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Lost in Translations: A Report on An Aborted Village Election

In 1987, the Chinese National People’s Congress passed a law calling for direct elections in the country’s rural villages, where 900 million people live. It instantly caught China observers’ attention. Some view the village elections as a sham to fool the world, since in fact the Communist Party is in complete control. Others see elections as a dramatic step forward on the road to democracy, hailing it as a “training ground for democratization.”

Yet, when a grass-roots cadre in a rural area of Sichuan Province, China, seized the opportunity and pushed for a general election for the key posts in Pingba Town, where he lived, the result was devastating. Instead of being promoted for his successful experiment, his boss delivered a dreadful blow to this fledgling political apprentice: “You’re fired.” What went wrong?

Growing up in an ordinary farmer’s family, the 35-year-old Mr. Wei Shengduo knows first hand the hardships of farmers and other working classes. He never forgets his father’s words, “If you ever become a government official, do something for the ordinary people.” So after he passed the qualification exam to become a government employee in 1989 and then moved up the rigid hierarchical ladder to the position of Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Committee of Pingba Town, he had a chance to make his father proud and make his dream—of experimental reform of the political system and a general election in Pingba—come true.

His dream turned into a nightmare. In August 2003, Mr. Wei was suspended from his position and was placed under Double Confinement. Because he planned a general election without higher authority’s approval, he had to confess within a confined time and remain in a confined location.

Some who knew the nature of the CCP and understood the rules of the game within the Party saw this coming from the very beginning. They tried to warn Mr. Wei to stop. They told him, “It’s not the time for general elections yet…You’re just a small potato. Anyone can easily kill your plan.”

Although Mr. Wei’s ambition for reform was well intended, he was naïve when it came to political issues. He thought that there were officials in the County who gave him tacit permission. These officials, in an attempt to curb and punish the ever-escalating corruption within the government, wanted to use the election to remove the bad guys. Mr. Wei, however, was afraid that the officials might stop him from running the general election, so he didn’t openly seek their permission. He thought that if he did it on his own and it went well, then the County would recognize his achievement and promote his ideas countywide; if it failed, then he would simply bear all consequences.

Mr. Wei never thought about failure. He knew that both he and his partner, the town supervisor, would be re-elected. The election was merely a formality—a significant formality in Mr. Wei’s view, though—to allow the people to exercise their voting rights. As long as people came out to vote, in his mind it would be a success. He even thought that because the election was simply a formality, it wouldn’t affect anyone’s political interest. Therefore there was no reason to worry and no reason for the County to object. Plus, Pingba is only 15 kilometers from the County. It’s impossible for the County not to know about the election. He guessed that the County did not say anything because they were taking a wait-and-see attitude. Mr. Wei even contemplated, optimistically, that since the general elections would be held at the end of August, within 3-4 months, positive results could be achieved by the end of the year, and the County would recognize his accomplishment and promote his success countywide.

“Wei Shengduo is such an idealist.” A reporter from south China told Phoenix Weekly. “Reforms in villages and towns should be promoted at least at the county and district level. Mr. Wei tried to move forward without knowing his boss’ intention. He acted a bit too rashly.”

Rashly it is. Mr. Wei would soon find out what his naivety had cost him and how the CCP would play its classic cat-and-mouse cliché to crush a small official low on the totem pole.

When the news of the general election reached the County building, its CCP committee immediately stopped Mr. Wei.

On the afternoon of August 28, an investigation team from the County came to Pingba. That evening, they spread the word that the election scheduled for the next day was cancelled.

On the next day, instead of heading to the voting booth, Mr. Wei was placed under Double Confinement and was suspended from his position. For the next 15 days, two government staff members constantly had him under their watchful eyes, monitoring him around the clock, even when he used the bathroom. They ordered him to write a self-criticism, which he refused to do. Mr. Wei recalled, “They asked me to confess, to make a deep and profound reflection upon myself and to admit my mistakes. I refused to cooperate and refused to accept their statement that I’m guilty.” He told them that it was illegal to put him under Double Confinement and threatened to sue.

On September 4, a joint investigation team with members from the Disciplinary Committee, the People’s Congress, the Procuratorate, and the National Security Bureau in Chongqing City arrived in Chengkou. “At that time, officials from the County expressed two different opinions. One was that the general election was manipulated by some Western anti-China forces. The other was that the Falun Gong members from Pingba were responsible. Mr. Wei told the Phoenix Weekly reporter, “The investigation team talked to me for three whole days and two half days. They told me that [social] class struggles still exist and reminded me not to be used by others. I repeatedly talked about the report of the 16th National Party Congress, about reform, and about the fact that the general election in Pingba was in accordance with the reforming spirit of the 16th Party Congress.”

