How China thwarts grassroots democracy

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The Independent Online
THE ELECTION of a pro-democracy activist as a village leader in south-east China has been quashed by local officials, just the latest example of how grassroots democracy is at the mercy of the mainland's one-party system.

Yu Tielong, who in July was detained for trying to join a nascent opposition party, should have been confirmed on Monday as head of Wangshanding, in Zhejiang province. But instead, his victory in an earlier round of voting was annulled.

China's village elections, the country's only example of one-person-one- vote democracy, are much touted by visiting foreign leaders - President Bill Clinton and Tony Blair included - as evidence of improving human rights. But standards vary wildly from the truly democratic to the blatantly fixed. Three villagers from Zushijiang, Hunan province, for instance, were detained earlier this year and fined after protesting about a snap election in which only 38 out of 800 possible voters were able to cast their ballots.

Since the process started 10 years ago, China's 930,000 village committees have been elected in a variety of ways, some more open to abuse than others. Overall, one-third of those village leaders standing for re-election have lost their positions, suggesting that sometimes the system does work.

However, in Wangshanding over the past few days, it failed. Mr Yu was one of five candidates seeking election as village head. Last Wednesday, a preliminary round of voting was held to reduce the number of candidates to one. The ballot was held among 13 village representatives, and Mr Yu won. This should have meant his formal election yesterday (most villages have a more democratic system where the final round has more than one candidate).

Things went wrong after Mr Yu's victory, however, when an election official declared the preliminary ballot void, according to a Hong Kong-based human rights group that was following the case. A second ballot was held, with just nine village representatives, and Mr Yu lost this time.

In this case, it was probably interference from higher authorities because in early July he had been detained by police in Zhejiang for trying to join the illegal China Democracy Party, an organisation which a network of Chinese dissidents has repeatedly tried to register.

More usually, it is local power struggles and gerrymandering that undermines village elections. In the Zushijiang case, which only came to light recently in the Chinese media, a local township leader convened an early election without properly informing the villagers.

A new village leader was elected after receiving just 18 votes of support. After three villagers complained that the election was illegal because there had not been a quorum, they found themselves detained for two days "on suspicion of creating a disturbance at a village election".

The case was recently reported by Southern Weekend, one of China's most open newspapers.

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