Sunday, May 2, 2010

Democracy in China: an elusive quest?

Foreign Policy Research Institute
Over 50 Years of Ideas in Service to Our Nation

by Jacques deLisle
April 30, 2010

Jacques deLisle is Director of FPRI's Asia Program and the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania.

The following account is based on a panel discussion FPRI co-sponsored with the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the University of Pennsylvania Center for East Asian Studies in May 2009 and follow-up discussions among several of the panel participants in China in March 2010, supplemented by publicly available sources. Participants included Li Fan[1], director of the World and China Institute, a Chinese NGO that focuses on elections and political reform, Jiang Shan, an independent candidate in the 2006 Shenzhen Local People's Congress elections, Qiu Jiajun, a researcher at the Election and People's Congress Study Center, Fudan University (China's only academic center dedicated to studying elections), and Zhou Meiyan, a
professional staff member in the Minhang District People's Congress, Shanghai, Amy Gadsden, FPRI Senior Fellow and Associate Dean and Executive Director of International
Programs at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Jacques deLisle.


by Jacques deLisle

Since the beginning of the post-Mao Reform Era at the end of
the 1970s, China has put in place, and revised, legal rules
and practices for elections to People's Congresses, the
representative organs in the Chinese state that exist in a
tiered structure from sub-county to national levels.[2]
Throughout the period, and despite some broad cross-national
similarities and some fluctuations in Chinese practice, the
PRC's system has consistently differed in fundamental ways
from elections in the U.S. and other liberal democracies.
Indeed, China's top leaders, including President and Chinese
Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen
Jiabao, have declared that Western-style democracy is
unsuited to China.

Direct elections for representatives occur only at the
county and township level People's Congresses. Indirect
elections being the rule for the Provincial People's
Congresses and the National People's Congress (NPC).
For the direct elections to the lower-level bodies, Chinese
authorities stress near-universal participation-something
which has long been a feature of elections in communist
systems. Legally, all adult citizens are eligible voters,
with the exception of those formally deprived of political
rights (a sanction that is sometimes imposed as part of a
criminal sentence) or judged psychologically unfit to vote.
Prior to each election, the registration group within each
election committee (the state organ that oversees all phases
of the electoral process at each level) attempts to achieve
compulsory registration, with the goal of signing up over
95% of eligible voters. Although official sources often
declare success, the actual rates are usually much lower,
with some informed assessments estimating between 40% and

Eligibility to run for deputy is in principle very broad,
but in practice significantly narrower. In county and
township People's Congress elections, any registered voter
found mentally fit by the election committee is legally
eligible to pursue candidacy. Ten or more voters have the
right to nominate a candidate. In reality, voters' choices
are much more constrained. Election committees often play
significant roles as gatekeepers (as is illustrated by the
county-level contests discussed below) and the Chinese
Communist Party (CCP) Committee makes most nominations.

Procedures for delimiting electoral constituencies and
conducting elections are complex and opaque. These features
raise additional concerns about the degree of connection
between electorates' preferences and electoral outcomes.
Voters can be divided into constituencies based on many
demographic factors-rural or urban residence, work unit,
other living conditions, and so on. Districts also may be
represented by one, two or three deputies. Chinese election
rules include dozens of bases for delineating

Voting and counting procedures have raised concerns among
observers and critics as well. Voters can cast their ballots
in person at fixed or mobile polling station or, for voters
absent from their home districts, through a designated
proxy. Use of a secret ballot has not been strictly required
in practice, notwithstanding a longstanding mandate in the
election law. Counting of ballots often occurs with little
meaningful oversight and no independent review. After the
votes are tallied, the election committee often announces
only the winning candidates' names. Vote totals and
percentages are not consistently disclosed.

This low level of transparency in elections and high degree
of control by the CCP and election committees are among the
indications that democratic reforms in China have remained
limited, even for very low-level organs, despite the
universal implementation of direct elections for Local
People's Congresses. A full assessment of the state of
electoral reform, and its implications for democratic
reform, requires more systematic scholarly and empirical
research on the conduct of local People's Congress
elections, as well as the indirect elections for Provincial
People's Congress and NPC deputies and the selection of
other government officials.

