Talking American Democracy in China

Chinese democracy does not involve much voting, awareness of how the government works, information about politics, or what I like to call “facts,” yet the Chinese government claims to be democratic, and many of my Chinese friends will agree that this is true

BY Mike Levy

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The ‘08 election results are in.

According to my friends, who received an informal presidential straw poll from me in my capacity as a volunteer teacher in China, Barack Obama is the winner. He is a crushing, massive winner, earning almost five times more votes than the second place Democratic finishers, Hillary Clinton and Dennis Kucinich, and ten times more votes than the leading Republican (John McCain) and the leading independents (a tie–at one vote apiece– between Ralph Nader and Steven Colbert).

I held this incredibly unscientific straw poll to help a group of my most politically interested students understand a little bit more about American democracy. These students–all English majors at Guizhou University, the largest school in China’s poorest province–represent a broad spectrum of Chinese society. Some are from tiny peasant villages with parents earning less than $100 a month. Others are children of China’s growing urban kleptocracy, rich even by American standards. A few of them actively circumvent the Great Firewall of China to access political blogs and newspapers that the Chinese government attempts to block. Many check, or BBC online news. One regularly checks, then comes to me with vocabulary questions (“What does it mean for Bush to be ‘out of his mind’?”).

These students have been asking me for months who will become President in 2008. I’ve been feeding them data from national polls, but this information strikes them as impersonal and unenlightening. They want to feel a more personal connection to American politics. With this in mind, I sent a mass e-mail to about 100 of my friends back home, hoping to show the students a small slice of American-style democracy.

Chinese-style democracy offers an interesting contrast to our own system in that it is almost entirely undemocratic. Chinese democracy does not involve much voting, awareness of how the government works, information about politics, or what I like to call “facts.” The Chinese government nevertheless claims to be democratic, and many of my Chinese friends will agree that this is true.

America certainly ain’t perfect, and by most reasonable analyses it has gone Anikan Skywalker on the rest of the world, self-righteously slaughtering its way towards the Dark Side. But Americans know who is running for office. We have access to voting records and information about campaign contributions. We can watch debates. We at least have the option of thinking deeply about our government.

Chinese do not have these options. The government simply is. Most Chinese don’t think about it beyond that fact. I was therefore extremely happy to bring the political thoughts of my American friends into my Chinese classroom. This was a chance to show my students what democracy looks like.


Class began with a summary of the results of the straw poll. Obama cruised to victory, with Hillary Clinton in a distant second and Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson and John Edwards pulling in handfuls of votes. Five percent of my straw poll voters were undecided at this early point in the primary process. Ninety percent of my straw poll voters voted Democratic (which I made clear was more a comment on whose company I enjoy, rather than a reflection of American demographics).

I pointed out some other data I gleaned from the straw poll: More than half of the women who voted went for Hillary. Eighty percent of those 21 or younger voted for Kucinich. Most of my friends who work in politics voted for Edwards.

As I announced these results, my students were bug-eyed. “We don’t do this in China,” explained Wing, a bubbly girl with red-dyed hair. (I have changed all students’ names to protect their privacy.) “You can’t ask us who we vote for, because we don’t know.” Wing was agog with curiosity. How do Americans decide whom to vote for? What do Americans know about the candidates? Are the voters controlled by the rich? Can poor people become President? Doesn’t voting lead to disagreement and (as a logical consequence), weakness? Who is Steven Colbert?

I tried my best to deflect these questions (except for the one about Colbert. I told the students to YouTube his roast of Bush at the White House Correspondents’ dinner for a crash course on how the Chinese and American political systems differ). Peace Corps volunteers in China are encouraged to speak carefully about politics, and I do my best to abide. Happily, the discussion moved away from me, and toward the students.

“We have democracy in China,” Kevin reminded his classmates. “It’s just different.” He slipped into Chinese for a moment before apologizing with a look at me. “Here’s what I mean,” he said returning to English. “In your America, you have direct democracy, and in our China, we have indirect democracy, but it’s all democracy.” A few weeks ago, Kevin was the winner of a speech contest I hosted, and this difference in democratic styles was the topic of his speech. As he explained it, the theory of Chinese democracy calls for the direct election of local leaders. These local leaders then vote for higher leaders, who vote for higher leaders, all the way up the chain of command. At the very top, a small group selects the Communist Party Chairman and Prime Minister. During his speech, Kevin summarized an argument that is common in China: “We have too many people for western-style democracy. So we vote indirectly.”

My male students seemed generally impressed with Kevin’s explanation. The women rolled their eyes, though only one would speak out. Vivian, a saucy, articulate 20-year old from Guangdong, put it this way: “I don’t know who controls this country, and I don’t care.” My students from Guangdong–a province with its own language, food, and culture, and far more economic development than the rest of China–are often the most outspoken in my classes. “We cannot compare our advancement in politics to America. We are too far behind.” Most of the women in the class nodded vigorously at this.

The women were also interested in dissecting the gender-based results of my straw poll. They loved the fact that, among my friends, women were far more likely to vote for Hillary than were men. “Oh my! If Hillary won, women in China would be so exceptional!” These words spilled from the mouth of Delores, a cross-eyed and jovial student with a round face who adores American politics. She has told me during my office hours that she does what she can to avoid China’s Internet censors and learn what’s really happening in the world. As she spoke, Kevin grumbled something I could not decipher. Vivian translated for me: “Kevin says that women in America are different from Chinese women.”

I asked Kevin what he meant. He is a leader in this class, handsome and funny, and his classmates listen carefully to his ideas. Kevin smiled sheepishly, but spoke with authority: “Women in China already have all of the power. It’s not fair! If Hillary wins, men will all be discriminated against even more!”

This got the women going. Wing, red in the face, spoke sternly at Kevin. “If Hillary wins, much will change. She is the most important woman in the world.” The conversation quickly mellowed as the class realized someone might lose face if things became more intense.

I turned attention to Barack Obama.

“He cannot win,” said Zhong Fu, my most honest student. Zhong Fu’s speech during the speech contest was about how September 11 made him happy, because America, “which has rarely been viewed as a country of justice in most of the world,” got its comeuppance. Now, Zhong Fu was focused on American racism: “Americans, as we all know, do not give equality to black people. So they will not vote for Obama.” I pointed out that my straw poll indicated differently, since Obama was the run-away winner. Zhong Fu was not impressed: “Your national polls disagree with your friends.” Zhong Fu, like a good number of my other students, is confused by Obama’s popularity. In a way, it even distresses him, because it undermines one of his basic beliefs about American culture: that it is fundamentally racist.

Other students were clearly impressed that a majority of my friends want an Obama White House. “This will change my mind about America,” said John, a gangly aspiring artist. “We learn a lot about how America shot Martin Luther King, but this would impress me.” He added that he would be equally as impressed with a Hillary White House. The women in the class all smiled at this. He blushed.

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Mike Levy served as a Peace Corps volunteer in China from 2005-2007. Learn more about him at The Other Billion.

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