Illegal Vote Offers Chinese Township a Real Taste of Democracy


Tan Xiaoqiu got his job illegally, and he’s proud of it.

Tan, 41, became the only directly elected township chief in China after residents here defied the nation’s constitution, which forbids such elections, by voting him into office more than 12 months ago.

And like a seasoned politician, Tan talks up his performance as Buyun’s top official.

“I’ve fulfilled four of my 10 campaign promises in the first year,” he said, ticking them off on his fingers with an air of quiet satisfaction. “Building the main road, putting in telephones and cable TV, and restructuring agriculture.”


Then he added: “Since I’m elected, I feel a greater sense of responsibility and more pressure to keep my promises.”

That Tan is still in office at all is remarkable enough in a land where political initiative routinely gets squelched and democratic practices remain a phantom at most levels. More than a year after Buyun conducted its election in secrecy, life surprisingly has gone on as usual in this outback community--with the notable exception that residents have become participants in politics, not just its victims.

But it remains to be seen whether the central regime in Beijing will allow Buyun’s daring experiment to spread beyond the township’s borders--or whether the government will judge it too threatening to one-party rule in the world’s most populous nation.

Although the majority of China’s 1 million villages have been electing their leaders for several years, none of the country’s 45,500 townships--clusters of villages that form the bottom rung of formal government--had ever done so before Buyun.

So far, China’s rulers have responded with ambivalence, doling out both encouragement and warning to Buyun and like-minded townships wishing to follow suit.

“The [Communist] Party’s reaction to it seems very conflicted,” said Yawei Liu, an associate with the Atlanta-based Carter Center, which among other things promotes rural elections in China.

Buyun’s experience shows the messiness, both good and bad, that democracy can bring and that the Communist government would be hard pressed to manage if such an election was replicated across the country.

Reform-minded local Communist Party officials picked Buyun as the site of the unprecedented election because of its remoteness, far from the glare of the media and high officials. Deep in the heart of interior Sichuan province, Buyun’s 10 villages, with a combined population of 16,325, are four hours away by car on winding, muddy roads from the provincial capital, Chengdu.

Most of the township’s residents are subsistence farmers, although a better-heeled merchant class has set up shop along the newly constructed main drag. Market days in Buyun are a bewildering juxtaposition of old and new China, with a minivan hawking the latest DVDs competing for space with street vendors peddling fresh vegetables and ornaments made out of animal bones. Women lug huge straw baskets on their backs, while middle-age men carry bundles of dead rats to advertise the efficacy of the rat poison they sell.

The election pitted Tan, then the deputy township chief and the official nominee of the local Communist Party, against two candidates picked through a primary system, including a dark-horse teacher and an ambitious village head.

Local peasants grilled the three men at open-air debates. Each candidate visited all 10 villages to deliver his campaign pitch. Lower taxes, each promised. Better schools. Cable television. Less pollution.

On the last day of 1998, under skies spitting rain, 55% of Buyun’s 11,349 eligible voters cast secret ballots in an election described by observers as largely free and fair. (About 4,000 registered voters who live and work outside Buyun did not participate, so the turnout of actual residents exceeded 85%.)

Tan easily outpolled his two rivals--but barely won the required majority with 3,130 votes, or 50.2%.

“At the time, I just looked at [the election] as making life more difficult for me because otherwise I would have automatically gotten the position,” Tan recalled over lunch recently, in his first interview with a Western reporter since his election.

“But then I went through the election, and now I think that’s the better way,” said Tan, who emphasized his experience and connections in government during the campaign. “It gave me the chance to talk to people face to face, to find out what their concerns are and to tell them what my thoughts are.”

The thoughts of the central government’s leadership, however, are harder to read.

After reports of the election began to trickle out, the official Legal Daily published an editorial calling it illegal. Yet the same paper printed another commentary a week later that seemed to equate Buyun with Xiaogang village, the tiny hamlet that launched China on its groundbreaking market reforms more than two decades ago.

Likewise, a program broadcast on China Central Television praised Buyun’s pioneering example, but a rerun the next day was yanked from the schedule.

The flip-flops reflect the Beijing regime’s deep-seated ambivalence about political reform. While it locks up those who overtly challenge its rule, the regime also recognizes the growing need for some kind of low-level democratization--if only to mollify China’s 800 million peasant farmers, whose anger at official corruption has sparked scattered unrest in the countryside.

Some of that bitterness continues to fester in Buyun.

In interviews, many township residents complain that taxes and fees have gone up, not down as Tan had promised. Taxes increased from about $14 a household in 1998 to $22 last year, then to $27 this year--steep hikes for an area where the average yearly income is only about $350.

On top of that, residents had to fork over about $10 each to help build the township’s new three-mile road, a centerpiece of Tan’s campaign, that cost $300,000.

“He promised to collect less taxes, but the fact is that we have to pay more,” grumbled Wang, a 53-year-old peasant who declined to give his full name. “We don’t get any services or benefits from the taxes.”

Detractors often are too afraid to criticize Tan openly. That is a testament to the fact that the pillars of a functioning democracy, such as freedom of the press and assembly, still do not exist in Buyun, or anywhere in China, despite the township’s election.

But Tan also has his supporters. They credit him with improving the economy and bringing a measure of openness and transparency into the halls of power.

“The government publicizes its bookkeeping so that we all know what the taxes are for and where the money goes,” said Su Yixiu, 29, who runs a small storefront with her husband.

In addition to the new road, Tan has spent $12,000 on installing cable TV and another $12,000 restructuring agriculture. Still to be accomplished are cleaning up the environment, reducing school fees and completing Buyun’s shift from growing grains for its own consumption to raising fruit for outside markets.

Tan, who often works weekends, expects those tasks to occupy him until his term expires at the end of next year. He intends to run again--if higher authorities allow a second election.

Analysts say Buyun’s experiment must enjoy backing from somewhere within the party hierarchy, perhaps at the provincial level, for Tan to have succeeded as much as he has.

“My sense is that there must be some support, or at least tacit support” from above, said Liu, the Carter Center associate. He notes that Tan’s election was not voided by the central government and that no one is trying to ferret out who instigated the election.

Buyun’s saving grace may have been that the winning candidate, Tan, was the Communist Party’s nominee.

But “this is one case,” said Li Fan, an independent scholar who has closely followed the Buyun election. “What happens when other townships try to elect their own leaders?”

Sources say other locales are contemplating similar elections. Already, a handful of places, such as a township in the southern city of Shenzhen, have experimented with more-direct elections, though none has been as far-reaching as Buyun’s vote.

Although Buyun’s election remains a sensitive topic, China’s national parliament dispatched researchers on a fact-finding mission here recently, and Buyun officials were invited to Beijing to make a presentation about their experiences.

While national leaders, including President Jiang Zemin, continue to maintain that township elections are in violation of the constitution, the mission indicates “that now they are thinking very seriously of this,” Li said.

What spooks Beijing are the implications for party rule when people develop attitudes like that of one Buyun woman who voted for Tan--but who is reserving judgment on his performance.

“If he does a good job, we’ll keep him,” the woman said. “If not, we’ll dump him.”