Taking 'democracy' to China's villages

By Michael Bristow
BBC News, Xiwangping

Image caption, Any villager over the age of 18 can take part in the local elections

The village of Xiwangping lies in the mountains to the west of Beijing; a pretty place surrounded by orchards of walnut and cherry trees.

With a population of just 354, this sleepy village seems a long way from the corridors of political power in the Chinese capital.

But on a recent summer's day the central government took a bus-load of journalists to Xiwangping to show off China's political development.

The journalists were invited to watch as the voters went to the polls to elect the head of the village government.

Grassroots elections like these - involving millions of voters - allow officials to claim that, in some respects, China is a democracy.

But given that the country is ruled by one party - the communists - and it allows only limited dissent, that is a claim contested by many.

Full employment

Village elections were introduced in 1988 at a time when there was genuine debate in China about how the country should be ruled.

Image caption, Officials help explain the process - and occasionally complete voting forms

Elections are held every three years and any villager who is aged 18 or above can vote.

Not everyone can stand as a candidate; they are selected before an election in a process that some say is not always open and transparent.

In Xiwangping, the recent poll was contested by the man who has held the job for the last six years, Wei Xizhen, and his challenger, Song Haiying.

Mr Wei might only be in charge of a small village, but he is a seasoned campaigner who knows a thing or two about political speeches.

In a last-minute address, he reminded voters - and the listening journalists - that under his watch villagers had fared well.

"With the closure of the [local] coal mines, many villagers lost their livelihoods," said Mr Wei in a small courtyard next to the voting station.

"With the support of all the villagers, my colleagues and I have been working hard to boost the development of the village."

Then came a boast most politicians around the world would be happy to make, particularly in these economically difficult times.

"Because of our efforts we have realised 100% employment among all the villagers who desire to work," said Mr Wei.

Voters in Xiwangping cast their ballots in a community centre, where there were plenty of officials on hand to explain the process.

There was even someone to help voters fill in their ballot papers, a practice that could be seen as more about influencing the outcome than helping those who cannot read or are confused.

Landslide victory

With only 263 registered voters, it took just a few hours for everyone to cast their ballot.

Image caption, The votes were counted in full view of the assembled villagers

These were then counted in full view of assembled villagers; each vote was chalked up on a blackboard.

Residents seemed pleased with the election, in which two village committee members were also elected.

In the end, Mr Wei won by a handsome margin: the former steelworker received 234 votes, his opponent got just 20.

Perhaps Ms Song already knew what was going to happen. She did not even stay to hear the result, but went straight back to work after casting her ballot.

It would have been interesting to speak to her and find out why she decided to run against a man who obviously commanded such support in the village.

Mr Wei is also the head of the local communist party, a far more powerful position than the one he has just been elected to.

Unfortunately, the government officials who were keen for us to see the election could not provided the BBC with a working telephone number for Ms Song.

When we rang the one we were given, a recorded message said: "The number you are ringing has no right to pick up this call."

The Chinese government is proud of the village elections - that is why it arranged for journalists to go and see the one in Xiwangping.

But Li Fan, a man who has been observing these ballots for nearly two decades, has serious reservations about them.

He said many are just a show of democracy, with the result decided by more senior officials beforehand.

"Local governments right now want to control local resources, such as land," said Mr Li, director of The World and China Institute, an independent political think-tank that often comes under pressure from the central government.

To control those resources, local governments have to control the village elections, said the Beijing-based academic.

Mr Li said officials will sometimes buy votes, ban candidates they do not like or simply not hold an election at all.

"They are scared that if we have fair elections then the government regime will meet trouble. That's why they try to control them," he said.

Future hopes

But perhaps the biggest criticism of China's democratic experiment is that it has never extended beyond the grassroots level, as many originally hoped.

Image caption, Tallies were written on a chalkboard as the votes were counted

China's top leaders are still selected from within the higher echelons of the Chinese Communist Party. Few people outside the system know how this happens.

There are no opposition parties in China and only a limited amount of dissent is tolerated. Those who openly oppose the national political system are sometimes sent to prison.

But in Xiwangping voting is now a habit that many would like extended to the country's other levels of government.

"That's what we hope for," said one villager enthusiastically.

"If there was an opportunity for us to vote for our own state leaders we'd definitely do it. After all, even the president's there to serve the people."

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