A few recent articles on Wukan’s elections and their aftermath touched on recurring themes of democratic development. Reaching beyond the People’s Republic and their experiments in democratic governance, these themes extend to shifts in governance and popular expectations contrasted by bureaucratic realities. In Wukan as in other places around the world, the hopes and exhilaration of the public continue to be muted by the often gradual nature of democratic change.
The protests and push toward elections in Wukan were fueled in part by disputes over land rights, claims of corruption, and the capture of public resources by private enterprise. Villagers perceived self-governance as a path toward addressing the problem as others have in several other locations in Guangdong province including the nearby village of Shangpu. Once newly elected officials were in place it was, expected that in short order these property issues would be resolved.
Unfortunately change is rarely as swift as those who demand it might hope. Promises made during elections, even if made in good faith, are often riddled with challenges in implementation. All too often the resulting failure to bring about swift change and reparation for perceived ills is viewed as a flaw in Democracy rather than just a reality of governance.
Interesting parallels might be drawn between the situation in Guangdong and our slow (when functioning) US system with its tendency to mute change. I like many others, am often quick to judge elected officials, particularly those responsible for legislation. Yet often I’m sure my expectations stretch well beyond the realm of reason, particularly with relation to the speed of institutional change.
In 2008 the nation, particularly young adults were jubilant over the election of President Obama. The sea of successes and frustrations of the past few years have likely gone a long way toward reinforcing some of the worst assertions of those who see democratic participation as pointless, yet how many of our expectations four years ago were truly reasonable?
More recently the election of Elizabeth Warren has gained my attention as one of the high marks of potential change among our representatives. As with the President however I often find myself wondering just how much Senator Warren really is capable of changing and/or fixing the systematic flaws which landed us in our current economic mess. In states near and far striving toward democratic governance, the challenge of the electorate’s expectations rears its head time and again.
These expectations and the gulf between campaign promises and political reality present real problems for those who would govern. Particularly once the realization sets in that not all that a politician promises on the campaign trail will ever come to fruition. There is the decision of whether it would be best to limit the goals set in advance and potentially lose an election, or push wild promises with the hope that the public will understand failures after election. Is there a way to mitigate the expectations of the electorate without dampening faith and trust in the system?
Even as a Chinese I don’t quite get the point of this cake joke. But it is so popular among netizens, on Weibo(Chinese twitter) or renren, or any popular forums in China. I think this situation itself explained something.
Some background first: Basically Qie Gao(切糕) is a kind of big dense cake sold along major inner land’s cities streets by Uygurs, who came from Xinjiang Province of China. Customers can ask to cut it and only buy a small piece, priced by weight. Recently, in an incident at Yueyang city, an inner land city, a customer and seller started to argue against the price, and it has been upscaled to a fighting. The local police at Yueyang, announced that the damaged cakes valued ￥160,000.00 RMB (about $25,706.00 USD). Instantly, this ironic news has been quickly spread out on Internet and netizens have developed it to different forms of jokes, thanks to the unbelievably high price for just a cake. From this incident and the spread of the news, it can be observed that a lot of people had considerable negative experience with those cake sellers. One major problem is that customers usually didn’t know the cake is so dense so that a small piece could be very heavy; and the sellers didn’t tell customer the unit price they talked about was for per 50 gram, not for 500 gram (the later one is more commonly used in China). And many reported they were forced to buy it even when they were ask to pay an extremely high price.
Some jokes are about the value of the cake, others are targeting Uygurs. One famous sentence is:”if the seller hit an old lady with the cart, the old lady then running away, not the sellers”. It implies that majority of the netizens think how peremptory the sellers are. And most people believe it is the minority identity allows the sellers to act outrageously without due consideration of any regulation, since the police don’t want to be accused of discriminating minorities by taking actions against them.
For ordinary Han Chinese, this group of sellers’ behavior freeze their impression over Uygur people. Han think they are cheating the customers, and think some Uygurs have been even engaged with stealing, by experiencing other similar incidents. The sense of humor on social media does not conceal the real problem. Instead, it reflects the tension between Han and ethnic minority groups in numbers of inner land cities, as well as serious development predicament in some ethnic minorities’ concentrated provinces.
Han Chinese hate unfairness, especially when it comes to minority issues. In China, there are various kinds of policies favor ethnic minorities, ranging from education to child policy. Beyond those formal policies, when Han Chinese see these Uygur sellers can repeatedly cheat customers; can sell things along the street without licenses; can do unlawful things without being punished, while Han Chinese can’t, Han feel being discriminated against. Adding the consideration of the facts that Han perceive themselves as the host of inner land cities and thus should be treated well, they can hardly tolerate this kind of unfairness. Though one may argue these people can not represent Uygers population as a whole, the fact is that the negative consequence caused by such institutional setting has become serious enough to stir up a national social media movement.
