What’s Happened To Democracy In China?: Elections, Law And Political Reform


By Jacques deLisle


Since the beginning of the post-Mao Reform Era at the end of the 1970s, China has put in place, and revised, legal rules and practices for elections to People’s Congresses, the representative organs in the Chinese state that exist in a tiered structure from sub-county to national levels[2]. Throughout the period, and despite some broad cross-national similarities and some fluctuations in Chinese practice, the PRC’s system has consistently differed in fundamental ways from elections in the U.S. and other liberal democracies. Indeed, China’s top leaders, including President and Chinese Communist Party General Secretary Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao, have declared that Western-style democracy is unsuited to China.

Direct elections for representatives occur only at the county and township level People’s Congresses. Indirect elections being the rule for the Provincial People’s Congresses and the National People’s Congress (NPC).

For the direct elections to the lower-level bodies, Chinese authorities stress near-universal participation—something which has long been a feature of elections in communist systems. Legally, all adult citizens are eligible voters, with the exception of those formally deprived of political rights (a sanction that is sometimes imposed as part of a criminal sentence) or judged psychologically unfit to vote. Prior to each election, the registration group within each election committee (the state organ that oversees all phases of the electoral process at each level) attempts to achieve compulsory registration, with the goal of signing up over 95% of eligible voters. Although official sources often declare success, the actual rates are usually much lower, with some informed assessments estimating between 40% and 50%.

Eligibility to run for deputy is in principle very broad, but in practice significantly narrower. In county and township People’s Congress elections, any registered voter found mentally fit by the election committee is legally eligible to pursue candidacy. Ten or more voters have the right to nominate a candidate. In reality, voters’ choices are much more constrained. Election committees often play significant roles as gatekeepers (as is illustrated by the county-level contests discussed below) and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Committee makes most nominations.

Procedures for delimiting electoral constituencies and conducting elections are complex and opaque. These features raise additional concerns about the degree of connection between electorates’ preferences and electoral outcomes. Voters can be divided into constituencies based on many demographic factors—rural or urban residence, work unit, other living conditions, and so on. Districts also may be represented by one, two or three deputies. Chinese election rules include dozens of bases for delineating constituencies.

Voting and counting procedures have raised concerns among observers and critics as well. Voters can cast their ballots in person at fixed or mobile polling station or, for voters absent from their home districts, through a designated proxy. Use of a secret ballot has not been strictly required in practice, notwithstanding a longstanding mandate in the election law. Counting of ballots often occurs with little meaningful oversight and no independent review. After the votes are tallied, the election committee often announces only the winning candidates’ names. Vote totals and percentages are not consistently disclosed.

This low level of transparency in elections and high degree of control by the CCP and election committees are among the indications that democratic reforms in China have remained limited, even for very low-level organs, despite the universal implementation of direct elections for Local People’s Congresses. A full assessment of the state of electoral reform, and its implications for democratic reform, requires more systematic scholarly and empirical research on the conduct of local People’s Congress elections, as well as the indirect elections for Provincial People’s Congress and NPC deputies and the selection of other government officials.


A hopeful, but mixed, development has been the efforts of independent candidates in recent Local People’s Congress elections. Although such candidates often faced significant hardships and insuperable impediments and their efforts drew little media attention, the Local People’s Congress elections in 2006-2007, and the foundations laid in earlier elections, were significant milestones that could point to further progress.

The first Local People’s Congress elections conducted under the then-newly-in-force Election Law for the Local People’s Congresses brought forth an unexpected surge of independent candidates, especially in constituencies that were based in universities and, in a few cases, factories. The most prominent among these candidates for the 1980 elections were inspired by, and embraced, ideas then circulating among the Democracy Wall-sparked pro-democracy movement. Amid untested and relatively liberal rules for candidate nominations and campaign activities and under procedural rules that held out the possibility of several rounds of run-off elections to yield a 50% share for winners, candidates taking heterodox stands made remarkable headway.

