If I had a dime for every time I heard someone argue that the Chinese people are apolitical and don’t give a rat’s backside about democracy. If you think that’s true, you’re not paying attention. Sure, an errant question to a taxi driver in Guangzhou — “Do you care about politics?” — might elicit an expression of indifference. But recent history shows that this same driver could be spearheading a transport strike next week — which means you asked the wrong question.
Democracy — or have we forgotten? — is about engagement and participation. And one of the most interesting and exciting things about China today is the level of engagement that does happen in spite of its restrictive political culture. Real political participation may be impossible in China, but people of all stripes and shades keep on pushing nonetheless.
Chinese journalists know this only too well. Formally speaking, China’s government has never relinquished any ground in terms of media control — and yet, independent-minded journalists, like New Century News editor-in-chief Hu Shuli (胡舒立) and investigative reporter Wang Keqin (王克勤), have actively muscled their way into new professional terrain. Why? Because they care about their country, and they believe that there must be mechanisms to check the expansion of blind, self-interested power.
The legacy and impact of authoritarianism is also a fact, of course, but engagement is a real Chinese mega-trend, and it is not confined, as many insist on believing, to a handful of educated elites.
Consider a story that played in China’s media last week, but which strangely had no attention whatsoever from foreign media. I read the story first in The Beijing News, not exactly an obscure newspaper, and when I searched for English stories several days later I was exasperated to find that the only English-language report at all was from the Global Times, which actually did some of their own reporting too.
So we have a story about a “democratic” election gone wrong, complete with hundreds of politically engaged villagers and their own popular candidate, and 200 riot police thrown in for good measure — and it happened right under everyone’s feet, in the urban outskirts of China’s capital city.
On July 27, Raolefu Village (饶乐府村) in Beijing’s Fangshan District — the Global Times reports the name of the village as Yaole (?) — held an election for its village head. There were two candidates, one an ordinary villager and the other the village’s party secretary who had been concurrently serving as village head. (This cadre, Wei Jiandong, has held both top positions in the village for eight years, according to the Global Times, so I would suspect there are some interesting back stories on possible abuse of power here too).
When the voting results were in, the villager had received 1,025 ballots and Party Secretary Wei had received 963. But because, apparently according to Wei himself, who was probably running the election committee, neither candidate had 50 percent of the 2,058 ballots the election committee had received, the results of the election were nullified in accordance with regulations, which state that a candidate must have more than 50 percent of the votes in order to win an election.
But clearly, something sneaky was going on. When Party Secretary Wei announced that the counting was done, votes counted for the two candidates fell 52 ballots short of the total number of ballots received by the election committee (18 or so ballots were reportedly omitted, for reasons unknown).
Raolefu villagers insisted that the election results were fraudulent, and they demanded a recount, even guarding the ballot box through the night. Their demands were ignored by the election committee. The standoff turned nasty when local leaders dispatched 200 policemen to the scene. The police forcibly took the ballot box from villagers and loaded it into a waiting police vehicle. But villagers surround the vehicle to prevent it from leaving. As a result, police carted off eight villagers on criminal charges of “creating transportation havoc and disturbing social order.”
Anyone interested in exploring this story might also have taken advantage of any number of “experts” commenting on its significance in Chinese-language media. Here, for example, are some remarks by Shao Jian (邵建), a professor at Nanjing Xiaozhuang University who wrote a piece called, “Puppet elections are not democracy,” on August 21, 2010.
It’s fair to say that democracy is a century-long dream of the Chinese people. And the ecology of democracy [and how it works] is something that deserves to receive more attention from us . . .
Judging from the sidelines, this [situation in Fangshan] was clearly an election that was manipulated by the powers that be. If their own candidate was not popularly elected, they could just weasel him in. The legitimacy of power should arise from the elective process, and yet it was power, in this case, that aborted this entire election process. The district and neighborhood governments should be held fully accountable in this case. Remember, election rights are the most important political rights citizens have, and these villagers are standing up and being responsible for this right, which hasn’t come easy — they want elect the candidate they wish to elect. That is the only reason why they have protested against this clear case of fraud. Though they are clearly within their reasonable rights, what do they get in return? Not only are they unable to get at the truth behind the election, but eight villagers are detained on criminal charges.
It is clear from news reports that district representatives went to the scene four separate times to discuss matters with the villagers, but they could not reach an understanding. That’s when they sent in the police. The villagers had done nothing illegal, so why mobilize the police? What right did police have to take away that ballot box before the problem had been worked out? On top of it, the criminal detentions were based on a total pretense . . . The villagers were entirely within their constitutional rights to protect the ballot box. The local government and police were highly unreasonable in their attempts to resolve the election standoff. Strictly speaking, this is a political problem in and of itself, revealing the sort of attitude local officials have toward democracy.
In public life today, elections are the most important manifestation of so-called democracy. If elections are fraudulent, then the democracy they purport to realize is fraudulent. I don’t care whether or not this election fraud is a low probability occurrence in our public life or a high probability occurrence. What I am saying is that this case gives us a lot to think about, and we should not let it go so easily.
I find this story fascinating, and I would love to know more. But apparently it doesn’t meet news selection criteria — not like a story about China’s economy overtaking Japan’s, or a train carriage plunging into raging floodwaters.
“China’s Wen calls for political reform,” AFP, August 22, 2010