However, the economic and social development in Xinjiang and many other places like Xinjiang are becoming increasingly distorted. According to a research conducted in 2008, 71% of the high-end job positions (government or management) and 57% of the technology related jobs were held by Han Chinese in Xinjiang. In contrast, that number for Uygurs are only 17% and 30% respectively, while more than 61% of Uygurs are working in agriculture sector. Moreover, the percentage of Uygurs population to provincial population has decreased from 67% in 1950s to less than half in 2000. That means Han Chinese have been flooding into the province and taking more fruit from the development process than Uygurs. It has forced a lot of young Uygurs to seek their livelihood in inner land cities. But without specialized skills, they cannot earn enough to feed themselves. In addition, they are more or less excluded from the process of natural resources exploration inside Xinjiang. Overall, those seemingly favorable policies do not actually bring balanced benefit to minorities.
Till now, all the ethnic autonomous regions’ top seats are still controlled by the CCP’s appointees. To be concrete, even though the chairmen are usually local ethnic people, the Party Secretary of so-called autonomous regions, who hold the real power, remain Han Chinese. A quick answer to address the problem is to allow Uygurs and other ethnic minority groups to decide their development policies and agenda by electing their own leaders and to improve the security operation and judicial process in a more impartial manner. Yet, essentially, the ethnic cleavage cannot be easily addressed even under more democratic rule. The tension reflected through the ethnic cleavage is fundamentally about the competition over scarce resources. Currently, for Uygurs youth and other minorities at Xinjiang, to get a good job requires formal education and willingness to keep their loyalty to the Party. But both are risking going against their own religions and cultural transitions. Thus it would still be difficult for them to really participate into the modernization process.
New directions to settle ethnic tensions are badly needed now! If the Party really wants to have control over this place, at least they have to listen to minorities’ opinion in a truly humble manner. Too few actually understand what’s going on.
The importance of the medals table of the 2012 London Olympics ceases as the Games came to close. The number of China’s gold medals and total medals both ranked second behind the U.S. For the Chinese, the 2012 Olympic Games were not as joyful –Western suspicions of Ye Shiwen’s dope test turned out to be invalid, the Chinese badminton scandal stirred a debate regarding Olympic Spirit, and negative reports of China’s state-run sports regime are often found in Western newspapers. On the other hand, China’s stunning sweep of a number of games’ titles brings pride to China, but concerns many countries.
There is the assumption that anything created or supported by an authoritarian government is wrong- no matter the quality of the program, it will ultimately go wrong. China’s sports industry, if it can be categorized as such, is certainly no exception to this assumption.
To diagnose the problem with China’s sports regime, most critics rush to point out the widely pervasive structure of sports schools at all levels and criticize it as a reflection of the nation’s central planning system, parallel to its economy. Even though it is effective in implementing policies from the top all the way down to the grassroots, it has wasted many resources, including the number of kids who spend their entire childhood practicing sports thanks to the taxpayers’ money poured into state run sports schools and facilities.
To some extent, the analogy between China’s methods of raw material extraction and industrial development and their investment in their athletes’ pool, sports regime and Olympic medals might be accurate. (The Chinese media have indicated that Pink Floyd’s music video might be the origin of Westerners’ impression of athletes trained under authoritarian government. Many Chinese found it as an unacceptable bias against the Chinese.) We can even push forward to say authoritarian regimes, in many respects, more or less follow this functional pattern. However, taking the individual will of China’s athletes into account might help distinguish the two processes. Kids (perhaps according to their parents’ wish) voluntarily enter into the athletes’ pool—usually sports schools which offer very limited formal education. Most parents from urban areas sincerely want their children to remain healthy and may even support their children training in a particular sport. In contrast, parents from rural areas push their children into sports because they are often attracted by more practical benefits: the potential for their kids to climb one step up on the social status ladder or to win prizes by winning games in the future. Talented kids with physical advantages are more likely to draw attention from coaches. For a family living in poverty, a decent living environment (having food to eat and a place to stay) and the chance for success are persuasive enough for parents to permit coaches to take their kids away for training. Families that are relatively wealthy focus more on formal education, which is integral to finding a good job. This phenomenon can be observed by looking at the profiles of most athletes. Those participating in the Games who suffered tremendous hardship through brutal training and have less professional association/audience are usually coming from poor families. This includes participants in long-distance races, weight lifting, and gymnastics. What drives them to achieve their current accomplishments is not purely nationalistic spirit and coaches’ coercive training approaches, but more essentially their families’ economic conditions. Their success means they could get out of their unknown village. It is an honor, but more than that it is the potential for a better livelihood.