At Peking University, philosophy graduate student and free-speech advocate Hu Ping prevailed in an election where he and other independent student candidates (including Wang Juntao, later sentenced to a lengthy prison term for his role in the 1989 Tiananmen Movement) grappled over issues ranging from political reform proposals floated by Party insiders to radically democratizing alternatives that would have transformed the system. Similarly yeasty contests occurred at Hunan Teachers College in Changsha (where candidate Liang Heng later penned a political autobiography) and on other campuses and in industrial enterprises. Authorities denied Hu a seat and intervened earlier in the process to scuttle the electoral fortunes of Liang and like-minded candidates at his school and elsewhere. Such openness did not recur during the ensuing period.[3]

An early breakthrough in the more recent period occurred in 1998, when Yao Lifa (who had run and lost, amid opposition from his state employers and local authorities, in 1987, 1990 and 1993) became the first independent candidate elected to a municipal-level People’s Congress, winning a seat in Qianjiang, Hubei. His victory and subsequent advocacy for local people’s rights, questioning of government policies and pressing of pro-democracy agendas that ran counter to established Party policy attracted much attention across the province and beyond. When the next round of Local People’s Congress elections was held in 2003, the number of independent candidates sharply increased. Nearly 100 ran in Shenzhen, Beijing and urban areas in Hubei. While most lost to CCP-nominated rivals, a small minority won.

The success of Yao Lifa in 1998 and the 2003 upsurge in independent candidates, and modest increase in victorious independent candidates, led to high expectations among some advocates and scholars that the 2006 election would bring further change, backed by purported central government support for ongoing democratic reforms in Local People’s Congress elections. Although available data makes a precise count impossible, independent candidacies apparently did increase significantly for the 2006 round of elections. Many tens of thousands of independent candidates ran in both rural and urban elections around the country, from city districts in Beijing to the countryside in Shanxi and Chongqing.

Once again, however, independent candidates did not gain many seats. Local officials dimmed independent candidates’ prospects through a variety of means. They used their considerable discretion to gerrymander constituencies in ways adverse to non-establishment candidates. They also kept independent candidates from appearing on ballots by invalidating their registrations or intimidating them and their nominators and supporters. The NPC and the CCP Propaganda Department adopted measures banning media reports on local elections and forbidding neutral and expert observers from actively monitoring elections. Many official pronouncements denounced the wave of independent candidacies, accusing the banned Falun Gong movement and other “hostile forces” of attempting to use the local elections to usurp Party control. In some cases, the authorities’ control over proxy voting and mobile ballot boxes prompted charges of manipulation and fraud. In the end, only a handful of independent candidates were declared victors in the 2006 elections.

A few cases illustrate the nascent democratic potential and persisting severe limits of elections during this period. Lu Banglie, a peasant from Hubei province, had been drawn to politics when the local government continued to extract the then-heavy tax levies on farmers in his area in the wake of a severe, impoverishing drought. He soon became an ardent advocate for greater democracy at the village level (including that promised, but often not implemented, in laws and official policies), popular knowledge of legal rights, and transparency of local finance—positions that reportedly prompted a severe beating at the instigation of local authorities.[4]

Lu was one of the few independent candidates who won in the 2003 elections, having been elected to the Zhijiang City People’s Congress. During his tenure, Lu became a prominent figure in the controversy over the internationally famous efforts by residents of Taishi village, Guangdong province, to oust—through petitions and escalating protests—a leader they complained was corrupt. In an incident that generated much coverage at home and abroad and a sharp dispute between the U.K’s Guardian newspaper and official Chinese media, a British journalist who traveled with Lu to Taishi reported that Lu was severely beaten by thugs, seemingly at the instigation of local authorities, and Chinese reports countered with claims that the violence had been greatly exaggerated and Lu’s and the reporter’s unlawful attempt to enter the area had triggered the confrontation.[5]

In the run-up to the 2006 elections, Lu also planned to popularize among his constituents knowledge of new, more poor-peasant national policies on rural affairs. The local authorities in Zhijiang appeared resolutely determined to prevent Lu’s reelection. Lu managed to raise roughly 7000 RMB for his reelection campaign, a respectable sum (a little over US$1000) given his meager income. But the local Party reportedly spent nearly 1.5 million RMB opposing him.

