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  •   The Story of an Official
    A Quiet Bureaucrat, Promoting
    The Vote One Village at a Time

        Wang Zhenyao photo
    Thanks in large part to Wang Zhenyao, about half of Chinese villages have held elections in the last decade. (The Washington Post)
    First of five articles

    By Steven Mufson
    Washington Post Foreign Service
    Sunday, June 14, 1998; Page A1

    BEIJING – In July 1989, about a month after Chinese troops killed hundreds of civilians in a crackdown on student-led protests in Tiananmen Square, a little-known official named Wang Zhenyao from China's Ministry of Civil Affairs traveled to a village in the northeastern province of Liaoning to oversee a democratic election.

    Wang traveled with one of the vice ministers, who nervously wondered aloud whether it wasn't an inopportune time to be promoting grass-roots democracy. "The word democracy had become unmentionable," Wang recalls.

    Not to worry, Wang reassured the vice minister. If the local officials were supportive, there would be no problem, he said. The balloting went off without any serious hitches.

    Nearly a decade later, genuine elections have become commonplace in roughly half of China's 928,000 villages, thanks in large part to the self-effacing Wang, who has crisscrossed China's vast countryside training local officials in the most elementary principles of democracy and democratic procedures.

    That may seem like an uncommon achievement for a bureaucrat in what is still a Communist state. But Wang is just part of a remarkable new elite in and outside China's government that is beginning to transform the country at the turn of a new century.

    They are the most talented portion of the Cultural Revolution generation, a group comparable to the baby boomers of the West that for the most part lost its way amid the political and economic upheaval that racked China from 1966 through 1976. The few who, like Wang, managed to claw their way back into universities and get their careers back on track are self-starters who learned hard lessons about their society and its political system.

    Now, they're hitting the peaks of their careers, carrying with them the indelible marks of that earlier time. Though less well-known internationally than the country's senior leaders, these people in their late thirties and forties are reshaping China's one-party politics, its booming businesses and its culture. Many of them believe that in the next century, they are likely to make China a more stable country with greater democracy, a more open and capitalist economy, and far greater personal freedom.

    Fujian election/File
    Villagers in Fujian province line up to vote as officials ready the ballots.
    (File Photo)
    In the case of the village democracy program that Wang has championed, the changes are in some ways subtle so far. The experiment has been confined to communities averaging about 1,000 residents, and political parties other than the Communists are not allowed. In many places vote-buying and ballot-rigging are problems. Still, any resident may be a candidate for the freely elected village council, which has the power to levy taxes and manages local services and schools.

    Wang estimates that he has visited about 1,000 villages, from Gansu province, the gateway to China's far west, to Shaoshan in Hunan province, where villagers gave him a small copper statue of their famous native son, the late Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, who ruled China like a latter-day emperor. The statue stands on his bookshelves at home, near an encyclopedic series on Chinese history and a Chinese translation of the 19th-century classic by Alexis de Tocqueville, "Democracy in America."

    In every place he has visited, Wang has approached local officials with a disarming, "aw shucks" air about him, prodding them to adopt more open primaries and procedures to ensure voter privacy. At the same time, he has deftly worked China's bureaucracy, tapped into different personal networks, and at times called on old friends in provincial governments or in the national media to pressure recalcitrant local officials.

    Building democracy, Wang said, "is like rolling snowballs. At first you have just a little bit. Then more and more."

    In early 1995, the weather in Jilin province was certainly cold enough for snowballs. Wang trekked there to observe elections in Lishu, a county Wang was cultivating as a model of rural democracy. Though it seemed as though the cold would lower voter turnout, Wang had learned that during good weather peasants are too busy in the fields to vote.

    In Dongbaishan, population 1,300, people braved subfreezing temperatures to listen to candidates in a decrepit schoolroom with faded pictures of Albert Einstein, Madame Curie and other scientists staring down from the walls. Smoke seeped from a coal stove and mixed with cigarette smoke billowing from peasants. Soon it was barely possible to see across the crowded room.

    Page Two | Printable Full Text

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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