China’s democratic baby steps

Editorial, Normal

The National – Monday, January 31, 2011

DURING the state visit to the United States of Chinese president Hu Jintao, president Barack Obama pressed his counterpart on human rights.
He probably should have asked more about spreading democracy in China, because he might have been surprised by what he heard.
In September last year, Hu gave a speech in Hong Kong in which he called for new thinking about Chinese democracy.
He said, “There is a need to … hold democratic elections according to the law; have democratic decision-making, democratic management as well as democratic supervision; safeguard people’s right to know, to participate, to express, and to supervise.”
His remarks elaborated on previous comments by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, delivered in Shenzhen, the coastal free-enterprise zone where China’s economic revolution began. Wen said that political reform, including opportunities for citizens to criticise and monitor the government, is necessary to sustain China’s breakneck economic growth. Otherwise, he argued, the country’s economic gains would be lost.
Wen’s remarks led to speculation that Shenzhen, which set the pace for China’s economic development, could soon become a “special political zone”.
China experts noted that a next step could be direct elections for the chiefs of the special economic zone’s six districts.
Most non-Chinese would be surprised to learn that the country already holds more elections than any other in the world.
Under the organic law of the village committees, all of China’s one million villages – home to roughly 600 million voters –  hold local elections every three years.
Critics scoff that local communist party officials manipulate these elections.
However, according to research by Robert Benewick, a professor at the university of Sussex in England, village elections have been growing more competitive, with a greater number of independent candidates and increasing use of the secret ballot.
For those elections that have been genuinely competitive, researchers claim to have found evidence of positive effects.
For example, in a study that looked at 40 villages over 16 years, the economist Yao Yang found that the introduction of elections had led to increased spending on public services by 20%, while reducing spending on “administrative costs” – bureaucratese for corruption – by 18%.
Wen has indicated that village elections might be extended to the next highest government level – township administrations – over the next few years.
China’s modest experiments with local elections have been supplemented by exercises in “deliberative democracy”.
These take the form of high-tech town hall meetings.
Chinese officials hired Stanford university professor James Fishkin to draft a representative sample of citizens from Zeguo for an assembly using keypad polling devices and handheld computers to decide how the city should spend a US$6 million public works budget.
The Zeguo exercise was considered hugely successful, and has been replicated elsewhere in China.
Prof Yu Keping, an influential communist official and author of Democracy Is a Good Thing, is said to have the ear of Hu.
Yu and others have been nudging democracy forward within the communist party itself.
Competitive elections for lower-level party posts have already been held, with votes for provincial and national party congresses showing electoral slates with 15-30% more candidates than positions. – Project Syndicate


*Steven Hill’s latest book is Europe’s Promise: Why the European Way is the Best Hope in an Insecure Age