In addition, the local government offered inducements to voters, for example, promising them healthcare access, improved public works and other subsidies on the understood condition that they spurn Lu. There were also widespread reports of police and other official and quasi-official intimidation of voters; threats, beating and detention of the candidate himself; and a variety of efforts to impede Lu’s and voters’ access to one another. Unsurprisingly, Lu lost his bid for reelection.

Yao Lifa, who had lost his bid for reelection in 2003 in the face of what he and his supporters characterized as an unfair election and amid determined opposition from local authorities (and who had become a prominent advocate for democratic reform and publicly backed the Taishi villagers), ran again and lost again in 2006. In the 2006 campaign, he and his helpers and followers faced recurrent harassment and brief detentions by the police, a determination that Yao’s initial home constituency must be represented by a woman, scurrilous rumors about Yao that appeared to come from local officials and bans on campaign activities that the candidate and his backers insisted conformed to the law. Yao also saw the 2006 book recounting his experiences as an independent member of the People’s Congress banned shortly after publication.[6]

Another notable candidacy is that of Jiang Shan, an information technology professional who moved to Shenzhen, the city neighboring Hong Kong, in 1997. After purchasing an apartment in 2003, Jiang began to pay attention to property right issues. He realized how often the rights of residents were undermined by real estate and development companies in the rapidly changing city that had been a largely rural area in 1979 when central authorities designated it as one of China’s initial four Special Economic Zones and launched its meteoric growth.

Beginning around 2003, residents in Jiang’s part of Shenzhen tried several approaches to assert and restore their property rights, including organizing themselves into a residents’ group, filing complaints with the government, hiring a lawyer to bring an administrative litigation suit, and appealing to the media. None of these efforts, some of which Jiang helped lead, succeeded. Against this background of frustration, Jiang decided to run as an independent candidate in the Shenzhen Municipal People’s Congress elections. As Jiang saw it, the People’s Congress had the power, at least in principle, to address the residents’ problems: according to the PRC Constitution and a series of formally empowering revisions to the organic law for People’s Congresses, the People’s Congress at each level is superior to, and has the authority to supervise, the government and the courts—the state organs that had failed to provide residents with the redress they had sought.

Jiang began his campaign by trying to mobilize area residents through writing letters, sending text messages, distributing cards, and hanging banners. His efforts were met with formidable resistance from local authorities. His banners were taken down within a half hour. The district constituency lines were drawn to pit Jiang against the head of the Shenzhen Municipal Transportation Company, a state-linked enterprise with 4000 workers who were registered in the district and pressured to vote for their boss. Jiang was even rebuffed initially in his effort to register to vote. The purported lack of voting qualifications and other grounds were variously proffered to deny Jiang’s quest for candidacy. Only after Jiang appealed to the local court did the election committee acknowledge that Jiang was qualified to run. On election day, his name did not appear on the ballot. Jiang thus depended on a write-in campaign for the votes (well short of what he needed to prevail) that he ultimately received.

Such cases illustrate some of the many ways local power holders can impede independent candidates, undermine the formal democratic promise of the Local People’s Congress election laws, and sustain the fundamental features of the preexisting regime of elections with Chinese characteristics.


The legal rules that govern local-level People’s Congress elections in China have changed repeatedly, sometimes in ways that have increased the challenges facing independent candidates. Their reform in a more democratic direction has been and remains a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for democratic change. The PRC’s first election law was put in place in 1954, five years after the founding of the new regime. A superseding law governing elections to People’s Congresses was, along with an “organic” law defining the powers of the sub-national congresses, among the first seven basic laws of the Reform Era, adopted in July 1979. The election law has undergone five rounds of amendment, some in tandem with reforms to the organic law for the People’s Congresses, the most recent at the March 2010 NPC meeting.

