Carter Center Update

China's competitive elections look

positive through prism of history

"There are more people in China voting for leaders than in all the democratic countries together," said Robert Pastor after his recent trip to China to observe village elections. "Westerners who view village elections as a political ploy are misled. Based on what we have seen, we conclude that China's village elections are a significant and positive development in empowering China's 900 million farmers."

At the invitation of China's Intercontinental Communication Center and the Ministry of Civil Affairs, Pastor, a Carter Center fellow and expert on elections, led a seven person, international team March 5-16 to observe and assess elections in Hebei and Fujian provinces and to offer ideas on how the process could be improved. Discussions were also held with officials in Beijing on election issues and possible future areas of cooperation between The Carter Center and China.

"In a country of about 1 million villages, one should be cautious before generalizing from the small number of cases that we have," Pastor said. "Nevertheless, we have studied every stage of the process in these villages. We believe China is making remarkable progress in developing a democratic electoral system. Elections are not synonymous with democracy, but democracy is not possible without them. Elections are a positive and significant development to democracy in that they establish the serious norm that elected officials must do what they promise or be voted out."

In 1987, the National People's Congress passed the Organic Law on Village Committees, establishing the machinery for conducting direct elections by secret ballot. Meshed with economic reforms, the law provides greater autonomy for villages and families by allowing an estimated 900 million village dwellers to elect a single village chair. Additionally, several committee members oversee various community development projects such as roads, bridges and irrigation.

The most important difference the delegation witnessed in the election process in the two provinces was the organization of voting and counting. In Qui Wo in Hebei, the whole village gathered. Roll call was taken, candidates made speeches and 1,500 votes were cast and counted. Results were announced within 50 minutes. In Fujian, however, at one of several polling stations, voting was a daylong process.

Delegation members accompanying Pastor included Mary Brown Bullock, president of Agnes Scott College; David Carroll, associate director of the Latin American Program at The Carter Center; Ian McKinnon, president of Pacific Issues Partners; Qingshan Tan, associate professor of political science at Cleveland State University; Anne Thurston, an independent scholar of China; and Allen Choate, director of program development for the Asia Foundation.

"In seeking to assess China's village elections, much depends on one's criteria," Pastor said. "If one judges by the standards of experienced, industrialized democracies, then China's village elections cannot measure. If one bases the assessment on China's 5,000 years of history, which lacks a tradition of competitive elections, then China's new experiment merits a more positive assessment," he said. "Developing a technical capacity to conduct an election in a country as vast as China, and which has never had elections, is obviously a daunting task and one that should not be taken for granted."

The Carter Center has overseen 17 elections in 11 countries in the Americas and the Middle East in addition to China.


Judy Lawrence is an intern in the Public Information Office of The Carter Center.

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