A hopeful, but mixed, development has been the efforts of
independent candidates in recent Local People's Congress
elections. Although such candidates often faced significant
hardships and insuperable impediments and their efforts drew
little media attention, the Local People's Congress
elections in 2006-2007, and the foundations laid in earlier
elections, were significant milestones that could point to
further progress.

The first Local People's Congress elections conducted under
the then-newly-in-force Election Law for the Local People's
Congresses brought forth an unexpected surge of independent
candidates, especially in constituencies that were based in
universities and, in a few cases, factories. The most
prominent among these candidates for the 1980 elections were
inspired by, and embraced, ideas then circulating among the
Democracy Wall-sparked pro-democracy movement. Amid untested
and relatively liberal rules for candidate nominations and
campaign activities and under procedural rules that held out
the possibility of several rounds of run-off elections to
yield a 50% share for winners, candidates taking heterodox
stands made remarkable headway.

At Peking University, philosophy graduate student and free-
speech advocate Hu Ping prevailed in an election where he
and other independent student candidates (including Wang
Juntao, later sentenced to a lengthy prison term for his
role in the 1989 Tiananmen Movement) grappled over issues
ranging from political reform proposals floated by Party
insiders to radically democratizing alternatives that would
have transformed the system. Similarly yeasty contests
occurred at Hunan Teachers College in Changsha (where
candidate Liang Heng later penned a political autobiography)
and on other campuses and in industrial enterprises.
Authorities denied Hu a seat and intervened earlier in the
process to scuttle the electoral fortunes of Liang and like-
minded candidates at his school and elsewhere. Such openness
did not recur during the ensuing period.[3]

An early breakthrough in the more recent period occurred in
1998, when Yao Lifa (who had run and lost, amid opposition
from his state employers and local authorities, in 1987,
1990 and 1993) became the first independent candidate
elected to a municipal-level People's Congress, winning a
seat in Qianjiang, Hubei. His victory and subsequent
advocacy for local people's rights, questioning of
government policies and pressing of pro-democracy agendas
that ran counter to established Party policy attracted much
attention across the province and beyond. When the next
round of Local People's Congress elections was held in 2003,
the number of independent candidates sharply increased.
Nearly 100 ran in Shenzhen, Beijing and urban areas in
Hubei. While most lost to CCP-nominated rivals, a small
minority won.

The success of Yao Lifa in 1998 and the 2003 upsurge in
independent candidates, and modest increase in victorious
independent candidates, led to high expectations among some
advocates and scholars that the 2006 election would bring
further change, backed by purported central government
support for ongoing democratic reforms in Local People's
Congress elections. Although available data makes a precise
count impossible, independent candidacies apparently did
increase significantly for the 2006 round of elections. Many
tens of thousands of independent candidates ran in both
rural and urban elections around the country, from city
districts in Beijing to the countryside in Shanxi and

Once again, however, independent candidates did not gain
many seats. Local officials dimmed independent candidates'
prospects through a variety of means. They used their
considerable discretion to gerrymander constituencies in
ways adverse to non-establishment candidates. They also
kept independent candidates from appearing on ballots by
invalidating their registrations or intimidating them and
their nominators and supporters. The NPC and the CCP
Propaganda Department adopted measures banning media reports
on local elections and forbidding neutral and expert
observers from actively monitoring elections. Many official
pronouncements denounced the wave of independent
candidacies, accusing the banned Falun Gong movement and
other "hostile forces" of attempting to use the local
elections to usurp Party control. In some cases, the
authorities' control over proxy voting and mobile ballot
boxes prompted charges of manipulation and fraud. In the
end, only a handful of independent candidates were declared
victors in the 2006 elections.