The first amendments, adopted in 1982, responded to the strikingly open and contested elections and successes of independent candidates in the 1980 round of elections. The revisions reduced the threshold for victory in run-off elections to 33% of votes cast, cutting back on the multiple-round elections and accompanying extended campaigns by independent candidates that could occur under a system that had required the victor to receive 50% of the votes cast in an election with at least 50% turnout. The changes also assigned to election committees the role of briefing voters on candidates and to nominating groups the role of introducing candidates to voters at group meetings—functions the candidates largely had taken into their own hands at open and often-raucous gatherings in 1980 under a provision that permitted the use of unspecified “various methods to publicize” candidates.

In 1986, a second set of amendments required larger groups for initial nomination of candidates, reduced the minimum number of candidates required (from 3/2 to 4/3 of the number of deputies to be elected), and eliminated primary elections in favor of giving the election committees the winnowing powers, to be exercised “on the basis of the opinions of the majority of voters.” This change helped reduce the number of candidates (and especially non-establishment ones), which had remained high in elections conducted under the law, as revised in 1982.

In 1995, a third round of amendments adopted much more elaborate rules to determine the number of deputies in various People’s Congresses and made modest adjustments to the rules governing run-off elections for Local People’s Congresses. Paralleling the 1986 and 1995 revisions to the election laws, two rounds of extensive amendments to the organic laws for People’s Congresses elaborated and arguably extended such bodies’ powers to oversee government officials and courts, to conduct issue-focused investigations and to make laws suited to local conditions. They also clarified and enhanced the powers, and specified means for the selection, of chairmen and other top leaders within each People’s Congress.

A fourth amendment package in 2004 reestablished a limited primary system, one in which, unlike under the system introduced in 1979, a primary would be conducted only if election committee-organized “discussion and consultation” among voter groups—a process in which authorities could play an influential role—failed to narrow the list. Another provision revisited the question of candidates’ question-and-answer sessions with voters (which had been a target of the 1982 amendments to the original law). The new provision authorized such meetings, but largely at the discretion of the election committee, which “may” arrange them. The revised system contemplated group sessions with all candidates and did not allow candidates to campaign individually or to organize rallies or meetings on their own. Another change specifically declared invalid electoral victories obtained through bribery.

The fifth set of amendments, adopted in March 2010, were comparatively high-profile and wide-ranging. Primary among the issues addressed was inequality of representation in People’s Congresses, especially severe underrepresentation of the electorate living in the countryside. This concern had been developing as a part of the reform agenda for several years. A foundation for change was laid in 2007, when the 17th National Congress of the CCP endorsed a call to move gradually to equalize representation of urban dwellers and rural residents. In late 2008 and early 2009, the NPC’s Standing Committee included relevant revisions to the election law in its legislative plan. This agenda for reforming representation received a boost from the April 2009 National Human Rights Action Plan, which included among its many commitments improvement of democracy and citizens’ civil and political rights, including citizens’ “orderly” participation in political affairs, in part through revisions to the People’s Congress election law that tracked some of the key amendments adopted in March 2010. In late 2009, the NPC Standing Committee deliberated on draft amendments, leading to adoption of the final version during the March 2010 NPC plenary session.

The 2010 amendments provide for equal representation of citizens, regardless of rural or urban status. This alters the “4:1” rule that previously had mandated constituencies for deputies representing rural residents be four times larger in population than constituencies for deputies representing urban residents.[7] In practice, the ratio in many areas was much higher. Proportions as high as 40:1 had become common, and in some cases reached extremes of 100:1 or even 1000:1.

In addition to equalizing per capita representation of rural and urban residents, the amendments address other aspects of perceived underrepresentation with an expanded endorsement of a different type of departure from one-person one-vote norms. The revised law directs measures to assure appropriate (that is, generally higher) numbers of representatives who are members of groups with comparatively few deputies in all levels of People’s Congresses. These groups include ethnic minorities, women, Chinese returned from overseas and members of other “social sectors” and “grassroots” groups (including especially the previously unaddressed categories of workers, farmers and intellectuals) and residents of some regions (specifically, thinly populated administrative units).

