan for summer floods, but, in any of his plans, going against the party line is still unthinkable. And the man Han beat was appointed as the vice secretary of the village's Communist Party, keeping one eye looking over Han's shoulder.
"China is led by the Communist Party, which leads all the country's work, all the way down to the village level," says Li Chengxin, a former village chief. "So our Communist Party office is the core of the village."
In fact, some say village elections even strengthened the party's power. The peasants are happier because they've got someone who must listen to their concerns -- but, if things go wrong, there is someone other than the party to blame.
The Chinese government maintains that fair and competitive elections are the best guarantee against social unrest in the countryside. Still, there are no plans to let people vote for their own city mayors, provincial governors or national president.
According to Chinese President Jiang Zemin, China's people are too uneducated to be given that responsibility any time soon.
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