A few cases illustrate the nascent democratic potential and
persisting severe limits of elections during this period. Lu
Banglie, a peasant from Hubei province, had been drawn to
politics when the local government continued to extract the
then-heavy tax levies on farmers in his area in the wake of
a severe, impoverishing drought. He soon became an ardent
advocate for greater democracy at the village level
(including that promised, but often not implemented, in laws
and official policies), popular knowledge of legal rights,
and transparency of local finance-positions that reportedly
prompted a severe beating at the instigation of local

Lu was one of the few independent candidates who won in the
2003 elections, having been elected to the Zhijiang City
People's Congress. During his tenure, Lu became a prominent
figure in the controversy over the internationally famous
efforts by residents of Taishi village, Guangdong province,
to oust-through petitions and escalating protests-a leader
they complained was corrupt. In an incident that generated
much coverage at home and abroad and a sharp dispute between
the U.K's Guardian newspaper and official Chinese media, a
British journalist who traveled with Lu to Taishi reported
that Lu was severely beaten by thugs, seemingly at the
instigation of local authorities, and Chinese reports
countered with claims that the violence had been greatly
exaggerated and Lu's and the reporter's unlawful attempt to
enter the area had triggered the confrontation. [5]

In the run-up to the 2006 elections, Lu also planned to
popularize among his constituents knowledge of new, more
poor-peasant national policies on rural affairs. The local
authorities in Zhijiang appeared resolutely determined to
prevent Lu's reelection. Lu managed to raise roughly 7000
RMB for his reelection campaign, a respectable sum (a little
over US$1000) given his meager income. But the local Party
reportedly spent nearly 1.5 million RMB opposing him.

In addition, the local government offered inducements to
voters, for example, promising them healthcare access,
improved public works and other subsidies on the understood
condition that they spurn Lu. There were also widespread
reports of police and other official and quasi-official
intimidation of voters; threats, beating and detention of
the candidate himself; and a variety of efforts to impede
Lu's and voters' access to one another. Unsurprisingly, Lu
lost his bid for reelection.

Yao Lifa, who had lost his bid for reelection in 2003 in the
face of what he and his supporters characterized as an
unfair election and amid determined opposition from local
authorities (and who had become a prominent advocate for
democratic reform and publicly backed the Taishi villagers),
ran again and lost again in 2006. In the 2006 campaign, he
and his helpers and followers faced recurrent harassment and
brief detentions by the police, a determination that Yao's
initial home constituency must be represented by a woman,
scurrilous rumors about Yao that appeared to come from local
officials and bans on campaign activities that the candidate
and his backers insisted conformed to the law. Yao also saw
the 2006 book recounting his experiences as an independent
member of the People's Congress banned shortly after
publication. [6]

Another notable candidacy is that of Jiang Shan, an
information technology professional who moved to Shenzhen,
the city neighboring Hong Kong, in 1997. After purchasing an
apartment in 2003, Jiang began to pay attention to property
right issues. He realized how often the rights of residents
were undermined by real estate and development companies in
the rapidly changing city that had been a largely rural area
in 1979 when central authorities designated it as one of
China's initial four Special Economic Zones and launched its
meteoric growth.

Beginning around 2003, residents in Jiang's part of Shenzhen
tried several approaches to assert and restore their
property rights, including organizing themselves into a
residents' group, filing complaints with the government,
hiring a lawyer to bring an administrative litigation suit,
and appealing to the media. None of these efforts, some of
which Jiang helped lead, succeeded. Against this background
of frustration, Jiang decided to run as an independent
candidate in the Shenzhen Municipal People's Congress
elections. As Jiang saw it, the People's Congress had the
power, at least in principle, to address the residents'
problems: according to the PRC Constitution and a series of
formally empowering revisions to the organic law for
People's Congresses, the People's Congress at each level is
superior to, and has the authority to supervise, the
government and the courts-the state organs that had failed
to provide residents with the redress they had sought.

Jiang began his campaign by trying to mobilize area
residents through writing letters, sending text messages,
distributing cards, and hanging banners. His efforts were
met with formidable resistance from local authorities. His
banners were taken down within a half hour. The district
constituency lines were drawn to pit Jiang against the head
of the Shenzhen Municipal Transportation Company, a state-
linked enterprise with 4000 workers who were registered in
the district and pressured to vote for their boss. Jiang was
even rebuffed initially in his effort to register to vote.
The purported lack of voting qualifications and other
grounds were variously proffered to deny Jiang's quest for
candidacy. Only after Jiang appealed to the local court did
the election committee acknowledge that Jiang was qualified
to run. On election day, his name did not appear on the
ballot. Jiang thus depended on a write-in campaign for the
votes (well short of what he needed to prevail) that he
ultimately received.