The 2010 amendments also address existing laws and practices that critics have seen as giving voters too few opportunities to see and question candidates face-to-face. The revised law replaces the former language permitting election committees to organize such meetings with affirmative calls for election committees to arrange such sessions and for candidates to participate in them.

A significant portion of the amendments add sections that formally clarify and seemingly pledge to regularize election committee’s functions and responsibilities (such as determining electoral districts, registering voters, screening candidates, running elections, counting ballots and declaring winners) and to increase the accountability of these powerful and frequently criticized bodies (by placing them more clearly under the direction and control of People’s Congresses’ Standing Committees).

Another change addresses, and arguably mandates greater equality among, the roles of the Party and other institutions and groups in nominating candidates. The change limits each nominating group to a number of candidates no larger than the number of deputies to be elected in the constituency and imposes equal information disclosure requirements, and consequences for false disclosure, on all types of candidates.

Still other revisions concern protection of voters rights, including clearer and more detailed provisions that apparently promise easier access to voting opportunities, greater regularity of ballot-casting procedures, stronger rules for secret balloting, and sterner measures to supervise elections and prohibit and punish activities (including violence, corruption, bias and misinformation) that can subvert or disrupt elections.


Reformers, observers and critics point to shortcomings and uncertainties that remain in the election law that emerged from the 2010 amendment process and its likely consequences in practice. The equalization of rural and urban constituencies is not as significant a reform as it may appear. The revised law does not mandate immediate or highly specific change. Procedurally, it directs equalizing reforms to be undertaken prospectively by the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of the next higher level above each level at which each People’s Congress elections occur. Substantively, the amended law provides that reforms be undertaken “in light of specific local circumstances.”

As official sources themselves note, the mandate to equalize representation merely reflects the law catching up with demographic changes. The long-standing goal of assuring that urbanites enjoy majority representation no longer requires unbalanced constituency sizes. The officially sanctioned ratio of urban to rural deputies not falling below 1:1 can now be achieved through equal representation because China’s population has moved from being nearly 90% rural in the early 1950s when a skewed ratio was first adopted to still nearly 80% rural when the Reform-Era election law was first adopted to a 70:30 ratio at the time of the 1995 amendments, to a current population distribution that is roughly half urban and half rural.

More fundamentally, more rural deputies will not necessarily mean more peasants, or reliable representatives of peasant interests, in People’s Congresses. A large portion of deputies representing rural areas are now, and are likely to remain, local cadres and village officials who are long removed from ordinary peasant life and closely tied to higher levels of the Party and state. Roughly half of the representatives in county-level People’s Congresses are cadres and three-quarters or more of all People’s Congress deputies are CCP members. The rotten borough-correcting reforms are not expected to change radically this pattern or to trigger redress of the skewing of government-provided benefits to urban residents.

Moreover, the 2010 election law reforms did not tackle the problem that many tens of millions of people who remain formally rural residents, and thus could represent (as well as vote in) rural constituencies, are long-time urbanites. Those drafting the election law pointedly did not tackle this question, postponing it until legal and policy changes achieve further resolution of China’s evolving and nettlesome hukou or “household registry” system. While the hukou no longer binds Chinese serf-like to their home localities, changing one’s hukou remains sufficiently troublesome and, in various ways, costly that inconsistency between formal registration and residential reality is severe and widespread.

The efficacy and impact of amendments calling for more deputies drawn from the ranks of underrepresented groups are similarly problematic. Here as well, the substantive and procedural commitments are loose, mandating gradual increases to reach “appropriate” numbers or leaving the details largely to the discretion of local People’s Congresses to adjust in light of “local circumstances.” With respect to some of the underrepresented groups, as with rural residents, formal categorization may not track social reality.

