And Finally

Athens on the Yangtze

China experiments with voting systems, including one from ancient Greece

Red ballot

Say ‘Chinese Democracy’ to most Americans and they will think you are referring to an album by Guns N’ Roses. But surprisingly enough China is experimenting with democracy, albeit on a limited scale.

The latest step was taken this week when Shenzhen gained its first directly elected local official. True, the election was open only to Chinese Communist Party members, but it was a breakthrough nevertheless.

The winner was Qiu Zhankai, who narrowly beat fellow candidate Zu Yuqin. The pair had been whittled down from an initial field of 75 and during the seven month electoral process had to give speeches and answer questions from audiences. In winning the largest number of votes Qiu became the first directly elected secretary of a Party committee in a major Chinese city.

Shenzhen has always been a city of experimentation. But voting experiments have also been going on in other parts of China for several years. Pingchang County in Sichuan was the first county where party members elected the party secretaries of their townships, for instance. British author Mark Leonard visited Pinchang in 2006 and was told by the county’s party secretary: “Our economy is not well developed but our experiments in democracy are.”

And according to Cheng Li, a director of research at the Brookings Institute, around 680,000 villages have now staged elections.

But perhaps the most interesting experiment Leonard came across – was from Zeguo, a prosperous township in Zhejiang province.

Here a novel technique called ‘deliberative polling’ was used to decide how to spend the township’s public works budget.

A random sample of 275 citizens was chosen by lot and were then briefed for a day on the pros and cons of 30 potential projects – ranging from a sewage plant to a new town square. They were asked to choose 12 from the list that, in aggregate, came within the township’s Rmb40 million ($5.84 million) budget.

After they had voted, their collective decision was then implemented by the local government.

This was the first time this technique had been used anywhere in the world – it was conceived in the US by the Stanford political scientist, James Fishkin. Of course, the idea is not entirely original. Fishkin says its harks back to the Athenian style of democracy, where important public decisions would be voted on by a small proportion of the citizenry chosen by lot.

Somewhat less reminiscent of the age of Pericles: the 275 citizens of Zeguo got a free bus pas and Rmb50 as an incentive to take part in the election process.


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