Elections… –by Jinny Batterson
It’s the eve of 2014’s official Election Day in the U.S.—Tuesday, November 4. Political candidates’ campaigns in many places has been long, very expensive, overly negative, and inconclusive. Lots of races remain “too close to call.” After the polls close tomorrow evening, the votes will finally start to be counted and the winners of the various political races will be determined. There will be lots of victory speeches, and just as many concession speeches. Exhausted campaign workers will begin to catch up on sleep. Despite much of the hyperbole and rhetoric, Americans are becoming somewhat skeptical that just changing our elected leaders is likely to substantially improve the governance of our country. The “more perfect union” invoked in our founding Constitution can too often seem a mirage.
Most of my extended stays in China have partially coincided with earlier election seasons in the U.S.—I cast absentee ballots in 2006, 2008, 2010, and in 2012’s primary. My Chinese colleagues were non-plussed by my participation. Why would I bother to vote in an election when I wasn’t even in the country where the election was taking place? Elections are not a substantial part of mainland Chinese culture. The upper levels of Chinese government (of which there are officially five, I think) are indirectly elected. Each successive level is chosen by representatives of the next lower level (a tiny bit like the role of our electoral college in Presidential elections). Direct elections, when they take place at all, occur only at the village or local district level. I never had a chance to observe one. Whenever I ventured to inquire of Chinese students and colleagues about elections in China, I got vague or non-committal answers.
A few of our fellow teachers in Xinjiang knew the name of the official who represented their district in the provincial government—they thought he also held an important post in the university administration, but no one had ever actually met him, spent any time with him, or voted for him. Influencing his participation in government or his decisions was not anything they cared about or thought they could do. When the rare Chinese student or colleague inquired about the U.S. political system, he was usually polite, but the query often carried the implicit subtext: “Why should you be critical of our one-party, somewhat authoritarian system, when your two-party system full of checks and balances can’t seem to get anything done?” I’ve never been able to craft a totally satisfactory answer. I only know that for me, standing in line with my fellow citizens to cast a ballot on issues and candidates we care about is pretty basic to my outlook on life.
Both China and the U.S. struggle with political corruption—the harm done by corrupt officials, corrupt policies, and corrupt cronies is roundly denounced in both countries. Neither of our countries has found a great solution; both have had periodic, partial successes. On a visit to historic Kaifeng, we were taken to see “Lord Bao’s Garden,” a small park dedicated to the memory of an upright and impartial Chinese judge who lived and worked about a thousand years ago. A diorama showed three guillotine-like chopping blocks where maximum punishments were administered—one with a lion’s head, for members of the royal family; a second with a tiger’s head for lesser nobility; the third, with a dog’s head, for commoners. Judge Bao, it was recorded, once sentenced a high-ranking male noble to death at the tiger’s head block for trying to disavow his initial lawful wife in order to marry the emperor’s daughter instead.
I hope I will never be in a position to have to craft a similarly weighty judgment. I hope both China and the U.S. will be able to improve our respective governments, rooted in the best traditions of our respective cultures.