The provision for fixing what critics see as inadequate opportunities for in-person exchanges between voters and constituents does not unambiguously require, and thus is far from certain to produce, significant change. The earlier law had provided that election committees “can” or “may” (keyi) organize face-to-face meetings, something they did sparingly at best.

The provision on candidate-public meetings adopted in 2010 states that election committees “should” or, on a stronger reading, “shall” organize such meetings. The drafters here used a chronically murky Chinese term—yinggai—that cannot be fully translated as either “shall” or “should” and that has bedeviled legal translators and lawyers dealing with the many Chinese laws in which it appears. On any reading, the directive in the 2010 amendment is a relatively weak one (compared to, say, a mandate that election committees “must” arrange such meetings) and is correspondingly less likely to be followed by a sharp reduction in nonconforming behavior. Even the strongest reading of the revised article stops short of promising rights to relatively unfettered campaigning.

Other new rules concerning the roles of election committees at all stages from registration to vote counting and the rules on nominating candidates are potentially double-edged swords. They arguably reinforce the formidable authority of election committees and push Party committees and local authorities to be more effective and efficient in nominating candidates. Much the same can be said about a provision that purports to protect voters by mandating exposure, by the election committee, of candidates who provide “false” personal information.

The revised law also remains disconcertingly ambiguous on important procedural issues, including qualification of voters, nomination of candidates, counting of ballots, resolution of electoral disputes, and voting by proxy. Of particular concern is the failure to adopt clearer rules on election procedures and stronger means for verifying adherence to proper procedures, leaving too many opportunities for manipulation. Some see these omissions as showing a continued lack of effective legal protections for citizens’ rights to vote and run for office.

In addition, provisions in the amended law that promise to improve elections face significant risk of unsatisfactory implementation. The phenomenon is widely acknowledged as a widespread and serious one for Chinese laws. Poor implementation is especially pronounced where a law threatens entrenched local power-holders, as some provisions in the revised election law can. Past implementation difficulties with the laws governing local People’s Congresses are tacitly acknowledged in the content of many of the procedural, institutional and sanction-mandating components of the 2010 amendments and in authoritative official commentaries on the need for those amendments.

Finally, critics and observers also point to elements in post-amendment electoral law that, by design or in practice, will continue to restrict the openness and competitiveness of elections. These can help sustain a system in which deputies at all levels of People’s Congresses are more likely to be unable or unfit to perform functions that many democratic systems expect of lawmakers and representatives. In this respect, the remarks by NPC Chairman Wu Bangguo and NPC Standing Committee Legislative Affairs Commission Deputy Director Li Fei seemed telling. At the NPC session that adopted the 2010 electoral law changes, and echoing broader rejections of foreign liberal-democratic models by other top leaders, Wang stressed that China would never “copy” Western-style democratic systems and Li pointedly criticized Western-style elections as “a game for the rich” that leads to dominance by a moneyed minority.


Although advocates for democratic reform generally see the fifth round of amendments to the People’s Congress election law as a move in the right direction, they see it is a small and slow step in a long journey on which short, medium and long term objectives will require significant additional changes.

In the short term, better protection of Chinese citizens’ political rights is the most immediate concern. Formal equalization of rural and urban representation and other 2010 reforms to the law on the books are positive and necessary changes. But a sensible near-term agenda would focus on full implementation of those promises and pursue further reforms to effectuate constitutional principles of equal franchise and to strengthen and clarify election procedures and election law enforcement—tasks that the 2010 reforms left undone.

In the medium-term, the size of People’s Congresses needs to be limited if they are to function as effective deliberative bodies. The problem is most severe in the NPC, where the deputies number three thousand. In so large a body (and one that is so rarely in session), the legally weighty rights and responsibilities of individual deputies have little practical significance in lawmaking practices. Legislative work is inevitably left largely to the NPC Standing Committee and other NPC committees and staff, with much influence from institutions outside the NPC.

