As China amends Election Law, real reform remains elusive

27 June 2019
This week China finally amended its Election Law, which had previously skewed power towards urban residents at a ratio of 4:1. Meanwhile, in the United States, Barack Obama is putting all his political capital into trying to pass health care reform legislation. In the U.S., American presidents have been (unsuccessfully) pushing for health care reform for over 60 years, and yet their efforts are consistently blocked by entrenched political and economic internets. In China, implementing hukou reform and addressing urban-rural equality is proving to be similarly difficult.


Will China be able to achieve equality between rural and urban residents?  (Photo by Ariel Lopez)

One of the many ways in which urban people have had a systematic advantage over rural people was through the Election Law. As the South China Morning Post explained:

Introduced in 1958 to protect the rights of workers in the cities, the Electoral Law originally stipulated that there should be one NPC deputy for every 800,000 rural residents, and one for every 100,000 urban residents. After several amendments, the ratio was lowered to 4:1 in 1995.

"The urban population in China has increased from 29.04 per cent in 1995 to 46.6 per cent in 2009. At the same time, people's congresses at all levels have gone through many terms of elections, accumulated abundant experience," NPC Standing Committee vice-chairman Wang Zhaoguo said yesterday when presenting the draft to the legislature.

What practical effect the change will bring remains unclear, since, obviously, citizens can’t actually vote for their “representatives” under the current system, thus making the “Election” Law somewhat of a misnomer. Nonetheless, progressive advocates for reform, such as Yu Jianrong and the authors of Will the Boat Sink the Water? The Life of China’s Peasants (中国农民调查), have noted that practical and symbolic importance in fixing the law.

Furthermore, the discriminatory hukou system also came to the country’s attention – as 13 prominent newspapers put out a joint editorial on the eve of the Two Sessions. (The main coordinator of the effort − an editor at the Economic Observer −was later fired for doing so). However, as the CLB report The Children of Migrant Workers in China has shown, many migrant workers and their families don’t have access to health care, education, and other social services in the cities. Although the central government has often tried to address these inequalities through well-intended mandates, it often doesn’t give the required money to local areas that would be necessary in order to fix the problem.

Even though debating the merits of the Election Law and how to reform the hukou system is very important, it’s difficult to know whether reforming the root causes of social inequality is something that the broad “masses” take an interest in, or whether it is mainly confined to foreign scholars and Chinese academics and newspaper editors. For example, a previously confidential speech made by Yu Jianrong, which was recently made public and translated by China Digital Times, and which discusses the possibility of spreading social instability, draws on the research of Elizabeth Perry to assert that Chinese protesters still have a “rules-based” mentality as opposed to a rights-based discourse:

In 2007, she (Perry) published an important article entitled, “The Rights Awareness of Chinese People.” She said that since 1989, Westerners all thought that China would collapse. However it has almost been twenty years and the Chinese Communist Party has still not collapsed. When Westerners see Chinese people take to the streets they are ecstatic, they say once again that the Communist Party is going to collapse. But after a few days [the Chinese people] go back. Why? She says that “we Western scholars have all misjudged the situation and there is a key reason why; we don’t understand what ordinary Chinese people are thinking. Actually, ordinary Chinese people take to the streets for different reasons than us Westerners. When Westerners take to the streets they are talking about rights; however when Chinese people take to the streets they are talking about rules.”

This sentence is hard to understand so let me give an example and you’ll understand. Why do Chinese people take to the streets? Ordinary Chinese people will say, “You promised to give me ten Yuan, why are you now only giving me five Yuan? You’re not honoring your word. Your law says that rural people should be having elections and that land takings should only occur if the villagers approve. So why aren’t there elections? Why are you selling our land without gaining our approval? You local governments are not doing things according to the nation’s laws.” In summary the issue is about the [government] not honoring its word. So what do Westerners say when they take to the streets? They say, “Why are you only giving us ten Yuan? According to human rights, according to natural rights, you should be giving us one hundred Yuan. Your rules [providing ten Yuan] are wrong.

As Yu points out, it is still quite rare for Chinese citizens, especially those who have suffered rights violations, to make systematic critiques of their own plight. It would seem, then, that the most effective way to address systematic inequality would be to educate people about the unfairness in some current laws and regulations.  And perhaps, then, it is no wonder that the government is loathe to see an awakening consciousness among workers and (legally-defined) “rural” people about the systematic causes of their exploitation. (And it’s thus no wonder that China’s Peasants was banned and the editorial calling for hukou reform was taken down).

In the US, Obama is making his last stand on health care reform, in an effort that still might fail, in part because many Americans are satisfied enough with their health care services and they fear change. Similarly, Hukou reform would almost necessarily involve re-calibrating urban and rual interests, and finding a way for urban residents to share the pie in a more equal way with their fellow citizens.

Changing the Election Law may be a largely symbolic act, but it’s at least a nod in the right direction. Perhaps until China really decides to reform the hukou system, all efforts will have to be made to, as President Bush might say, make the pie higher.
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