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In the most populous city in central China, a Chinese filmmaker documented an interesting experiment in democracy. The participants in the said experiment were the “third grade students of the Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, China” (PBS, 2007, p.1). Based on the school’s tradition it was the duty of the teachers to appoint the class monitor (PBS, 2007, p.1). The student appointed to the said position wielded significant power when it came to managing the class, keeping the students on track of the learning objectives (PBS, 2007).
The class monitor also doled out punishment to the perceived violators of the school’s code of conduct (PBS, 2007). In the year 2007, a historic change occurred, because for the first time in the school’s history the teachers decided to utilize a democratic form of selecting the next class monitor.
In this particular class, the teacher had chosen three candidates, two boys and one girl. Luo Lei and Cheng Cheng were both males. Xu Xiaofei was the only female in the group. One feature of the campaign protocol was the retention of the services of two handpicked assistants for every candidate (PBS, 2007, p.1).
The candidates had to perform three tasks, and at the end of the presentation the students were given the responsibility to choose the next class monitor. First, the candidates were expected to showcase their talent in a talent show. Second, they must engage each other in a debate. Finally, they were expected to make a speech as a final appeal to the voters.
There were two major components to the campaign process. First, the parents did everything in their power to prepare their son or daughter for the rigors of the electoral process.
Parents supported them when they made the preparations for the talent show. Parents were also helpful when it came to the preparations for the debate and the speech. However, Luo Lei’s parents went beyond the expected responsibilities of parents. In Luo Lei’s case, his parents utilized their financial resources, status in the community, and personal connections to increase Luo Lei’s chances of winning the elections.
The secondary component to the election process was manifested in the creation of alliances and the personal campaign methods utilized by Luo Lei, Cheng Cheng, and Xu Xiaofei. Each candidate used their personal networks, friendships, and social skills to persuade fellow students with regards to their competency to lead as class monitor. In their free time, the three candidates forged alliances and made promises to make life better for their fellow classmates if chosen to lead as class monitor.
The filmmaker focused on the emotional and physical toll of the selection process. Xu Xiaofei for instance expressed her desire to quit. In many occasions Cheng Cheng’s angry outbursts were some of the compelling scenes in the said documentary. At the end, Luo Lei was declared the winner. Luo Lei was jubilant while his opponents and their ardent supporters were reduced to tears.
What is Democracy?
According to political scientists, democracy is both a real regime and a political ideal (Ersson & Lane, 2004). They expounded on this definition by saying that “democracy is the political regime where the will of the people becomes the law of the country” (Ersson & Lane, 2004, p.2). In addition, they also highlighted the importance of neutrality, which is the assurance that no choice alternative is given a favored position (Ersson & Lane, 2004).
At the same time a true democracy believes in the ideal of anonymity, which is the assurance that no person is given a special position (Ersson & Lane, 2004). Finally, a true democracy anchored its belief in the rule of the majority, and in an election the winners garnered at least 51 percent of the votes (Ersson & Lane, 2004).
The above-mentioned statements are critical in the analysis of China’s chosen form of governance. These statements are also important in the evaluation of the impact of the social experiment at the Evergreen Primary School in Wuhan, China. An overview of the electoral process applied to the social experiment participated by third grade students highlighted the gaps in China’s pursuit of democracy. An overview of China’s election system will lead to the same conclusion that China is not yet an example of a democratic regime.
Economic Growth and Democratization in China
A significant number of political analysts are confident that China is on the road to greater democratization. This assertion was based on the premise that there is a strong connection between economic growth and democratization. In other words, greater economic growth creates greater demand for more personal and political freedom.
Henry Rowen a Stanford economist made a prediction a few years back that if China maintained a 5 percent per capita growth in gross domestic product, then, by 2015 it will reach a critical threshold of $7,000-$8000 per capita GDP (Tsai, 2007, p.2). Henry Rowen made the positive forecast that at a certain level of economic growth, several factors are in play, and these forces will compel the Chinese government to transform itself into a democratic regime (Tsai, 2007).
At the turn of the 20th century, an economist name Xia Xi Lollar pointed out the positive correlation between a market economy and democracy. There are several pieces of historical evidences to support the views of Lollar and Rowen. According to historians, China successfully transitioned from totalitarianism to authoritarianism (Tsai, 2007).
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They also pointed out that China is on the verge of starting the longer-term, second transition towards democracy as evidenced by the significant expansion of China’s private sector (Tsai, 2007, p.3).
China’s Educational System Reinforcing Social Stratification
China’s unique social stratification is a byproduct of the Cultural Revolution and the impact of the Chinese Communist Party (“CPP”). The Cultural Revolution was spearheaded by the late dictator Mao Zedong.
The top leaders in the said movement were labeled as “revolutionary heroes”, and it did not come as a surprise that their heirs became the managers of China’s modern state-owned enterprises (Goodman, 2014). The grandchildren of the so-called “revolutionary heroes” became wealthy private entrepreneurs in the 21st century (Goodman, 2014). The present form of social stratification is a major impediment towards the full democratization of the country.
In addition to the heirs of popular leaders and reformers of China, privilege and wealth were also distributed to the trusted and loyal members of the CCP. Thus, the presence of the CCP created a negative effect on the stratification of China’s social structure. This is manifested through China’s educational system. In fact, the documentary entitled Vote for Me provided outsiders a glimpse of the social stratification within China.
Consider for instance the fact that the teachers did not give the students a free hand when it comes to choosing their leaders. It was the teachers who narrowed down the choices to three students. This is an important aspect of the social experiment, because according to the definition of a real democracy it is important to allow the general public to make decisions without interference from the government. In other words, it is not acceptable to favor one group or one entity over the other.
In the said documentary it was obvious that there were certain students who had more access to resources and social power. It is interesting to find out why Luo Lei was the class monitor for the past two years.
It is also interesting to point out that his family’s wealth and influence played a major role in his ability to secure the position of class monitor. It is also interesting to find out the family background of Luo Lei, and to discover why his father wielded tremendous influence with regards to the police department and the transportation department of the city.
It can be argued that the social experiment at the Evergreen Primary School was an example of a democratic exercise. However, several aspects of the electoral process must change in order for it to be considered an example of a democratic form of governance. It is important to find out if poor students and those who were not related to party officials or wealthy entrepreneurs of the city can have a fair chance of winning the election for class monitor.
The Path to a Democratic Political System
It is not prudent to say that China can never become a fully democratized society. No one can predict the outcome of several social and economic forces that are at work in the said country. However, it can be argued that the path towards full democratization was littered with obstacles and made more difficult because of several problems. One of the major obstacles is the CCP’s continuous grip on power. Another problematic issue is the existence of a unique social stratification framework that impeded the democratization of the country.
It is not easy to believe in the idea that China can become a fully democratized country. Even if analysts founded their hope on the spectacular economic growth of China, there are many problematic aspects of the current regime that makes optimism a difficult choice.
The theory that an open market economy creates a powerful force to compel democratic change in the country is an acceptable proposition. However, it can be argued that China’s political history from the distant past to the present has been characterized by the submission of the masses to the rule of a few.
Ersson, S., & Lane, J. (2004). Democracy: A comparative approach. New York: Routledge.
Goodman, S. (2014). Class in contemporary China. MA: Polity Press.
PBS. (2007). Vote for me. Web.
Tsai, K. (2007). Capitalism without democracy. New York: Cornell University Press.