China's billion people are in the midst of a potentially significant experiment in democratization: directly elected district and county assemblies. "I was really excited when I was told I had been elected a deputy to my district assembly," said Fu jiantang, deputy manager of a pharmacy in Peking's busy Dongcheng district.
"I was excited, too," said Ma Yuwen, who heads a neighborhood association in the same district. "To think that a housewife like me could be elected to work for the masses. I had a tremendous sense of encouragement."
The elections were carried out in 66 districts and countries throughout China last year. They are being extended to all of China's more than 2,000 districts and counties this year.
Politburo member Peng Zhen announced at the current session of China's legislature, the National People's Congress, that they are to be "basically completed" by the spring of next year.
(Districts are administrative units of big cities, like wards or boroughs. Counties, China's traditional administrative units, are largely rural.)
No county or district elections were held during the ten-year turmoil known as the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
The current elections differ from pre-Cultural Revolution elections in several important respects. First and most important, there are more candidates than seats to be filled. In Mr. Fu's constituency, there were 25 candidates for three seats.
Five days before the election, the number was whittled down to five. In Mrs. Ma's constituency, as many as 56 originally vied for the two available seats. Eventually the figure was reduced to three. Second, although the assembly itself (called the People's Congress) meets only once a year, for four to five days, it has a standing committee that meets every other month. The standing committee can raise any question within the competence of the district or county government.
Mr. Fu and Mrs. Ma were elected last Nov. 15. At the assembly's first meeting, in January, deputies made as many as 1,003 proposals and suggestions. With a 25-man standing committee to follow up on the proposals, over 80 percent have been carried out by the relevant local departments so far, said Mr. Fu. Both he and Mrs. Ma serve on the standing committee.
What sort of problems do the assemblies take up? Housing, for one, said Mr. Fu. Environment and pollution, added Mrs. Ma. Employment, too. None of them are exactly earthshaking, but all are important to the ordinary citizen.
Both Mr. Fu and Mrs. Ma set aside time for constituents to come to see them. "I ask them to come during the first 10 days of the month, but, in fact, people can see me at my office any day," said Mr. Fu.
Mrs. Ma has people dropping by her home many evenings, as well as at the neighborhood association office during the day. Recently Mr. Fu was asked to find more spacious housing by a couple whose parents had returned to Peking from the countryside. (The parents had been banished for political reasons during the Cultural Revolution.)
He got the local construction office to agree to build a room onto their existing house, which opens into a typical Peking courtyard. But on reflection, the couple said this would take up too much of their courtyard space. They feared trouble with the neighbors.
Mr. Fu then managed to put them on a priority list for multistory municipal housing. The couple will have to wait a couple of years. But they are pleased that Mr. Fu got responses from the district bureaucracy on their behalf.
Both Mr. Fu and Mrs. Ma feel their assembly has more power than it did before the Cultural Revolution. For one thing, they were chosen in competitive elections. For another, by serving on the standing committee, they are in constant contact with relevant district offices, which are obliged to inform them of the disposition of questions they raise on behalf of their constituents.
That is not to say that the Dongcheng People's Congress is a carbon copy of a Manhattan borough council. It does, however, reflect the desire of China's present leadership to move away from rubber-stamp assemblies and to bring a measure of democracy to the grass-roots level. Municipal and provisional asemblies are still elected indirectly, as is the National People's Congress now meeting in Peking.
But as voters at the district and county levels become accustomed to the idea of choosing their own deputies, pressure for direct election to these more important assemblies seems bound to grow.