Such cases illustrate some of the many ways local power
holders can impede independent candidates, undermine the
formal democratic promise of the Local People's Congress
election laws, and sustain the fundamental features of the
preexisting regime of elections with Chinese

The legal rules that govern local-level People's Congress
elections in China have changed repeatedly, sometimes in
ways that have increased the challenges facing independent
candidates. Their reform in a more democratic direction has
been and remains a necessary, but not sufficient, condition
for democratic change. The PRC's first election law was put
in place in 1954, five years after the founding of the new
regime. A superseding law governing elections to People's
Congresses was, along with an "organic" law defining the
powers of the sub-national congresses, among the first seven
basic laws of the Reform Era, adopted in July 1979. The
election law has undergone five rounds of amendment, some in
tandem with reforms to the organic law for the People's
Congresses, the most recent at the March 2010 NPC meeting.

The first amendments, adopted in 1982, responded to the
strikingly open and contested elections and successes of
independent candidates in the 1980 round of elections. The
revisions reduced the threshold for victory in run-off
elections to 33% of votes cast, cutting back on the
multiple-round elections and accompanying extended campaigns
by independent candidates that could occur under a system
that had required the victor to receive 50% of the votes
cast in an election with at least 50% turnout. The changes
also assigned to election committees the role of briefing
voters on candidates and to nominating groups the role of
introducing candidates to voters at group meetings-functions
the candidates largely had taken into their own hands at
open and often-raucous gatherings in 1980 under a provision
that permitted the use of unspecified "various methods to
publicize" candidates.

In 1986, a second set of amendments required larger groups
for initial nomination of candidates, reduced the minimum
number of candidates required (from 3/2 to 4/3 of the number
of deputies to be elected), and eliminated primary elections
in favor of giving the election committees the winnowing
powers, to be exercised "on the basis of the opinions of the
majority of voters." This change helped reduce the number of
candidates (and especially non-establishment ones), which
had remained high in elections conducted under the law, as
revised in 1982.

In 1995, a third round of amendments adopted much more
elaborate rules to determine the number of deputies in
various People's Congresses and made modest adjustments to
the rules governing run-off elections for Local People's
Congresses. Paralleling the 1986 and 1995 revisions to the
election laws, two rounds of extensive amendments to the
organic laws for People's Congresses elaborated and arguably
extended such bodies' powers to oversee government officials
and courts, to conduct issue-focused investigations and to
make laws suited to local conditions. They also clarified
and enhanced the powers, and specified means for the
selection, of chairmen and other top leaders within each
People's Congress.

A fourth amendment package in 2004 reestablished a limited
primary system, one in which, unlike under the system
introduced in 1979, a primary would be conducted only if
election committee-organized "discussion and consultation"
among voter groups-a process in which authorities could play
an influential role-failed to narrow the list. Another
provision revisited the question of candidates' question-
and-answer sessions with voters (which had been a target of
the 1982 amendments to the original law). The new provision
authorized such meetings, but largely at the discretion of
the election committee, which "may" arrange them. The
revised system contemplated group sessions with all
candidates and did not allow candidates to campaign
individually or to organize rallies or meetings on their
own. Another change specifically declared invalid electoral
victories obtained through bribery.

The fifth set of amendments, adopted in March 2010, were
comparatively high-profile and wide-ranging. Primary among
the issues addressed was inequality of representation in
People's Congresses, especially severe underrepresentation
of the electorate living in the countryside. This concern
had been developing as a part of the reform agenda for
several years. A foundation for change was laid in 2007,
when the 17th National Congress of the CCP endorsed a call
to move gradually to equalize representation of urban
dwellers and rural residents. In late 2008 and early 2009,
the NPC's Standing Committee included relevant revisions to
the election law in its legislative plan. This agenda for
reforming representation received a boost from the April
2009 National Human Rights Action Plan, which included among
its many commitments improvement of democracy and citizens'
civil and political rights, including citizens' "orderly"
participation in political affairs, in part through
revisions to the People's Congress election law that tracked
some of the key amendments adopted in March 2010. In late
2009, the NPC Standing Committee deliberated on draft
amendments, leading to adoption of the final version during
the March 2010 NPC plenary session.

