Direct Election in China - Eyewitness Report
by Li Fan
Editor's Note: The following article was translated from HXWZ from Chinese to English by Mr. Kevin McCready. We publish it here for the public record to our readers. We believe it is a a very important article that shows how Chinese democracy is developing.
On 12 December 1998 my mobile phone rang right in the middle of my organising the branch elections of the Society for Foreign Students in America and Europe. It was a leader of the Suining City Central Prefectural Committee in Sichuan Province inviting me (in my academic capacity) to be part of the electoral work in China's first ever direct election of a District Head of Buyun District. So I became an exclusive on-the-spot observer of this unforgettable event.
Buyun, ah, Buyun
Buyun District is 50km from Suining and takes an hour and a half to get to by a winding mountain dirt road, treacherous in the wet. It has 16,000 people but 4,000 labour outside the District. I was told it was a labouring economy. It has no resources and the farmers' main sideline is raising pigs. There are also red sweet potatoes and irrigated cotton. Living standards are low and the main income is remittances from labourers outside the District. Because for many years the economy has not gone well, peasants lives are quite hard and there are many complaints. In December1998 after the new government and the People's Congress elections, farmers hoped a good District Head would emerge and petitioned for his/her direct election. The request was handed on by the District Communist Party Committee to the City authorities who after careful consideration and looking to the long term development of Buyun, agreed to the experiment.
The direct election got underway at the end of December. Under the electoral statute and rules, candidates must be nominated by 30 constituents. I got to Suining on the 13 December and 15 candidates had already been nominated. Among them were 4 local teachers, 5 Districtcadres, 3 entrepreneurs, a labourer who had returned from outside the District, and 2 village cadres. On the 15th the electoral college meeting was convened to put the 15 candidates to the vote and select 2 as official candidates for District Chief. The Party also selected Tan Xiaoqiu, giving a total of 3. The electoral college of 162 members is the cream of the district and includes three cadres in office from each village, commune and brigade leaders, three villager representatives from each village, presidium member/s of the District People's Congress, and leader/s of the District Party organs. In the preselection process candidates give a 20 minute administrative address with a further 10 minutes for questions afterwhich the electoral college votes. Because there were many candidates and correspondingly fewer cream participants in the electoral college it was very likely that a situation would emerge in which votes were extremely scattered [author's exact meaning unclear to me]. So two rounds of voting were planned. But the preselection results were a big surprise with two candidates getting many votes as the official candidates - an independent, Zhou Xingyi, a 41-year-old District middle school teacher; and a Party member and Village Committee Director, Meng Ronghui, 38 years old cadre working in recruitment. Cadres above the District level whose answers were unsuitable fell out of the race.
Zhou Xingyi has been teaching middle school in Buyun for 20 years. He's a chemistry teacher who has taught more than 2000 people spread throughout Buyun. What most interests him is Buyun's soil composition and he would organise people to research this and apply fertilizer accordingly if he became District Head. I was greatly moved by his enthusiasm and ideals and his comments on the latest developments in American agriculture and speculative activity. So I raised the issue with important Prefectural leaders. I thought he was a true educated farmer of China, an idealist. In this election Zhou notched up quite a few firsts: first to nominate, first place in the preselection, and the first teacher in all of China to stand for election (teachers are not permitted to run in Village Committee elections). In the first election debate he didn't perform well because he hadn't slept well the night before. An angry farmer asked "Headmaster Zhou, why is there such a plethora of fees and high charges in your middle schools? We peasants can't afford it." He was stumped and didn't say a word. When he came off the podium I asked him, "What were you doing, not even answering a question as simple as that?" He just said, I'm not a headmaster, I'm a teacher. I don't agree with the headmaster's charges. After I'm District Head I'll certainly put an end to these sorts of ad hoc fees. Hearing this I just shook my head. In the later stages of the campaign after he knew he wouldn't be elected he said to me "Although I won't be elected I can't pull out. I will see China's reforms out to the end." This tenacious spirit took him all the way through till the 31st and despite the hopes of some he didn't quit.
