In a little-noticed experiment with elections, China has in some ways surpassed American democracy.
In nearly a million villages across the world's most populous nation, election candidates are conducting what their American counterparts can only dream about: cost-free campaigns.
For the first time in its millennia-long history, China has made its villages a testing ground and a school for the rudiments of multicandidate voting.
The simplicity of the fledgling elections couldn't stand in greater contrast to the intricately financed political battles waged across the United States.
The elections are subject to irregularities, and political parties that oppose the ruling Communists are banned, but some scholars say the polls may be laying the seeds of a more democratic system for future generations.
These small steps toward more pluralistic politics are "actually a revolution if compared with China's autocratic past," says a government official in Beijing.
The 1949 Communist revolution was aimed at replacing China's millennia-long tradition of imperial rule and highly stratified society with economic egalitarianism under the party's leadership.
Yet Chairman Mao Zedong replaced emperor worship with his own personality cult and continued to use violence to wipe out any real or potential opposition to his rule. Since Mao's death in 1976, the Communist Party has resorted to using massive force only once to silence dissent, during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Yet leaders at the top of the party pyramid continue to appoint their underlings, with no input from the public.
And it is clear that the village elections are aimed at preserving the party's leading position by assimilating the divergent forces that have been unleashed by China's economic reforms.
"In the past, China's centrally planned economy was matched by class-struggle politics," says Wang Zhenyao, a senior official at the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs.
"But the last two decades of economic reforms require a new means of balancing increasingly diverse social and business interests," adds Mr. Wang, who is also a chief architect of the village elections.
A university lecturer in Beijing, who prefers anonymity, describes the voting process as he has seen it: "In many grass-roots elections, every adult peasant is called in from the fields, lined up, and given a bean.
"Each farmer walks up to a table containing several clay bowls with names inscribed on them and places the bean in his favorite candidate's bowl. The only problem is that in some places the voting is public but the ballot counting is secret," the professor says.
Inviting foreign observers
In a major step toward opening China's evolving political system to the West, President Jiang Zemin invited a seven-person team from The Carter Center of Atlanta to observe elections in a handful of "model villages" earlier this month.
And Rep. Mark Foley (R) of Florida is scheduled to lead another observation of Chinese elections later this week.
Robert Pastor, who headed the Carter Center team, said after observing votes in two provinces that it was hard to generalize from such a small sampling, but endorsed China's fledgling moves toward democratization."We conclude that China's village elections are a significant and positive development in empowering China's 900 million farmers."
"Of course, these were the very best examples of China's village elections, but I was impressed by the transparency of the voting procedures and the officials who supervised them," says Anne Thurston, one of the Carter delegates.
Ms. Thurston, a scholar who has commuted between the US and China for the past 18 years, says the elections, and Beijing's growing willingness to cooperate with the West, were "a real step forward."
What a typical election looks like
The typical election, she says, "does not involve great political debates on the future of the country, but rather focuses on who can find the best markets for local produce or rebuild a worn-out bridge."
The most advanced elections include an open nomination process, a secret ballot, and monitored vote-counting, says Thurston.
"Villagers gather together in a local schoolyard or market and listen to officials explain the vote," she said. "Candidates give five-minute speeches, and then each voter casts a ballot, sometimes in the privacy of a booth."
"Most candidates spend little or nothing during the campaign," she said. "But they don't really need to - most villages are small, and these people have lived together for centuries, so everyone knows each other."
Voters select three to seven members of a village committee, headed by a chairman, which manages the local budget and day-to-day administration.
"The local Communist Party branch is still in charge of overall policy, but the village committee represents an alternative, elected power base," says Thurston.
"And of course, no one can oppose the leadership of the party or the socialist system," she adds.
"The process encourages independent individuals to come forth, but not alternative political parties," says fellow observer Tan Qingshan, a scholar from Cleveland State University in Ohio.
Yet in another sign that times are changing, the party has begun recruiting elected officials, many of them rural entrepreneurs, into its own ranks.
"This is a very wise practice because it incorporates business elites into the party," says Huang Yasheng, a political scientist at the University of Michigan.
A changing China
"It eases tensions between old ruling elites and new emerging elites," he says. "China is becoming much more heterogeneous, with the rich and the poor, entrepreneurs and farmers, and the party should reflect those changes," Professor Huang says. "And as the party becomes more diverse, seeking to work out diverging interests could evolve into a nascent system of checks and balances."
Just as the village elections were helping to change the party from within, Huang says "regional governments are acting as checks on Beijing's power, resulting in a form of economic federalism."
Even within the central government, a separation of powers is emerging, and he adds that the national legislature has been throwing off its image as a rubber stamp congress.
National People's Congress (NPC) head Qiao Shi has begun issuing calls to replace "rule by man" with "rule by law," and to make the congress the "ultimate source of authority" in China. Mr. Qiao closed a recent meeting of the NPC in Beijing by saying that "without democracy, China cannot maintain its modernization drive or its socialist system."
"The potential for change in the post-Deng Xiaoping era is enormous - there are already traces of it," says a government official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"With the founders of the revolution fading away, many younger leaders want to strengthen their own position by reining in the center's power," he says.
"And the moves China has taken toward building a legal system and the stepping stones of broader elections will feed into that trend, and build momentum for the next phase of change," continues the official.
Yet in the area of elections, China's leadership has hesitated even to predict when they might be extended to the cities, which have long been the center of political discontent.
"The party leaders started the elections in the countryside because they know the peasants support them," says Huang. "The outcome is much less predictable in the cities,where you could see whole blocs of party members voted out of office."