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Cultivating Democracy in China

Asia: Township's illegal election gains support of an influential journal that argues that voting reforms would wither corruption and boost faith in leaders.


BEIJING — As China's leaders hunker down before a major government reshuffle later this year, an influential journal here has taken the bold step of advocating an illegal political activity: democratic local elections.

In a collection of articles, the latest issue of China Reform argues that the government should allow townships to directly choose their leaders. Although village elections have become commonplace, expanding the franchise to cover the nation's 45,000 townships--each of which governs several villages--would represent a great leap forward in political liberalization.

It's a leap expressly outlawed by China's Constitution. But local democratization is an "inevitable trend" that the Communist Party must follow if rampant corruption is to be stamped out and people's faith in their leaders restored, the magazine suggests.

The journal focuses on the example of Buyun, a township in inland Sichuan province that defied the rules in 1998 and held a direct election to choose the local leader. Buyun, one of the articles declares, could serve as a model for the rest of the country and usher in an era of political reform as significant as China's sweeping economic changes of the past two decades.

"History has given us another pleasant surprise," said the article, written under the name Ri Yueming. "Buyun's direct election of its township head may be China's biggest opportunity in the 21st century."

The four articles are daring in their content and timing.

The Beijing regime is gearing up for an important Communist Party Congress this fall, a changing of the guard that will see a new president emerge and many senior figures retire. The government has battened down the hatches and is eager to quash dissent, even as infighting and factionalism take place behind the scenes.

In addition, China's townships are in the middle of picking new leaders, which happens once every three years through a mostly rubber-stamp process under strict Communist Party control. A circular issued by the central government last summer sternly reminded local officials that direct township elections like Buyun's are prohibited.

By urging greater liberalization of a process that is underway, China Reform is flying close to the sun. The magazine says that Beijing has two choices for achieving long-term stability: constantly throw money at local governments to buy their quiescence or democratize them.

"It's very, very bold," Yawei Liu, an expert on Chinese village elections who works at the Carter Center in Atlanta, said of the articles.

What brought about their publication during such a sensitive time and in as prominent a journal as China Reform--a monthly magazine that circulates widely among academics and policymakers--is unclear. Was it the work of a risk-taking editor? Or was it endorsed--or even engineered--by a powerful patron able to protect the magazine from fallout?

The journal is sponsored by the Office of Structural Reform of China's State Council, or Cabinet. Its editorial board is stocked with liberal scholars and with well-known, reform-minded economists allied with Premier Zhu Rongji. Its honorary editor, Wu Jinglian, is Zhu's top economic advisor.

One editor, contacted by phone, was reluctant to speak about the series on Buyun but insisted that the articles were conceived by the magazine on its own.

It was an apt time to revisit the issue, the editor said, because Buyun held another election for township chief last month. This time, officials there skirted charges of breaking the law by adding an extra step to the process: ratification of the election result by a local congress. Election observers describe it as a superfluous formality, one that did not affect the free and open vote Dec. 31 by nearly 5,000 residents.

"The election in Buyun was both legal and reasonable, so we reported it," the editor said. "I don't think the articles will bring us any negative consequences."

Still, by holding up Buyun's 1998 election as a model, China Reform is opposing the Communist Party line.

The articles include a report on last month's vote, analyses of the 1998 election, and what amounts to a personal manifesto and meditation on the benefits of democracy by Buyun's township chief, Tan Xiaoqiu.

"I was elected by the people, and every promise I made during the campaign is a debt," Tan wrote. "I was a [party] cadre for 10 years and never had this feeling of indebtedness before. It is this feeling that spurs me to serve the people wholeheartedly."

His election in 1998 came as a shock to the central government. Village balloting, though often flawed, has been a staple of the vast Chinese countryside for more than a decade. But elections in townships, which represent the bottom rung of formal government, have been off-limits.

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