Meng Ronghui is the Chair of the Village Committee for ten villages. He's naturally intelligent and capable. Although only 38 years old he's been a Chair of the Village Committee for 10 years. He has outstanding drive and a great ability to talk on his feet. In the debate he'd often take command of the microphone and drive home answers to questions. On the 20th, the first day of the debate, a Prefecture leader said to me after hearing him answer questions that he seemed to have quite a lot of ability. His answers were clear and logical and the standard of his policy thinking very high. On the evening of the 21st I took an evening stroll to his house to interview him. This was a typical peasant's house. The first line on the wide scroll at the entrance read "May this house have the blessing of our ancestors..." Unfortunately the rest was unclear. The second line read "Chairman Soil of China's book is written in the land and can be tilled and read. This cultural sensibility showed him to be both a Chinese peasant and a member of the Communist Party. I asked him where his gift of the gab came from and he said "I'm not really that sort of person. I usually hate public speaking. But my work on the Village Committee has forced me to speak everywhere and I've learned along the way." I asked "What qualities should a District head possess? He said "Ability first. How can you be District Head without ability? I asked "How do you think your abilities will come into play during the election campaign?" He said they hadn't yet come into play. He had always had an enormous self-confidence and believed he had the wherewithal to defeat Tan Xiaoqiu because he, Meng, had conviction in his own capacities whereas Tan didn't. He recalled that in the debate Tan had put forward the argument that appealed to his own status as a local in the District and therefore requested people's votes on the basis of the usefulness of his connections in the area. Meng had said indignantly, "I don't have so many connections, but Buyun must rely on it's own efforts." When he came down from the podium I found him and said "It's not good that you wheel out the Maoist slogans about self reliance that haven't been seen for so long. The ordinary people of Buyun are very clear about this. Buyun has no resources, no money, and relying purely on their own efforts is impossible. So you should say that if I have no connections I'll find them after I'm District Head and help Buyun get outside investment and government loans. That way you'd have a chance of winning." He didn't say anything, so what could I say. The campaign was already in its last phase. I knew that his self-confidence and temperament wouldn't allow him to admit defeat and it would be very hard to cooperate with Tan in the future. This was a real farmer. I really admired him, even with all his faults.
One day the three candidates were all present chatting together like old friends. But the afternoon debate would soon begin. I said "There can only be one winner in the election, but in this election there will be no losers. Everyone is a winner. None of the three said anything. I understood. They knew what I meant but preferred to be winners in the election.
Democracy, where are you?
According to the regulations of the electoral statute the campaign standards should be agreed between the three candidates. In uncharted territory this wasn't an easy task. After three days of on-again off-again consultations the three finally signed rules that the formal candidates would follow for the election campaign. The document stipulated there would be no personal attacks in the electoral debates, no empty promises or bragging. The electoral debate would proceed via a procedural framework. No underhand methods could be used. The course of the subsequent debates showed that the three candidates basically abided by these rules.
Activities in the official election debate began 20 December. In all, 13 debates were held, including one in each village (10), one at the Neighbourhood Committee with the remaining two on market days in the market town. Peasants from the District took an extremely active part in the spectacles of the debates. I was there myself and was taken aback and gratified by the sense of participation and the democratic consciousness of the peasants. At one point I said emotionally to someone, the Buyun election shows that Chinese peasants understand democracy, the ones who don't are our cadres.
According to the regulations of the District Electoral Committee, at each of the 13 debates in addition to answering questions to village and the neighbourhood committee about local affairs, there must be debate about Prefecture wide issues. Peasants could ask questions about the issues of most concern to them and request answers from the three official candidates. A supplementary question from the questioner would be allowed. Going by what I saw at the scene, the debates were organised fairly well. Constituents were eager in their questions and the atmosphere was very lively. Questions covered a wide range of issues including the burdens on the peasants, the pig tax, roads, partial account withdrawals, environmental pollution, cadre corruption, education and schools, family planning etc. Apart from these, a large number of questioners asked the candidates their specific thinking on how they would as District Head find ways to make Buyun richer. For the whole early part of the campaign, villagers were fairly emotional and resentment ran high, but in the middle phase following the grillings of the debates, the villagers' focus turned to which of the three candidates could best address the difficult problem of economic development, and who would make a good District Head. They really didn't get entangled in their own resentments. I really didn't think that here in such a remote and poor district of Sichuan that the peasants would have such broad outlooks.
