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Date Posted: 04:08 30/01/2005

Democracy, Chinese style

Vice-Premier tells Davos that China will improve the democratic system.

SPEAKING AT this year's World Economic Forum in Davos, China's vice-premier, Huang Ju, repeated the usual Party boilerplate about doubling the national 2000 GDP rate and creating the 'comprehensive well-off society' by 2020, and also conceded that the right policies and strategies need to be employed in order to relieve the growing income gap, which has led to 'social disturbances and setbacks'. However, Huang also made an oblique remark about setting up an 'improved democratic system'.

What this means, perhaps, is indicated in a speech made over the weekend by Zhan Chengfu, the head of the Grass Roots Political Rights Office of the Ministry of Civil Affairs. Among other comments, he described the idea that rural people are of 'low quality' and not fit to engage in democracy as 'the logic of the slob'.

The veteran British left-winger Tony Benn always used to say that if the people were given the responsibility of voting to decide serious issues, they would automatically behave in a far more rational and balanced manner, and would not approve the castrating of sex offenders or public flogging. Recent experiences in the United States seem to belie such idealism, and in China, one wonders how remote villagers in Gansu would vote if a national referendum on, say, the Taiwan issue was held tomorrow. If they had the same democratic rights as the citizens of the state of California, one journalist told Running Dog, they'd abolish taxes - and possibly government itself - within a flash.

Zhan Chengfu was actually discussing the nascent 'grassroots democracy' currently being developed in the countryside, where representatives to the village committee are elected directly by ordinary residents. These democratic experiments are still not enshrined in law, he says, which means that the democratic rights of ordinary people are protected only by the 'petition system'. He admitted that there are widespread voting irregularities involving all levels of local government. The peasant masses cannot achieve justice, he said.

In the measured tone of the official's speech, it at least seems clear that some form of democratic participation is being introduced by the government as a means of curtailing the growing unrest throughout the country. Developers and local governments have generally conspired to appropriate local wealth, seize the land of the farmers, and frequently submerge entire villages, and the people affected have had little recourse beyond a futile and often dangerous appeal to various higher tiers of government.

The problems that Zhan discussed are not easily resolved, of course, and enforcing election rules in small and remote counties in China's northwest might not be very high on the list of priorities in Beijing. Last year, the Xin Jing Bao newspaper reported from a small county in Shaanxi Province, where village officials, unhappy that a local election had not produced the correct result, decided to burn all the voting slips and replace them with fakes. The winner supposedly won 317 out of 468 total votes, thanks in part to the efforts of a man seen carrying a box of matches. One imagines that it is a common phenomenon.

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