Although lower-level People’s Congresses are less unwieldy bodies, they do share some of the same problematic traits. On this issue, provisions in the 2010 electoral law reforms raising the size limits for some local People’s Congresses, and prior amendments to the organic law for People’s Congresses expanding the powers of standing committees, chairmen and vice chairmen, are causes for some concern.

In the long run, perhaps nothing less than a redefinition of basic principles and structures of Chinese election law will suffice to deliver citizens’ democratic rights. Such reforms might include a government body that manages and supervises elections in a neutral way, election procedures that meet international standards for freedom and fairness, candidate selection mechanisms that facilitate genuinely competitive contests, and an independent judiciary to adjudicate claims of election law violations.

Prospects for such reforms depend partly on social pressures to undertake them. Demand among ordinary citizens for political participation has grown markedly in recent years, especially among young college-educated urbanites. This group, which has fielded an outsized share of the independent candidates in several rounds of Local People’s Congress elections, can be expected to remain politically interested and active for decades. So far, the regime has shown little interest in reforming political institutions to accommodate this changing social landscape.

The channels for meaningful influence, accordingly, remain few and narrow. The CCP wields great influence but remains closed to many heterodox ideas. Direct elections, sometimes genuinely contested and contentious ones, are held for village and neighborhood committees, but the positions bring little influence and few opportunities for advancement to more significant political posts. Independent candidacies for Local People’s Congress thus remain arguably the most meaningful institutionalized channel for autonomous political influence. Yet authorities have been resistant to seeing it flourish, as is reflected in the reaction to electoral wins by independent candidates such as Yao Lifa and Lu Banglie and the prospect of victories by others, such as Jiang Shan. Still, the Chinese regime remains adaptable and resilient. If political participation and social demand for such participation increasingly outstrips the capacity of existing political institutions, there is reason to hope that the official response will be stronger, more accommodating institutionalization rather than risky and possibly futile attempts to suppress social demands and stifle forces for change.

Ongoing developments portend growing demand for political participation and thus may brighten prospects for democratic reforms. After three decades of change unleashed by reformist economic policies and despite the absence of a robust top-down program of political reform, the relative power of state and society has been changing in China. Although the current alignment remains strongly tilted in favor of the state (and Party), the balance is shifting slowly but significantly. Although many proponents of a bigger society and smaller state understandably view the fate of independent candidates in the 2006 elections as disheartening, the number of people seeking to run and the support they garnered against daunting odds and formidable pressures are promising signs of what may follow. So too is the emergent call to increase the share of People’s Congress deputies who are lawyers and, thus, presumably or at least hopefully more skilled in making laws and more committed to rule of law values.

Beyond the local elections for representative bodies, there are other indicia of growing political participation and the rising power of society. Intraparty democracy—broadening the range of views represented within the CCP—has been limited in design and practice and partly cooptative, but it is a form of broadened representation of social interests in political institutions that wield power. Local level movements and reforms to improve the quality and transparency of governance are one example. Another is the emergence of local government budgeting processes that include sustained consultation with residents or public hearings or, at least, much greater transparency. Especially in more wealthy areas, this has come partly in response to a rising sense among citizens that the money in the budget is theirs, not the state’s, and that too much of it is being spent wastefully or for the benefit of the well-connected or on low-priority projects. Still another example is the rise of the rights protection (weiquan) movement, spearheaded by public interest and public-spirited lawyers who bring cases to vindicate ordinary citizens’ rights, often when those rights are imperiled by state action. Much farther down this path might lay movement toward full-fledged democratic elections.

Underpinning such changes and pressures for further change are several broader and likely enduring social and economic trends:

1. Groups that are already highly interested in autonomous political participation—including relatively young college-degree-holding city-dwellers—are growing comparatively rapidly as urbanization, post-secondary education and per capita incomes rise.

2. More broadly, as more Chinese own property, operate private enterprises and work in professional jobs, they will seek and expect ever-greater opportunities for political participation, including in the form of selecting People’s Congress deputes, at least to the extent that such bodies come to wield real power over important matters such as government budgets. This general pattern has been common internationally, and there is little evidence that China will be a singular outlier.

