One Saturday morning in June, 45 residents of Xingyuan, a neighbourhood in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, gathered at a local middle school lecture hall to exercise their right to vote.
This was democracy,Chinese-style: as ceiling fans pushed damp air around the room, a solemn official read instructions into a microphone. The residents stood for a recording of the national anthem, pink ballots were distributed and filled out, and each resident dropped his or her ballot into a red box at the front of the room.
The residents, mostly elderly women in brightly coloured blouses, were electing the neighbourhood committee an increasingly common occurrence in China.
Although large-scale political reform is still not on the agenda in China, Beijing is expanding experimentation in democratic techniques at a local level. Village elections began in the countryside in 1987. Elections for neighbourhood committees, the lowest level of administration in Chinese cities, followed in 2002.
In recent years, candidates for neighbourhood committee elections have been allowed to hang campaign posters and even contest poll results. Other areas have given residents a voice in decisions on public works projects.
The government's efforts come amid rising popular assertiveness on policy issues, fuelling concerns of instability. Villagers and city residents alike now regularly voice their views in demonstrations. Strikes occur with increasing frequency at Chinese factories.
“The [Chinese Communist] party has a real intention to prevent social instability at the local level,” says Joseph Fewsmith, a professor at Boston University who has researched village elections in China. “The elections are a way of doing that.”
The Xingyuan poll provides a rare glimpse into the limits and opportunities of China's relatively new urban elections. Of the 5,463 people in the neighbourhood, only 50 were allowed to nominate candidates and vote for the seven-person committee (five of the representatives did not show up to vote). Each of these 50 people had been chosen by groups of 20-30 households.
Liu Yonghong, the 37-year-old woman who was re-elected director of the committee, is also the neighbourhood's Communist party secretary.
This kind of overlap is the norm in most other parts of the city--only 16 per cent of Guangzhou's neighbourhood committee directors are not party members and elsewhere in China, according to Huang Weiping, dean of the college of management at Shenzhen University.
Ms Liu dodged questions about her campaign techniques. “This will be my second term,” she said after her re-election. “I think the community has approved of my work and my performance.”
Under Chinese law, neighbourhood committees' responsibilities include publicising government laws; resolving conflicts between residents; assisting the state in public hygiene, family planning and education; and reflecting residents' views to the government.
But how much power these committees actually have is unclear. While the village committees, which decide some land use issues, carry weight with farmers, electing neighbourhood leaders is still a new concept to many of China's city dwellers. Because committee members serve three-year terms, this was only the second time Xingyuan residents had elected their neighbourhood committee.
“In urban areas, people have various ways to survive. They are not tied to the community as tightly as in rural village committees,” says Prof Huang.
That relative underdevelopment was apparent in Xingyuan. With 10 candidates vying for seven seats, the election was hardly hotly contested. As the votes were tallied on a blackboard after the poll, it quickly became clear that Ms Liu would win by a landslide. All the winning candidates finished with more than 40 votes.
Still, the fact that the neighbourhood was holding a vote impressed Lai Xiaofang, a 73-year-old retired official who took part in the election last Saturday. “They can better serve the people,” she said of the committee members. “They will help the common folk.”
Indeed, in its first term, the Xingyuan committee hired 13 security guards to make the neighbourhood's streets safer and took on another 10 cleaning and gardening staff.
Whether these elections are expanded to higher levels depends on Beijing and the Communist party. “Democratic development is one of our goals,” says Cui Renquan, deputy secretary-general of the Guangzhou government.
But he adds: “Democratic development is very complicated. We have to push forward with progress toward democracy according to Guangzhou's and China's reality.”