While Mr. Wei tried to interpret the Party report in front of the seasoned CCP members, the investigation team was busy digging into Mr. Wei’s personal financial situation and found nothing suspicious. They even prepared a document to freeze both Mr. Wei and his wife’s bank accounts before going to the bank to search for more “economic corruption clues.” To their surprise, they found only 18 yuan (US$2.2) in the couple’s savings account and Mr. Wei’s wife’s salary of 900 yuan (US$108) per month. Upon learning the results, the investigator from the City Disciplinary Committee told the County Disciplinary Committee to “learn from Mr. Wei to be honest and keep your hands clean.”

In a later conversation, the team told Mr. Wei, “Your plan is very good. Perhaps some day in the future it will be widely adopted and implemented nationwide. However, the opportunity is not ripe yet. Progress in the area of reform has yet to be achieved. Had it not been for Deng Xiaoping, those who initiated the reform in Xiaogang Village would have received the death penalty.”

Carrot and stick. This is the CCP’s typical way of interrogation. A cunning hunter would be able to see the smoke and avoid the trap. But Mr. Wei, an unseasoned sailor on China’s political high seas, read the Party’s lips but couldn’t read anything between the lines. He didn’t even pick up the obvious hint that he had just committed a serious crime. Instead, he took the bait and started to sing.

“After this conversation, I began to cooperate with the investigation. I told the team that the reform in Pingba has good intentions and a reasonable, feasible plan. It was wrong for me not to report it to a higher level,” Mr. Wei told the reporter.

On September 13, the county CCP Committee lifted the Double Confinement on Mr. Wei. Before they left, the investigation team told Mr. Wei to have faith in the Party to effect a fair resolution.

Mr. Wei received a warm reception on October 16 when he returned to Pingba. Dozens of the villagers lit firecrackers to welcome him back. With the investigation team’s parting words still ringing in his ears, Mr. Wei was also quietly waiting for the open arms of the CCP to embrace him as a come-back kid. Even when the County CCP Committee, with permission of the City CCP Committee, placed him in the Aid-the-Poor Office as a general employee in mid December, Mr. Wei was still hopeful.

On February 9, 2004, Mr. Wei, still a People’s Representative of Chengkou County, reported to the County People’s Congress. To his surprise, he received a document rejecting him. The Chongqing City CCP Committee approved the County CCP Committee’s decision to take disciplinary action against Mr. Wei by removing him from his positions as Secretary of the Pingba CCP Committee and as a member of the County CCP Committee. It further recommended that Mr. Wei be disqualified as the County’s People’s Representative.

On the same day, the Office of the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress of Chengkou County informed the Chairing Committee of the People’s Congress of Pingba about the above decisions.

Neither of the documents offered any specific reason or explanation.

On February 13, Mr. Wei received a document from the Disciplinary Committee of Chongqing, with copies to the Central Disciplinary Committee, the National Monitoring Department, the Party Committee of Chongqing and related departments in Chengkou County. They stated that Mr. Wei Shengduo, as Secretary of CCP Committee of Pingba, acted presumptuously to organize and implement comprehensive reform of the political system. The action was in violation of the Constitution, Local Organization Law and the Party Constitution. It constituted a gross violation of the political discipline.

Mr. Wei was told in person that the reform in Pingba was a serious violation of the political discipline of the Party. It undermined the Party’s ruling foundation as well as the Party’s basis. What they said was different from what they told him back in September 2003. This time they told him that in addition to the mistake of not reporting his action to higher authorities, the general election itself was not a reform, but a gross violation of the Constitution and the law, as well as Party political discipline. They told him that this political problem was even more serious than graft or corruption.

After the Party’s previous acceptance of him, Mr. Wei was completely shocked. He told the reporter, “I wasn’t prepared for such a decision. I was completely surprised to see that the Party Committee at the city level take such disciplinary action against a grass-roots cadre.”

Obviously he did not perceive, let alone heed the warning signs. In such a political environment, if you are a low-ranking official, anyone can kill your plan, if not your body—seriously.

Perhaps the fact that Mr. Wei is still alive has kept him optimistic. When asked what he planned to do next, this honest, clean-minded political student replied calmly and hopefully, “I will go to Beijing directly.”

Will Beijing offer Mr. Wei a satisfactory answer? Perhaps he should spend some time before going there to learn Politics 101—the CCP’s rules of the game, especially the unwritten, unspoken ones, so nothing is lost in translations.

Helen Chou is a freelance writer based in New York.