In 2011, I wrote a piece for The Diplomat about my experience during a local election in Beijing. Perhaps few readers have any recollection of that piece; I refer to it now because, five years later, I participated in another election and had a somewhat different experience. Interested readers can make a comparison and see if local elections in China have made any progress.
While the Americans just elected a new president, the Chinese also had their own election. Ironically, in neither case is the supreme leader of the country elected directly. American voters may cast ballots for the candidates, but the president is ultimately selected by electoral votes from each state, rather than by popular vote. In China, meanwhile, the electorate may select delegates of the People’s Congress (PC) on the local level, who then decide on China’s leadership through a multi-tiered electoral system.
On November 15, the electorate in Beijing selected delegates for their local PC assembly.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
As it is known in English as the National People’s Congress (NPC), you be thinking of the NPC as similar to the U.S. Congress. However, unlike their American counterparts, who are professionals with their own offices in the capital, NPC delegates are selected on a part-time basis. They may be government officials, business owners, movie stars, peasants, or servicemen. There are additional quotas to ensure representation for ethnic minorities.
Chinese elections are divided into the local, medium, and top levels, and only local elections are directly open to the electorate. The elected NPC delegates represent their county (or district in the case of a city) – the equivalent of Brooklyn in New York – and these delegates are selected through local elections, such as the one in Beijing I participated in.
As you move up the tiers, the number of Congress delegates are reduced. Ordinary citizens may not participate in elections at higher levels, which are exclusive to NPC delegates. This is rather different from the U.S. system, where Americans directly vote for their congressional representatives on the state level.
Local PC delegates select members for the provincial or municipal level through what we may call medium-level elections. These medium-level delegates then further decide on members for the national assembly (the equivalent of the House of Representatives in the U.S.), which is the only body entitled to vote for national leaders. For example, Chinese President Xi Jinping was elected directly by NPC delegates on the national level.
Navigating through such a complicated system may take time. The local election in Beijing that I went to this year, for instance, is in fact part of the preparation for the upcoming 13th National People’s Congress in 2018, where a newly elected national assembly will decide on the next Chinese leadership. While there is little doubt that Xi Jinping will win a second term as president, we may see some new faces for key positions such as vice president and chairman of the NPC Standing Committee (a position similar to the speaker of the House in the United States).
Upon hearing that I would vote in a local election in Beijing, many of my friends poked fun at me by asking if I knew who the candidates were or what they do for a living, or if there I had any contact with the candidates. These questions may seem superfluous in many countries, but as a Chinese voter, I admit to having difficulty coming up with an answer.
When I went to the community office to get my voting card prior to election day, I asked the civil servants there to give me some details about the candidates for my district. They looked baffled for a few seconds; the ensuing silence was only broken by a woman in her late 50s who seemed to know what she was talking about. She told me there would be personnel on election day to provide voters with more details.
In fact, I had previously asked the same question at the office when getting registered to vote. The young woman handling my case then confessed she knew no more than I do, but since the election was still another month away, she asked me to regularly check the bulletin board in my neighborhood, as any new information would be posted there.
To be honest, I only thought of getting registered and going to vote after seeing a poster about the election. Both the notice for election and the information on candidates were posted so late that voters had little time to be informed.
These community offices are the basic units of the Chinese civil service across the country. Each community office covers several blocks of a residential area and is staffed with around 10 to 20 personnel. Except for some elderly staff, most of the young recruits have passed the national examinations for civil service, which are extremely competitive with only around a 1 percent chance of success.
My community office has a public library with a large electric screen displaying major national newspapers and magazines. It has a medical and hygiene facility, as well as a conference hall that hosts various events, such as collecting clothing and other supplies for poor children and educational events for fire prevention. And every five years, it becomes a polling station, where the electorate can get registered and vote for their local PC delegates.
If my memory serves me right, posters about the candidates only appeared on the community’s bulletin board around two weeks prior to the election. The posters were moderate in size, with black letters against a dark red background listing the name, sex, place of employment, and occupation of all three candidates. No other information was given. This was the same as it had been five years ago.
Out of the three candidates (two men and one woman), one is a secondary-school teacher, another a manager of a state-owned company, and the third an entrepreneur. I have never seen any of them in person, or even their photos or any posters with details about them. I was also not aware of any campaigns they may have run. I assume the staff working at the office may have organized meet-up sessions between the candidates and the electorate, but I was not notified.
Before I went to pick up my voting card, I made a call to the office to make sure they had it. They had to go through computer records and even asked me if the card had been picked up by someone else. It took them five minutes to finally find it. When I arrived to pick it up, I realized why it took them so long – there was a list on the bulletin board of everyone registered to vote at the office (me included), and apparently there were more than 7,000 names.
The woman in her late 50s insisted I should vote on election day. I assured her I would come.
On election day I came to the community office and found pieces of paper at the entrance indicating the number for the election zone. The small path leading up to the office was lined with 20 or so flags of various colors – a scene usually seen on more festive occasions such as National Day or Spring Festival. As I stepped into the courtyard, I saw six young security guards in uniform, freshly on duty. With a friendly wave, they gestured me toward the conference hall.
Almost all tables and chairs in the hall had been removed, with only a few left near the wall for the staff moderating the election. In the center of the hall was a ballot box about one meter high, which was monitored by a security guard in uniform sitting next to it.
As I came in to vote at around 10:30 in the morning, I was spared a long queue. There were only three retired elderly voters in front of me. Before casting my ballot, I went to the first table to have my voting card checked. The card had my name, sex, and age on it, with no photo or address. Two women asked for my address, and looked up my name in a printout. Once they found a match and confirmed the address, they put a stamp on my card that says “has voted” and handed me a voting slip, asking me to make further inquiries at the second table.
Although I had not yet cast my ballot, the stamp on the card suggested I had already voted. Now I had to actually hand in my voting slip. The slip was in pink and had the three candidates mentioned earlier, about whom I knew little. The instruction on the slip said, “Put a circle next to the two candidates you support and a cross next to the one candidate you do not support. If you support none of the three, you may fill in candidates of your own choosing in the blank below.”
A young woman and a young man were sitting next to the table. The woman asked me if I needed her to fill in the slip for me. I was surprised by the question. Why should I let someone else fill in my slip after coming all this way to vote for myself? She then explained that some elderly voters may have weak eyesight and they could offer some help. I asked her if she really thought I was that old. The young man laughed along and offered to tell me more about the candidates.
I was hopeful about what he had to say, but was deeply disappointed when his comments were no different from what was posted on the bulletin board. I learned nothing new. I picked the teacher and the entrepreneur, but gave up on the manager of the state-owned company. As I approached the ballot box, the security guard greeted me with “Good morning, please cast your ballot.” In this way, I fulfilled my honorable duty as a voter in no time.
Compared to the election five years ago, I felt the service was better, and the voting process more sophisticated. There was no doubt room for improvement. I saw no private booth for filling in the slip, which meant I had to pick my choice under other people’s noses. The other issue was the lack of communication between the candidates and the electorate, which has been a concern for several decades. The electorate had no idea who the candidates were, and the candidates were not really responsible for their voters.
A retired elderly couple in front of me left the hall with smiles on their faces; they must be content at being able to exercise their democratic rights. If in the future, our candidates could have frequent communication with the more than 7,000 voters in my community, I believe everyone will be happy.