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Asia

China’s tight grip on democratic tendencies

China’s Communist Party has allowed grassroots elections for many years. But bribery is widespread. The electoral system still has many pitfalls and China has not been too eager to incorporate more democratic elements.

Bribery is a common practice in China. Even if it comes to buying votes

Bribery is a common practice in China: such as buying votes at elections

Since 1986 villagers in China have been allowed to vote every three years. They can elect the party chief of their village. But only 20 percent of such elections are competitive. Often there is only one candidate, in some cases simply chosen by the communist party.

In many cases such elections are manipulated with votes being bought. Prosecutors in the southern Chinese province of Hainan found that bribes have gone up in recent years. Candidates used to pay villagers the equivalent of 1.50 US dollar for their support at the ballot box. Today the price has gone up to 177 dollars.

Money for votes

In villages where there are substantial assets such as land for leasing and other business opportunities, candidates are most likely to buy votes, says Joseph Cheng, Chair Professor of political science at the City University of Hong Kong.

"Some village entrepreneurs like to get the position of the village chief for reasons of prestige or for the purpose of building networks. So they are willing to spend money to secure their electoral position," he explains.

Civil society

Reports of bribery and other abuse in democratic processes at grassroots level can be seen regularly in the official Chinese media. It helps to convey the impression that democracy is a flawed concept.

The lack of a civil society in China is also a reason why people do not develop a feeling for democratic procedures, experts say. But China is developing quickly, according to Thomas Heberer from Duisburg University.

Call for democratic reforms

"One can now plan one's life as one likes and not be directed by the state or the party any more. This is the moment when individual autonomy gains in strength. This is a precondition for building citizens. And citizens are a precondition for establishing a civil society," says Heberer.

Recently voices have been calling for democratic reform within the Communist Party, a demand reiterated by Premier Wen Jiabao. But his remarks have not been echoed by other leaders. And the statements have not been reported by official state media.

Keeping control

Grassroots elections have been introduced in the late 1980s. China's leaders are not elected by the people

Grassroots elections were introduced in the late 1980s. China's leaders are not elected by the people

China’s leadership wants to contain democratic developments within the country. They don’t want to implement anything that may get out of control. Village elections have not advanced to higher levels because at town and township level the leaders are from the party cadres. But if they are elected by the people, this will be in direct contradiction to the basic principle that the party controls the cadres.

Still, there is some hope. China’s future leaders are better educated and have more exposure to the western world. Some experts think that China’s potential future president Xi Jinping might introduce more democratic reforms after coming to power. However, his father was a high ranking party official who condemned the pro-democracy crackdown in Tiananmen Square. So far, says Joseph Cheng, Xi Jinping has not given any indication that he may be a great reformer.

Author: Chi Viet Giang
Editor: Grahame Lucas

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