The 2010 amendments provide for equal representation of
citizens, regardless of rural or urban status. This alters
the "4:1" rule that previously had mandated constituencies
for deputies representing rural residents be four times
larger in population than constituencies for deputies
representing urban residents.[7] In practice, the ratio in
many areas was much higher. Proportions as high as 40:1 had
become common, and in some cases reached extremes of 100:1
or even 1000:1.

In addition to equalizing per capita representation of rural
and urban residents, the amendments address other aspects of
perceived underrepresentation with an expanded endorsement
of a different type of departure from one-person one-vote
norms. The revised law directs measures to assure
appropriate (that is, generally higher) numbers of
representatives who are members of groups with comparatively
few deputies in all levels of People's Congresses. These
groups include ethnic minorities, women, Chinese returned
from overseas and members of other "social sectors" and
"grassroots" groups (including especially the previously
unaddressed categories of workers, farmers and
intellectuals) and residents of some regions (specifically,
thinly populated administrative units).

The 2010 amendments also address existing laws and practices
that critics have seen as giving voters too few
opportunities to see and question candidates face-to-face.
The revised law replaces the former language permitting
election committees to organize such meetings with
affirmative calls for election committees to arrange such
sessions and for candidates to participate in them.

A significant portion of the amendments add sections that
formally clarify and seemingly pledge to regularize election
committee's functions and responsibilities (such as
determining electoral districts, registering voters,
screening candidates, running elections, counting ballots
and declaring winners) and to increase the accountability of
these powerful and frequently criticized bodies (by placing
them more clearly under the direction and control of
People's Congresses' Standing Committees).

Another change addresses, and arguably mandates greater
equality among, the roles of the Party and other
institutions and groups in nominating candidates. The change
limits each nominating group to a number of candidates no
larger than the number of deputies to be elected in the
constituency and imposes equal information disclosure
requirements, and consequences for false disclosure, on all
types of candidates.

Still other revisions concern protection of voters rights,
including clearer and more detailed provisions that
apparently promise easier access to voting opportunities,
greater regularity of ballot-casting procedures, stronger
rules for secret balloting, and sterner measures to
supervise elections and prohibit and punish activities
(including violence, corruption, bias and misinformation)
that can subvert or disrupt elections.

Reformers, observers and critics point to shortcomings and
uncertainties that remain in the election law that emerged
from the 2010 amendment process and its likely consequences
in practice. The equalization of rural and urban
constituencies is not as significant a reform as it may
appear. The revised law does not mandate immediate or highly
specific change. Procedurally, it directs equalizing reforms
to be undertaken prospectively by the Standing Committee of
the People's Congress of the next higher level above each
level at which each People's Congress elections occur.
Substantively, the amended law provides that reforms be
undertaken "in light of specific local circumstances."

As official sources themselves note, the mandate to equalize
representation merely reflects the law catching up with
demographic changes. The long-standing goal of assuring that
urbanites enjoy majority representation no longer requires
unbalanced constituency sizes. The officially sanctioned
ratio of urban to rural deputies not falling below 1:1 can
now be achieved through equal representation because China's
population has moved from being nearly 90% rural in the
early 1950s when a skewed ratio was first adopted to still
nearly 80% rural when the Reform-Era election law was first
adopted to a 70:30 ratio at the time of the 1995 amendments,
to a current population distribution that is roughly half
urban and half rural.

More fundamentally, more rural deputies will not necessarily
mean more peasants, or reliable representatives of peasant
interests, in People's Congresses. A large portion of
deputies representing rural areas are now, and are likely to
remain, local cadres and village officials who are long
removed from ordinary peasant life and closely tied to
higher levels of the Party and state. Roughly half of the
representatives in county-level People's Congresses are
cadres and three-quarters or more of all People's Congress
deputies are CCP members. The rotten borough-correcting
reforms are not expected to change radically this pattern or
to trigger redress of the skewing of government-provided
benefits to urban residents.