There is a palpable rural-urban divide in Chinese sports and this has manifested itself in the Olympic Games. Poor families’ higher likelihood of choosing sports school is a consequence of the shortcomings of rural education. Everyone’s choices are based on a balanced calculation of their various interests if not taking irrational elements into account. In that sense, Chinese athletes pick the option that they believe will bring them the brightest future. The state doesn’t interfere with their choices on that level. What makes a difference is that urban kids have more options to choose from, while rural children have fewer choices and few of the options are favorable. The state’s mechanism for choosing athletes precisely fills the needs of many families who suffer from poverty, which makes the pool of athletes large and highly competitive.
Commercialized sports, emerging as a new form to organize and train athletes in China, is based more on commercial profits according to how many audience and fans they can attract. The growth of commercialized sports indicates that their might be the potential to detach athletes from the state planning system. Liu Xiang, Li Na, and Yao Ming are all top examples of this trend. While for other sports, especially those that rarely draw public attention and, therefore, are less prone to commercialization, like weight lifting and race walking, will have to continue to rely on the state planning system, at least in the short term. Currently, there is an equilibrium, a balance between the nationalistic needs for medals and rural grassroots’ aspiration of getting out of poverty, that the state is trying to manage. We have to recognize, however, the tragedy that is the significant number of local trained athletes for whom it is inevitably impossible to move up beyond even the county level due to the nature of the competition. These athletes have already devoted most of their childhood and teen years to a career that could only reward a very small number of top competitors. A large number of athletes is the foundation for winning medals, a unified phenomenon that applies to many countries. The majority of Chinese people have never recognized the large population of athletes as contributing to any single medal and even the state ceases to support them after their forced retirement from sports without providing the athletes with enough education for them to enter the work force in the first place. In their later lives, these athletes will face even harder times as they discontinued their studies long ago and can never come back to the normal track according to the design of the education system.
It should be noted that there is another attribute of the Chinese attitude towards medals that contributes to the sports regime, particularly in international competition. After almost a century of being called as “Sick Man of East Asia,” Chinese people still feel very insulted. To prove that the Chinese have become a stronger, more unified country, we want be the best in any field around the world. Using numbers to count success is undoubtedly a reflection of this nationalistic mood. Among ordinary Chinese, getting a higher GDP growth rate and building a number of buildings that break world records are not so different from winning more Olympic medals. The Chinese people have not fully restored their confidence in the greatness of their nation, though longing to consider themselves as such. We still consider ourselves as living in a developing country where everyone has to work extremely hard to earn a living, while outsiders have again looked at China through the lens of economic might. It is thus understandable that Chinese feel wronged when the successes that they have proudly achieved is interpreted by Westerners simply as indicative of entrenched problems. It is like a venerable giant walking around and showing muscles to prove its strength, but in turn scares people away. This fact partially also explains some western journalists’ mentality of digging negative news when reporting on China and why such news is welcomed in their society. The giant sees the need to strengthen its power while others already feel threatened.
To some extent, public opinion in China overwhelmingly favors more medals. The government, in responding to public opinion, has been dumping enormous resources into developing its athletic programs and found it an effective means to consolidate patriotism by stirring up a sports-related nationalistic mood. Authoritarian though it may be, authoritarianism is not the sole cause of China’s brutal sports regime. Emerging as a super power, the Chinese have to be prepared for more criticism and challenges. To really advance the country, numbers are not enough to prove its success; instead, developing institutions by building and integrating capacities of major aspects could improve the country’s real strength and competence. It might take China decades to relax, yet slowly but surely the Chinese people will become more confident in their athletic abilities, in their identity and in their country.
In the past I’ve touched on issues of economics and social equality in China, but a recent Slate article on the subject just seemed too good to pass up. Written on the controversy surrounding the bizarre practice of hiring body doubles to serve one’s jail time, Geoffrey Sant’s article stirred up quite a bit of buzz the last few days. The article, and more broadly the issue of body doubles, certainly has a bit of a Weekly World News feel to it, yet it speaks to a real issue not only in China but nations around the world. That issue is the importance of equality under the law in promoting national stability, particularly in times of global economic challenges.
