In the autumn of 1984 (five years after the birth of China's first Election Law), when Li Jianhui, 22, found himself holding the post of voting monitor, Shijingshan district, Beijing, he was enthusiastic about the prospects of grassroots democracy in China.
While counting the results of the election, however, Li observed that most of the votes had gone to the third of the five names listed on the ballot paper. Upon closer inspection of the ballot papers, Li discovered the reason.
Most voters had ticked the first three, the last three or every alternate candidate's name on the paper, thus giving the third candidate a huge advantage of being voted into office. Not surprisingly, the candidate listed third on the ballot paper won the election with the highest number of votes and took up the post as a deputy to the People's Congress - China's legislative body - in the district where Li lived.
As Li observed, "The process of voting turned out to be little more than an exercise for the wrist to tick according to convenience." It wasn't difficult to see why: Voters were required to choose three out of five people - all of whom were more or less complete strangers to them.
Li then decided that he would one day stand for elections and become a candidate who would become more than just another name on the ballot paper, a candidate who could connect with the voters in person.
His resolve to communicate with the voter eventually received an impetus, 20 years later - in 2004 - with an amendment to the 1979 Election Law that highlighted the importance for candidates to meet the voters and engage with them more effectively. As a consequence, the local election committee or people's congress is required to introduce candidates to voters by organizing 'question and answer' sessions as a platform for debate. All such activities, however, must cease on the day of the election.
Li seems to have handled the question and answer session effectively. One of four candidates competing for three positions as deputies to the People's Congress from Shijingshan district, Li was elected this year. He received 2,306 votes out of the 2,770 cast. Altogether, 4,403 deputies like Li were elected - after voters were familiar with candidates either in person, through meetings or via the Internet - to sit for the next five years as local delegates.
Said Li, who is not a Communist Party member, "It is not whether you are a Party member or an official, what really counts is whether you have brought enough benefits to the people and that you voice their concerns with enough passion," Li said. "This meeting provided a platform for voters to decide who they feel is the right spokesperson for them."
Speaking of the local question and answer sessions, mentioned in the Election Law amendment, Dr. Cai Dingjian, Director of the Constitutionalism Research Institute of the China University of Political Science and Law commented, "Before the law, much like the planned economy, the candidates were also planned. Only a handful were nominated by the electorate and hardly any of them would nominate themselves for election. Instead, most were decided by their working units. Consequently, candidates lacked a sense of responsibility for the people as they were only required to be responsible for their working units - some didn't care whether they had won the election or not!"
The competition between the candidates at the meeting session also made winners cherish each vote that they had received. "An election without competition cannot be called an election," noted Dr. Cai.
Elections for China's city, district, county and township congresses will last from July 1, 2006 to December 31, 2007, involving more than 900 million people. Throughout this 18-month period, more than two million deputies will be elected nationwide.
The National People's Congress (NPC) serves as a forum for mediating policy debate between different areas of society. Delegates are elected by the Provincial People's Congresses for a term of five years. Representatives to the Provincial People's Congresses are in turn elected by lower level congresses. However, only the lowest levels of people's congresses - mainly district-level in cities and county and township levels in rural areas - are popularly elected.
With the roots of democracy in China taking firmer and fresher footholds, people from all walks of life are beginning to participate actively in the local elections. Amongst them are university students and professors.
Hao Jingsong, a graduate student at the China University of Political Science and Law, made his first attempt this year to stand as a candidate for election to the post of People's Congress deputy in north Beijing's Haidian district. Hao posted an announcement on his University's intranet proclaiming his wish to stand for election. He distributed around 2,600 leaflets throughout the local community in order to effectively market his credentials.
"I think that more people will be encouraged to take an active part in public affairs when they see that ordinary people like me are enthusiastic about building a civil society," he said.
Dr. Xu Zhiyong, from the School of Humanity and Economics at Beijing University of Post and Telecommunications, was re-elected to the Haidian District People's Congress this year after he had delivered on his promises made during his 2003 election campaign.
As awareness of grassroots democracy in urban cities has grown, Chinese villagers have also started to reap the benefits of self-administrative governance thanks to the formulation of the Organic Law on Village Committees, in 1987. Tens of millions of people across the countryside have been taking full advantage of this law by voting for village heads as well as people's congress deputies at township and county levels.
To date, the majority of rural areas across China have utilized the powers provided in the law, affecting over 400 million voters in 610,000 villages across 25 provinces. This has been made possible by informing them of their rights and responsibilities, and by demonstrating the benefits of having leaders who can be held accountable for their actions.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao voiced his support to the further improvement of direct village elections during his European visit last year. The current experiments could provide a base for further political development, though "the conditions are not yet ripe for conducting direct elections at a higher level of government," Wen told German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.