What is an election?

This past week, I learned that I didn’t know how Chinese elections are actually organized, a confessional moment that speaks to the heart of how deeply cultural assumptions construct my understanding of Shenzhen. (Oh yes, reader beware!) I thought that as a citizen of the – land of the free, home of relentless election campaigning even when its not an election year – United States, I knew what it meant when a Chinese newspaper printed pictures of Chinese people voting.

What did I think and how did I learn I was wrong?

This past week, the Shenzhen Arts Federation (深圳市文学艺术节联合会)held its sixth representative meeting (第六次代表大会). Other than reporting on the successes and challenges of the past seven years since the fifth representative meeting,one of the items on the 6th meeting agenda was to elect standing members (委员) who would the elect the chair and other federation officials. I know several of the representatives who trudged off to Xiangmihu for several days of meetings and then, the election. When they returned, I asked what they had done.

I had thought that even if an election was rigged and participants understood who they should vote for, nevertheless, there was a choice involved. A ballet would have (at least) two candidate names and then representatives would choose one person and drop their ballet in the box. I arrived at this understanding of what a Chinese election is because the Chinese media publishes and broadcasts so many pictures of representatives crossing the floor in front of the leaders’ platform to drop large ballets into even larger ballet boxes. I was wrong.

I was actually seeing the confirmation of a nomination. At the 6th Arts, for example, there was only one candidate for each position. The representatives’ job was to endorse or reject the nominee’s candidacy; with a 60% quorum, the nomination passed and a new group of standing members was elected. Subsequently, the ordinary representatives went home, and the standing members elected ranking officials from their group. In other words, the politicking took place before the confirmation as various people jostled to get their name on the ballet.

In this sense, to think “The Chinese Communist Party is controls everything in China” is a correct statement that cripples any understanding of how political power in the PRC operates. It is correct that Communists occupy most positions of power. It also true that independents are starting to throw their hats into elections. However, it is not true that all Communists think alike or even have remotely similar political ideals. In this all important sense, the CCP does not control everything precisely because it is not a monolith; joining the CCP merely indicates political aspiration, it does not reveal an individual’s political agenda.

In the United States, we think joining a Party indicates political political belief. Indeed, we expect Democrats and Republicans and Mad Hatters to have recognizable and distinct agendas, which candidates present and debate. In turn, people make choices between these agendas. And that is what I think an election is and what it is supposed to do. In contrast, in China, distinguishing between agendas takes place as debates within the Party. Thus, it is possible (and all too often the case) that leaders in Shenzhen and Guangzhou, Wuhan and Harbin will have very different political agendas and have achieved power through antagonistic alliances.

I am now wondering if it might be more useful to think of Chinese elections as confirmation hearings. Advantages of this understanding? One, this formulation highlights how the appointment process actually takes place. Folks in government jostle for positions and then at certain times push forward a nominee (not a candidate). And two, this formulation reminds Americans that our noisy election system, notwithstanding, many of the people currently in charge of our public lives were not elected, but nominated and appointed through processes very similar to Chinese style elections.

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