One day I suddenly got an idea to do individual interviews with peasants about their attitude to the election. The purpose, because I knew many people opposed this type of election, was to justify this first direct election in China of a District Head. Several TV journalists responded to my plan. As soon as each debate concluded we would select a few young peasants but we were immediately surrounded by crowds. I asked them "What do you think about this direct election? Is it being conducted well?" The peasants answered "This sort of election is great. At the changeover of the District Head, the People's Congress used to pick the new one. We didn't even know what the new District Head looked like, let alone how he would perform after becoming Head." Some peasants said "In this election, each of the three candidates goes to each village to give a speech, answer our questions and explain what they will do and how they will do it after taking office. They even thank us after their explanations. This sort of thing has never happened before." Some peasants said "No matter who is elected in this sort of election we're all very clear about what he will do. Because the new District Head is directly elected by the people of the district, he's pretty close to us. We can supervise him." Then the chair of the Prefectural Working Group and the Vice- Chair of the Prefectural Peoples Congress came over to "join in the fun." A peasant said "They all spoke pretty well but talk's cheap and the proof of the pudding will be in the eating." He said to his fellows "Under the rules of the electoral statute, the new District head must make a progress report each year. If it's discovered that his electoral promises aren't honoured, a district people's representative meeting can hold an inquiry, impeach him and then dismiss him." The peasants there were very enthusiastic on hearing this rule and explanation.
Why was Tan Xiaoqiu elected?
The Party's nominated formal candidate Tan Xiaoqiu (40 years old)is the Vice-Secretary of the District Party Committee, District Deputy Head and the original organisational choice to replace the District Head. If there had not been a direct election he would have easily been on the "throne" as District Head. He works hard and has many years experience managing government work. He's a hands-on bloke who gets things done. But he doesn't shine at public speaking or at explaining his thoughts. He's fairly introverted and moreover is not a Buyun local. These were his obvious weaknesses in the election campaign.
After the preselection, many people thought the total routing of the "corps" of the District cadres was because the electors were very dissatisfied with the cadres and that Tan basically didn't have a chance. I felt the same. Only a tiny minority of people thought he could win.
The Prefectural/District Electoral Committee considered the problem carefully and felt that the ordinary people's dissatisfaction was a result of errors over many years. Much of the problem was misunderstandings by the electors, and an opportunity for them to let off steam. But after letting of steam they would see things in their own best interests and elect someone they could rely on. Besides, among the three candidates only the teacher Zhou did not have political experience. As far as the competition between Tan and Meng that would have to be determined by their performance in the campaign, their intellectual skills and their political experience.
