Time Magazine looks at the current state of rural elections in China and why they are especially important at this moment in history:
China has been experimenting with various forms of direct elections at the village level for decades. In the last ten years, the polls have reached almost every one of China’s over 600,000 villages. Urban residents have no direct elections, and all other official positions above the village level are indirectly elected in polls over which the ruling Communist Party maintains strict control. Although the village elections are still dismissed by some critics as an attempt by the Party to be able to show direct democracy in action in China without conceding any real power, they have received the growing endorsement of one key electorate: the villagers themselves. “When we first started out only a few people would show up to vote,” says Can Rongxi, the local Communist Party Secretary helping supervise the polls. “But gradually more and more people came as people realized they had the right to vote and wanted to use it. Now we’re holding our fourth elections and we expected 80 to 90% of voters to participate.”
What’s happening in Da’an reflects a rising trend of participation by China’s rural voters, some 450 million of whom reportedly cast ballots in 2008. And whatever the reason the elections were started, they are proving to be a godsend for the government as the world financial crisis hits home in China. Even before the crisis, government officials acknowledge that tens of thousands of clashes occur every year between disgruntled Chinese and the authorities over issues like land rights and official corruption. Now, with millions of migrant workers unable to find jobs in the cities and forced to return to their rural homes, village administrators’ duties will swell in importance, and the fact that they are directly elected will help to divert anger at administrative shortcomings and other problems away from the Party, something that will be especially welcome to cadres at a time when many returning migrants may not be as willing to unthinkingly accept orders from above after the relative freedom they enjoyed while working in cities. “The people who have spent a long time in the cities are going to have a heightened sense of participation,” says Yawei Liu of the Atlanta-based Carter Center’s China Elections Project, which has spent years monitoring the evolution of the village elections. It also will give returnees a greater chance to participate themselves. “If you go back you are more likely to want to be a player,” says Liu. These elections provide a means of being one.