Hardly issues unique to the 21st century, the privileges afforded by wealth and the ability of the wealthy to influence the law have always presented problems for governance. Ties between economic and social inequality have fueled conflicts throughout our history, and this trend shows no signs of changing. As the world continues to struggle with financial crises, governments around the globe are grappling with their own methods of addressing inequality under the law, or at least pursuing means to appease the broader public.
Within the People’s Republic, claims of abuses of power among economic and political elites have added fuel to existing discontent over inequality. Given the party’s focus on societal “harmony” disregard for the legal system among elites bears the potential to cause real problems for the state in the years ahead. Inequality is certainly an ongoing concern here in the United States, though in obviously different ways than in China. This national problem is sure to be a centerpiece of this year’s political season in the US yet it is a subject we have never been particularly comfortable dealing with. Although the issue of body doubles is more than a bit sensational, it serves as a visceral example of the freedoms wealth can buy and the dangers growing inequality can create. Perhaps these past years economic woes might bring the discussion of inequality back into mainstream discourse not only in China, but around the world.
In 2011, a unique phenomenon emerged in China: “Independent Candidates”, which brought numerous debates among scholars and ordinary people. As they actively participate in various levels of elections, increased violence against them and barriers set to block them from getting involved have called people to ask: is it legal to be an Independent Candidate?
Many cases in the last few years have demonstrated the challenges Independent Candidates face along their journey to be elected. The first barrier they have to overcome is being confirmed as a “Deputy Candidate.” In the Constitution of China, every adult citizen, without being deprived of political rights is entitled to vote and to be elected. It has been set in the Election Law that an individual who is not nominated by any organization or work unit, but still wants to become a candidate, must collect at least 10 signatures from voters from the same constituency to get nominated. In order to become a legal Deputy Candidate, they have to be further confirmed by the election committee. However, it is not as clear and simple in local practice. Rules and decrees can incredibly complicate the process to obtain official recognition. Some constituencies release the registration date at the last minute; some require the candidate to be a Party member. In some extreme cases, to prevent them from participating in the election, local authorities simply label them as inciting subversion of the state’s political power and limited their freedom from the very beginning. Even recognized as Deputy Candidate, their campaigns were often harassed or forbidden.
Scholars and Independent Candidates argue that those local authorities are violating the Constitution. However, through the whole process from registration to campaign, to the Election Day, Election Law doesn’t provide much content to support either Independent Candidates or the behavior of local authorities we have just mentioned. It instead leaves huge room for both to interpret the law in their own ways.
In China, many things should be understood through “national conditions” (国情). Part of it is the will from the top. People therefore have to guess, rather than learn from the legal book, to draw the line between legal and illegal. In this case, the signals for Independent Candidates are really mixed. Different organizations and different high officials give explanations that often conflict with each other.
In June of 2011, it was clarified by the Legislative Affairs Commission of the National People’s Congress (NPC) Standing Committee that “There is no such a thing as an ‘independent candidate’, as it’s not recognized by law.” Its person in charge stressed that according to the law “one should be first nominated as Deputy Candidate and then confirmed as official Deputy Candidate in due legal procedure.” Then the China Central Television (CCTV) and other major news agencies covered the news, which brought about a debate over whether “independent candidate” is just a wrong term to use or illegal in its nature. The Legislative Affairs Commission’s clarification is ironically vague, as it doesn’t state individuals are banned to actively become a Deputy Candidate, in contrast to the traditional path of organizational nomination. However, it apparently implies their unsupportive attitude, representing a stance from the top. On social media, Netizens criticize that the tricky wording statement is designed to scare people, but doesn’t dare to directly violate the Constitution. However, it certainly projects its impact to the local level. Such an interpretation becomes an excuse for local authorities to block Independent Candidates from participating in elections.
Adding to that, Wu Ying’ai, the Minister of Justice pushed this stance forward. In a law book edited by Wu, called Q&A of PRC’s National and Local People’s Congress Representative Election at Each Level, which gave a specific explanation and suggestion— for Deputy Candidate planning to campaign on his/her own, relevant organizations should persuade them not to or stop their campaign activities. It further argues that it could facilitate the work of introducing candidates to voters being carried out in an orderly and more organized manner, which is therefore in the interest of developing the extensiveness of democracy and ensuring the voters’ well-ordered election participation.
Nonetheless, other signals appear to color the picture, which is more encouraging but also makes the whole issue more confusing.