My eye-witness observations allowed me to give a narration and analysis pretty much in line with the events as they unfolded. In the early stages of the election campaign, the large number of complaints about cadres by ordinary people, the unhappiness about burdens on the peasants and the economic problems all landed on Tan's head. When I asked various electors why they wouldn't support Tan some said "He's only a candidate because of his connections (nominated by the Party) while the other two have been picked by us (via preselection). As a District cadre Tan only knows how to live high on the hog and what's more he's an outsider who'll gobble up everything in Buyun. This time we want to elect a local as our District head. We can't let an outsider run us." So in the early stages of the campaign, Meng supporters were in the majority. He was very familiar with village issues, and as a local who could give speeches he was warmly welcomed by the peasants. But as the campaign developed and the issues at the debates got deeper, his flaws became apparent. As a peasant farmer his intellectual ability and outlook was limited. On many occasions his limited knowledge meant he couldn't answer questions, for example in relation to national affairs, strategies for continuing Chinese development, etc. Many years as Chair of a Village Committee had led to a focus on village work and little understanding of information about the wider world. So as the debate developed the electors gradually came to favour Tan for his many years of practical District political experience and his many connections. Although he was an outsider, Buyun District lacked that sort of outsider and if Buyun only relied on locals it would be very hard to develop. Completely home grown products like Meng couldn't deliver for Buyun. So despite the debate being in its last stages Meng kept on stressing that he was a local to the district and requested all his fellow locals to vote for him. Tan grasped the nettle, admitted he was an outsider but said it was indisputable that outsiders could make a contribution to Buyun. Because of his many years of government experience his administrative outline matched pretty closely the reality of Buyun and pretty much won the support of the electors. In the final stages of the campaign, tan suddenly changed his introverted image, even grabbing the microphone during the debate and speaking up boldly about his ideas. This basically sealed his victory.
At last on 4 January 1999 the new session of the people's representative council approved the results of the direct election on the applause. After the solemn swearing in, Tan Xiaoqiu took the post of the new District Head.
The direct election of the Buyun District Head is the first in China. It is built on the foundation of 10 years of countryside elections for Village Committees. The Buyun election wasn't a completely contrived affair but was done partly by election and partly by plan, and a part improvement. Speaking as a spectator, I express my sincerest admiration for the imagination of the leaders at the two levels of Prefecture and District.
Past voting in the countryside has seen peasants with limited education cast a donkey vote by simply marking the first name on the ballot. To ensure the fairness of the election, the responsible prefectural people came up with a method of putting one each of the three candidates at the top of a third of the ballot papers and requiring each village to mix the three sets randomly. This method met with opposition from some people as soon as it was proposed, but as no better one was offered, it was agreed in the end. In order to avoid illiterate people not being able to cast a vote, the regulations established a person who would mark the ballot on their behalf. The marker could only ask the elector who they wished to vote for and not give any other hint. To guarantee the marker's integrity, each marker would have a checker behind him. Because the three candidates had toured in each village, electors were reasonably familiar with their faces. So on the desk of each marker there were photographs of the candidates which the elector could point to.
In all of the planning procedures and controls, the most important were individual and separate polling booths. The design and utilisation of separate secret polling booths were fairly widespread throughout the country for use in Village Elections. But the method had not been commonly used in Suining. But in order to ensure the fairness of China's first direct election of a District Head, fair methods were used and all 11 polling stations in Buyun had to use the separate booths. This appeared to be and was in fact difficult in operation. Luckily leaders from the two levels of Prefecture and District were finally unanimous on this method and 6200 electors marked their ballots in booths without outside interference.
"The first direct election district"
One afternoon I stayed behind with a journalist so that I could interview the candidates. District cadres were fairly relaxed over dinner. Someone said to one of the cadres who had been knocked out in the preselection "Actually this is the first experiment. It doesn't really matter who the District head is. What's important is the organisational work." From this
beginning, the conversation grew lively. This direct election is extremely important to Buyun. It's a one in a thousand opportunity. Someone said, Buyun is such a poor isolated place and given the chance to have the first direct election of a District head, we really should do it well. An important District leader said, "Given that everybody already recognises the importance of this matter, we should conduct the election in an even more democratic manner with even greater openness and fairness." During the conversation I had a very strong intuition that the leaders of Buyun District were not only convinced the election would be fair, open and honest, but realised the historical obligation borne by this unknown backwater in China. This really was a weighty sense of history, a sense of historical mission. I asked them at the time "If it was possible some day to have Township direct elections, what would Buyun want?" The District leaders said Buyun looked forward to the honour of "First District of Direct Elections" and would, like Xiaogang Village, have a sign on the road entering the District.
Afterwards whenever I come into Buyun there will always in my imagination be a sign saying "First District of Direct Elections." Actually, whether the post-mortem is in support or against really doesn't matter. What's important is that this has now happened in China.
Translation by Kevin McCready