China Power

China’s Local Poll Breakthrough

Do local election ‘experiments’ in China offer a useful stepping stone toward genuine democracy?

In the second half of next year, the Chinese Communist Party will hold its 18th Congress, during which a new leadership will be selected to lay the groundwork for the next 10 years of development in China.

But although the selection process for China’s leadership won’t be changed to direct elections anytime soon, the Communist Party is still open to freer elections at the grassroots level. Two recent examples underscore this.

One is in the eastern province of Jiangsu, located near Shanghai, where three party secretaries for the province were elected following two rounds of recommendations. Another example is a system the south-western Guangxi autonomous region where, as stipulated in the district election rules, five or more Party members can jointly nominate candidates to take part in an open election, with the details of the election to be made public. The feedback for these approaches has been good, and the public is more involved than ever in the political process.

Many in the West and elsewhere frequently say they hope China will eventually be able to follow the democratic path trodden by the West toward two-party or multi-party systems of government chosen through direct elections. Some scholars in China agree.

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It seems inevitable that China will one day achieve such a goal, because democracy is part of a trend that will ultimately improve the overall quality of life for Chinese. But it’s important also to remember that the situation is complicated here. Many of those who talk about democracy in China are drawn from society’s elites—ordinary people are frequently not interested in elections.This means that jumping too quickly from a strict one-party system to full-fledged democracy is not only unrealistic, but dangerous.

The consensus among the media and intellectuals here is that the Chinese political system needs improvement, not revolution. This means that awareness over elections and democratic ideas must be increased gradually.

The Communist Party leadership has indicated that political reform will come, and it will undoubtedly recognise that the current governance model has affected the Party's credibility and ability to rule. So it’s possible that the democracy ‘tests’ I mentioned earlier could be extended and expanded if the results are good. Either way, though, it takes time.