Authorities in South China’s Guangdong Province recently reported 12 typical cases of voter fraud in local village elections since 2008. Candidates tried to rig the elections by buying votes, tampering ballots and even grabbing ballot boxes to prevent people from voting.
Differing from Western practice, China’s democratic experiment has adopted a bottom-up path. Village elections, first launched in 1987, have prevailed nationwide since the early 1990s.
Some liberal scholars simply describe China’s democratization as copying the Western model, and fail to observe the specific conditions of the nation. Just like other countries undergoing social transformation, China has seen its own problems in its experiments with democratization.
Before electoral rules, procedures and supervisory mechanisms matured, scandals often took place. The manipulation of village elections is quite common in China. One important reason is that most farmers often idolize or fear local cadres who have a firm grasp of resources and solid support from higher authorities.
This is reminiscent of electoral realities in some non-Western countries that have ushered in Western democracy. In order to grasp local political power, candidates may collude with patriarchal clans, threaten opponents with force or, buy votes.
It is widely believed in the West that democratic elections arrive with a mature commodity economy. But surveys show that grassroots elections in North China are relatively more successful than in richer southern regions. In South China, many youngsters leave rural areas to do business and are somewhat indifferent to democracy in their villages. The situation in China is complicated.
Grassroots elections are a good attempt at democratic politics in China. It provides us with a chance to closely observe the application of democratic voting in this vast society and find a feasible way to gradually expand ordinary voters’ rights. It is in this process that decision-makers and social elites can better understand what ordinary Chinese really want.