On the 13th of June 2011, an article published on the newspaper Study Time held by the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China(CPC) argues against the Legislative Affairs Commission. As expressed in the article, a citizen’s legal right to be “nominated” should be safeguarded in practice is amply emphasized. To soften the tone, it did criticize the use of the term “independent candidate” as not appropriate, since it implies other candidates are not independent. Wang Changjiang, a professor from the same school, also joined this camp by expressing that government should face the trend of public participation into politics and start building its democracy. He argues that within the Party, many people’s mentality remains unchanged : the emerging of Independent Candidates must be the result of the penetration of western opposition power. Nonetheless, they failed to notice that with the progress of the economy, people’s awareness of the link between their daily life and politics as well as individual rights have been promoted enormously, especially in the era of social media.
Regarding the motivation to become Independent Candidates, some top governors obviously have acknowledged both possibilities. Yu Zhengcheng, CPC party chief in Shanghai, made a speech in Shanghai Jiao Tong University and classified Independent Candidates into four categories:
- Sincerely wish to monitor the work of CPC and government. They should be supported;
- Sincerely wish to monitor the work of CPC and government, but by extreme means. Also should be supported;
- Seek the limelight and want to be recognized. Not a big deal;
- Want to topple China’s current system/institutions and push China to follow western political institutions.
He, however, didn’t really provide direct suggestions for dealing with the last category. But it is clear, referring to the context of speech, that China doesn’t welcome such Independent Candidates and is very defensive to prevent political “Westernization.” Looking at the first two categories, Yu promises a much larger space for ordinary people’s active participation in elections, compared to the Legislative Affairs Commission and the Ministry of Justice. In fact, many Independent Candidates made it clear that their purpose is calling for public awareness of individual’s rights. Some of their campaigns focus on informing people about the current legal system and potential space to safeguard rights and interests based on current law. For those, they accept and even have faith in the current political system and want to use the means permitted by the system to improve the society. What is not clear is how to draw the line between the so-called sincerity and opposition. This is a great gray zone that can be arbitrarily judged by individual’s “political will” rather than by behavior, which could easily be forged into a weapon whenever local authorities feel threatened by this monitoring tool.
The government certainly has been aware of the threat of an emerging competing group and correspondingly made some progresses to advance its own capacity as well as the procedure of election. In the past, most voters have not even heard of their Deputy Candidates, yet still have to vote among strange names. To respond to that, in 2009 the central government issued an announcement, clearly stating that if the condition is permitted, the village election committee (though much different from People’s Congress Election) should organize candidates to meet voters, to introduce their plan of rural governance and commitments and to answer the questions concerning local villagers. However, it forbids soliciting votes privately by either the candidate or his/her proxy. In the last version of the Election Law, small changes on wording are worth noting: it stresses the Election Committee should organize candidates to meet voters by changing the word “can” to “should”. Yet, it added “upon the request from voters” following the sentence, which allows flexible interpretation from local authority to get around the rule. In general, it is still a positive sign to encourage the involvement of ordinary people.
Despite individuals being entitled to contest in elections, the extremely vague law doesn’t promise the right to campaign. This challenge is becoming the second most likely barrier for Independent Candidates to be elected. Local authorities create their own decrees and limitations on the details of the election. Some activists may survive in the process of being confirmed officially as Deputy Candidates, but they may face being silenced after that- not allowed to give speeches to their audience or show posters containing their background information or governance plan. Their freedom might also be limited by the local security forces, sometimes for few days, sometimes for years. Usually individual candidates find nowhere to file their complaints.
Given the mixed signs above, it is also wrong to assume the space for Independent Candidates are equally small across the whole country. Some places are performing much more hopefully than others. For example, in Yunnan and Zhejiang Provinces, local elections are more open to Independent Candidates and even officially support their participation and campaigns. While in Jiangxi and Shaanxi, the local governments are nervous about this emerging phenomenon and always arrange “talks” with individual candidates.
All in all the issue of “Independent Candidates” is not a matter of being recognized as appropriate officially, it is just a title referring to the kind of people who individually have the will to represent voters who are supported by more than 10 voters. The debate should not go beyond the issue of legal language, because it is clear that the right to be elected is written in the law. However, the official response is more of a reflection of attitudes from the top Party leaders which certainly matters more than the language itself. It is reasonable for local leaders to fear being monitored and ousted from their positions which could bring them and their family intangible and tangible benefits; it is also reasonable for the top of the Party to feel anxious that opening this door could lead to further and deeper political reform which they would easily lose control over. On the other hand, some argue that allowing Independent Candidates to contest is a great channel to lift a bomb of social discontent. It raises a question: Can the Party create a new balance to satisfy ordinary people’s desire to have real representation in political decisions as their socioeconomic interests are diverging, while at the same time keep maintaining the privilege power for elites. At this stage, I feel most Chinese tend to believe Beijing is capable enough of managing that balance, though it is tough.
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