Moreover, the 2010 election law reforms did not tackle the
problem that many tens of millions of people who remain
formally rural residents, and thus could represent (as well
as vote in) rural constituencies, are long-time urbanites.
Those drafting the election law pointedly did not tackle
this question, postponing it until legal and policy changes
achieve further resolution of China's evolving and
nettlesome hukou or "household registry" system. While the
hukou no longer binds Chinese serf-like to their home
localities, changing one's hukou remains sufficiently
troublesome and, in various ways, costly that inconsistency
between formal registration and residential reality is
severe and widespread.

The efficacy and impact of amendments calling for more
deputies drawn from the ranks of underrepresented groups are
similarly problematic. Here as well, the substantive and
procedural commitments are loose, mandating gradual
increases to reach "appropriate" numbers or leaving the
details largely to the discretion of local People's
Congresses to adjust in light of "local circumstances." With
respect to some of the underrepresented groups, as with
rural residents, formal categorization may not track social

The provision for fixing what critics see as inadequate
opportunities for in-person exchanges between voters and
constituents does not unambiguously require, and thus is far
from certain to produce, significant change. The earlier law
had provided that election committees "can" or "may" (keyi)
organize face-to-face meetings, something they did sparingly
at best.

The provision on candidate-public meetings adopted in 2010
states that election committees "should" or, on a stronger
reading, "shall" organize such meetings. The drafters here
used a chronically murky Chinese term-yinggai-that cannot be
fully translated as either "shall" or "should" and that has
bedeviled legal translators and lawyers dealing with the
many Chinese laws in which it appears. On any reading, the
directive in the 2010 amendment is a relatively weak one
(compared to, say, a mandate that election committees "must"
arrange such meetings) and is correspondingly less likely to
be followed by a sharp reduction in nonconforming behavior.
Even the strongest reading of the revised article stops
short of promising rights to relatively unfettered

Other new rules concerning the roles of election committees
at all stages from registration to vote counting and the
rules on nominating candidates are potentially double-edged
swords. They arguably reinforce the formidable authority of
election committees and push Party committees and local
authorities to be more effective and efficient in nominating
candidates. Much the same can be said about a provision that
purports to protect voters by mandating exposure, by the
election committee, of candidates who provide "false"
personal information.

The revised law also remains disconcertingly ambiguous on
important procedural issues, including qualification of
voters, nomination of candidates, counting of ballots,
resolution of electoral disputes, and voting by proxy. Of
particular concern is the failure to adopt clearer rules on
election procedures and stronger means for verifying
adherence to proper procedures, leaving too many
opportunities for manipulation. Some see these omissions as
showing a continued lack of effective legal protections for
citizens' rights to vote and run for office.

In addition, provisions in the amended law that promise to
improve elections face significant risk of unsatisfactory
implementation. The phenomenon is widely acknowledged as a
widespread and serious one for Chinese laws. Poor
implementation is especially pronounced where a law
threatens entrenched local power-holders, as some provisions
in the revised election law can. Past implementation
difficulties with the laws governing local People's
Congresses are tacitly acknowledged in the content of many
of the procedural, institutional and sanction-mandating
components of the 2010 amendments and in authoritative
official commentaries on the need for those amendments.

Finally, critics and observers also point to elements in
post-amendment electoral law that, by design or in practice,
will continue to restrict the openness and competitiveness
of elections. These can help sustain a system in which
deputies at all levels of People's Congresses are more
likely to be unable or unfit to perform functions that many
democratic systems expect of lawmakers and representatives.
In this respect, the remarks by NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo and
NPC Standing Committee Legislative Affairs Commission Deputy
Director Li Fei seemed telling. At the NPC session that
adopted the 2010 electoral law changes, and echoing broader
rejections of foreign liberal-democratic models by other top
leaders, Wang stressed that China would never "copy"
Western-style democratic systems and Li pointedly criticized
Western-style elections as "a game for the rich" that leads
to dominance by a moneyed minority.

Although advocates for democratic reform generally see the
fifth round of amendments to the People's Congress election
law as a move in the right direction, they see it is a small
and slow step in a long journey on which short, medium and
long term objectives will require significant additional

In the short term, better protection of Chinese citizens'
political rights is the most immediate concern. Formal
equalization of rural and urban representation and other
2010 reforms to the law on the books are positive and
necessary changes. But a sensible near-term agenda would
focus on full implementation of those promises and pursue
further reforms to effectuate constitutional principles of
equal franchise and to strengthen and clarify election
procedures and election law enforcement-tasks that the 2010
reforms left undone.

In the medium-term, the size of People's Congresses needs to
be limited if they are to function as effective deliberative
bodies. The problem is most severe in the NPC, where the
deputies number three thousand. In so large a body (and one
that is so rarely in session), the legally weighty rights
and responsibilities of individual deputies have little
practical significance in lawmaking practices. Legislative
work is inevitably left largely to the NPC Standing
Committee and other NPC committees and staff, with much
influence from institutions outside the NPC.

Although lower-level People's Congresses are less unwieldy
bodies, they do share some of the same problematic traits.
On this issue, provisions in the 2010 electoral law reforms
raising the size limits for some local People's Congresses,
and prior amendments to the organic law for People's
Congresses expanding the powers of standing committees,
chairmen and vice chairmen, are causes for some concern.

In the long run, perhaps nothing less than a redefinition of
basic principles and structures of Chinese election law will
suffice to deliver citizens' democratic rights. Such reforms
might include a government body that manages and supervises
elections in a neutral way, election procedures that meet
international standards for freedom and fairness, candidate
selection mechanisms that facilitate genuinely competitive
contests, and an independent judiciary to adjudicate claims
of election law violations.

Prospects for such reforms depend partly on social pressures
to undertake them. Demand among ordinary citizens for
political participation has grown markedly in recent years,
especially among young college-educated urbanites. This
group, which has fielded an outsized share of the
independent candidates in several rounds of Local People's
Congress elections, can be expected to remain politically
interested and active for decades. So far, the regime has
shown little interest in reforming political institutions to
accommodate this changing social landscape.

The channels for meaningful influence, accordingly, remain
few and narrow. The CCP wields great influence but remains
closed to many heterodox ideas. Direct elections, sometimes
genuinely contested and contentious ones, are held for
village and neighborhood committees, but the positions bring
little influence and few opportunities for advancement to
more significant political posts. Independent candidacies
for Local People's Congress thus remain arguably the most
meaningful institutionalized channel for autonomous
political influence. Yet authorities have been resistant to
seeing it flourish, as is reflected in the reaction to
electoral wins by independent candidates such as Yao Lifa
and Lu Banglie and the prospect of victories by others, such
as Jiang Shan. Still, the Chinese regime remains adaptable
and resilient. If political participation and social demand
for such participation increasingly outstrips the capacity
of existing political institutions, there is reason to hope
that the official response will be stronger, more
accommodating institutionalization rather than risky and
possibly futile attempts to suppress social demands and
stifle forces for change.

Ongoing developments portend growing demand for political
participation and thus may brighten prospects for democratic
reforms. After three decades of change unleashed by
reformist economic policies and despite the absence of a
robust top-down program of political reform, the relative
power of state and society has been changing in China.
Although the current alignment remains strongly tilted in
favor of the state (and Party), the balance is shifting
slowly but significantly. Although many proponents of a
bigger society and smaller state understandably view the
fate of independent candidates in the 2006 elections as
disheartening, the number of people seeking to run and the
support they garnered against daunting odds and formidable
pressures are promising signs of what may follow. So too is
the emergent call to increase the share of People's Congress
deputies who are lawyers and, thus, presumably or at least
hopefully more skilled in making laws and more committed to
rule of law values.

Beyond the local elections for representative bodies, there
are other indicia of growing political participation and the
rising power of society. Intraparty democracy-broadening the
range of views represented within the CCP-has been limited
in design and practice and partly cooptative, but it is a
form of broadened representation of social interests in
political institutions that wield power. Local level
movements and reforms to improve the quality and
transparency of governance are one example. Another is the
emergence of local government budgeting processes that
include sustained consultation with residents or public
hearings or, at least, much greater transparency. Especially
in more wealthy areas, this has come partly in response to a
rising sense among citizens that the money in the budget is
theirs, not the state's, and that too much of it is being
spent wastefully or for the benefit of the well-connected or
on low-priority projects. Still another example is the rise
of the rights protection (weiquan) movement, spearheaded by
public interest and public-spirited lawyers who bring cases
to vindicate ordinary citizens' rights, often when those
rights are imperiled by state action. Much farther down this
path might lay movement toward full-fledged democratic
Underpinning such changes and pressures for further change
are several broader and likely enduring social and economic

(1) Groups that are already highly interested in
autonomous political participation-including relatively
young college-degree-holding city-dwellers-are growing
comparatively rapidly as urbanization, post-secondary
education and per capita incomes rise.

(2) More broadly, as more Chinese own property,
operate private enterprises and work in professional
jobs, they will seek and expect ever-greater
opportunities for political participation, including in
the form of selecting People's Congress deputes, at
least to the extent that such bodies come to wield real
power over important matters such as government
budgets. This general pattern has been common
internationally, and there is little evidence that
China will be a singular outlier.

(3) Reform in China also has meant opening to
influences from the outside world, including those
relevant to political change. Global norms and
pressures for democratization helped foster democratic
reforms in Hong Kong and Taiwan and have brought
greater pressure on China to accept the International
Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and
international human rights more broadly, including
democratic rights.

Such trends and forces favoring democratic change in China
have not reached the threshold of triggering major systemic
reform. How they will play out and how PRC authorities at
various levels will respond to them remain unknown and,
indeed, unknowable. Their connections to the current state
of election laws and practices for Local People's Congresses
are complicated and perhaps ambivalent. Such elections may
be the tip of the iceberg of irresistible forces for
democratic change or, less hopefully, the canary in the coal
mine should PRC authorities opt for suppression over


[1] Some of the issues discussed here are also addressed in
Li Fan, "Is Chinese Democracy Sustainable," International
Journal (Spring 2006), pp. 359-370.

[2] Since the middle 1980s, China has also established a
regime for elections at the village level in the
countryside. While these village elections are for positions
that do affect governance in rural areas, they are formally
outside the state structure (being for posts that are
formally below the most local level organs of government)
and are beyond the scope of the matters addressed here. The
principal law on village elections was adopted in a trial
form in 1987, in a more permanent version in 1998, and has
been undergoing an amendment process in parallel with that
which produced the 2010 changes to the law on People's
Congress elections that are a focus here.

[3] The 1980 elections were not a significant focus of the
panel and discussions that are the principal bases of this
report. This account of the 1980 elections is drawn
primarily from Andrew J. Nathan, Chinese Democracy (1985)
pp. 193-223.

[4] Lu's earlier career was not discussed at the panel and
discussions that are recounted here. For an account of these
issues, see Manfred Elfstrom, "The Saga of a Rural
Reformer," China Elections and Governance (March 10, 2005).

[5] See, for example, Jonathan Watts, "Chinese Activist Vows
to Continue, Despite Beating," The Guardian, October 12,
2005; Benjamin Joffe-Walt, "They Beat Him until He was
Lifeless," The Guardian, October 10, 2005; "The True Story
about Taishi Village Incident," China Daily, October 21,
2005; "Guardian Admits Taishi Reporting False," China Daily,
October 18, 2005.

[6] Yao's 2006 campaign was not a focus of the panel
discussion. It has been extensively covered in the media and
is discussed, along with independent candidacies in 2003 and
2006 more generally, in He Junzhi, "Independent Candidates
in China's Local People's Congresses," Journal of
Contemporary China, vol. 19, no. 64 (2010) pp. 311-333.

[7] The legislative provisions were more precise for
representation in the NPC, with ratios falling from 8:1 in
the original 1979 law to 4:1 with the 1995 amendments, with
a parallel but less steep decline from less skewed baselines
for Provincial People's Congresses.

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