3. Reform in China also has meant opening to influences from the outside world, including those relevant to political change. Global norms and pressures for democratization helped foster democratic reforms in Hong Kong and Taiwan and have brought greater pressure on China to accept the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and international human rights more broadly, including democratic rights.

Such trends and forces favoring democratic change in China have not reached the threshold of triggering major systemic reform. How they will play out and how PRC authorities at various levels will respond to them remain unknown and, indeed, unknowable. Their connections to the current state of election laws and practices for Local People’s Congresses are complicated and perhaps ambivalent. Such elections may be the tip of the iceberg of irresistible forces for democratic change or, less hopefully, the canary in the coal mine should PRC authorities opt for suppression over accommodation.

Jacques deLisle is Director of FPRI’s Asia Program and the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. This article was published by FPRI (http://www.fpri.org) and reprinted with permission.

This article is based on a panel discussion FPRI co-sponsored with the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the University of Pennsylvania Center for East Asian Studies in May 2009 and follow-up discussions among several of the panel participants in China in March 2010, supplemented by publicly available sources. Participants included Li Fan[1], director of the World and China Institute, a Chinese NGO that focuses on elections and political reform, Jiang Shan, an independent candidate in the 2006 Shenzhen Local People’s Congress elections, Qiu Jiajun, a researcher at the Election and People’s Congress Study Center, Fudan University (China’s only academic center dedicated to studying elections), and Zhou Meiyan, a professional staff member in the Minhang District People’s Congress, Shanghai, Amy Gadsden, FPRI Senior Fellow and Associate Dean and Executive Director of International Programs at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, and Jacques deLisle.


1. Some of the issues discussed here are also addressed in Li Fan, “Is Chinese Democracy Sustainable,” International Journal (Spring 2006), pp. 359-370.

2. Since the middle 1980s, China has also established a regime for elections at the village level in the countryside. While these village elections are for positions that do affect governance in rural areas, they are formally outside the state structure (being for posts that are formally below the most local level organs of government) and are beyond the scope of the matters addressed here. The principal law on village elections was adopted in a trial form in 1987, in a more permanent version in 1998, and has been undergoing an amendment process in parallel with that which produced the 2010 changes to the law on People’s Congress elections that are a focus here.

3. The 1980 elections were not a significant focus of the panel and discussions that are the principal bases of this report. This account of the 1980 elections is drawn primarily from Andrew J. Nathan, Chinese Democracy (1985) pp. 193-223.

4. Lu’s earlier career was not discussed at the panel and discussions that are recounted here. For an account of these issues, see Manfred Elfstrom, “The Saga of a Rural Reformer,” China Elections and Governance (March 10, 2005).

5. See, for example, Jonathan Watts, “Chinese Activist Vows to Continue, Despite Beating,” The Guardian, October 12, 2005; Benjamin Joffe-Walt, “They Beat Him until He was Lifeless,” The Guardian, October 10, 2005; “The True Story about Taishi Village Incident,” China Daily, October 21, 2005; “Guardian Admits Taishi Reporting False,” China Daily, October 18, 2005.

6. Yao’s 2006 campaign was not a focus of the panel discussion. It has been extensively covered in the media and is discussed, along with independent candidacies in 2003 and 2006 more generally, in He Junzhi, “Independent Candidates in China’s Local People’s Congresses,” Journal of Contemporary China, vol. 19, no. 64 (2010) pp. 311-333.

7. The legislative provisions were more precise for representation in the NPC, with ratios falling from 8:1 in the original 1979 law to 4:1 with the 1995 amendments, with a parallel but less steep decline from less skewed baselines for Provincial People’s Congresses.

Published by the Foreign Policy Research Institute

Founded in 1955, FPRI (http://www.fpri.org/) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization devoted to bringing the insights of scholarship to bear on the development of policies that advance U.S. national interests and seeks to add perspective to events by fitting them into the larger historical and cultural context of international politics.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *