China takes democracy to the countryside, via 'soaps'

Former US President Jimmy Carter is in China for talks on village-level elections.

Big Hou is not a real person. He is the peasant hero of a Chinese soap opera set in a fictional north China hamlet. Mr. Hou, using his wits and a set of dusty village laws, takes on Little Devil Huang - the corrupt son of the trusted-but-aging village Party leader, Old Huang.

By the end of "Big Official Hou," a 22-part mixture of comedy and political education on China Central TV, villagers learn of their right to toss out the leader's son and elect Hou.

China's concern about a restless countryside is evident in this TV soap opera and other initiatives here: experimental media and TV campaigns, more backing of village elections that give peasants a say-so, local investment schemes, and an unusually frank dialogue in Communist Party circles about a potentially explosive erosion of trust by villagers in their local officials.

It's one of China's oldest conundrums - how to keep control and stability among its vast peasantry, some 800 to 900 million poor and less educated villagers. And it's become more even important as China prepares to join the World Trade Organization later this year, amid struggles over new reforms to allow private entrepreneurs into the 80-year old Communist party structure.

"Who gets to recognize the problem of the peasants in China is an open question. The government is very concerned to show it understands," says Robert Gray, a Canadian research scholar in south China who brought "Big Official Hou" to Western notice. "Why else would the Party put a soap opera on national TV that exposes its own corruption, and where the hero is not a Party member?"

Countryside concerns are clear in rural elections. Since the 1998 introduction of more liberal election laws, says China's Ministry of Civil Affairs, some 801,000 villages hold "council elections" every three years, and 3.5 million rural Chinese hold elected positions.

Such developments on village democracy in China.are being noted at a conference now underway at an isolated retreat 35 miles outside Beijing. The discussions are organized by former US president Jimmy Carter and his Atlanta-based Carter Center, in cooperation with China's Ministry of Civil Affairs. Participants here have said that, in recent years, people assumed elections would bring "enhanced democracy" or a "silent revolution", and would quickly spread from villages to larger towns.

Yet, in sessions yesterday, elections were discussed more as a complex safety valve for dealing with problems of official corruption and unhappiness in the countryside. Also, participants have quelled the assumptions that Chinese officials would extend the elections from countryside to village.

Research on the subject "looked too closely at elections, and paid too little attention to how elections relate to the dynamics of power in the countryside," said Mark Seldon, a presenter from Binghampton University in New York.

"Elections [are seen by many today] as less an initiative to give farmers democratic rights than a much-needed reaction to the breakdown of state authority in the countryside," noted conference director Yawei Liu. "The vacuum in local leadership ... led to fierce clan rivalry ... corrupt practices and extreme localism, all of which threatened the stability of China's rural areas."

In a speech, Mr. Carter, who on Wednesday is scheduled to observe a village election in Anhui Province outside Shanghai, urged Chinese officials to extend the possibility of elections to the millions of Chinese living in towns. "I would hope that, in the future, a five or 10-year plan would ... apply [election laws] to all officials at the township level."

Carter praised plans to increase elections to 10 more provinces in China. He also noted that more local votes are by secret ballot, and that villagers choose the term of office for their representatives, nominating them free from Communist Party interference.

Yet, Carter also pointed to evidence of ballot-box stuffing, disruption by party officials, and lack of reliable statistics to show how far the 1998 laws have spread.

Long-time China watchers, such as Merle Goldman of Harvard University, say China is not ready to expand the voting franchise. "In a village, everyone knows everyone," says Dr. Goldman. "But, in the larger towns, the party would not be able to control the different groups and factions that will start to organize an independent opposition."

A common theme in the Carter Center conference, is the many instances of interference by local Chinese officials in village polls. Chinese laws do not yet offer legal protection or judicial resort for holding fair elections in the villages, or for resolving the problems that often arise when party officials interfere.

"That would be the next step ... giving the Ministry of Civil Affairs [the central Beijing body that administers local elections] the leverage to deal with local officials," said one US observer.

But, village democracy is an especially sensitive subject during the run-up to the 16th Communist Party Congress next year, when the party will announce its new leadership.

The issue is so sensitive that the "Big Official Hou" soap opera, shown last April and May, has not been replayed on Chinese TV - partly, say sources, because of debate over whether encouraging rural Chinese to challenge authority is a safe idea.

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