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Carter: Chinese Village Elections Fair - 2001-09-04

Former U.S. president, Jimmy Carter, is urging China to expand its more than 10-year experiment with democratic village elections.

Mr. Carter says that China's democratic village elections could play an important role in encouraging overall political reform of corruption-prone local government.

Speaking to reporters in Beijing Tuesday, Mr. Carter said that about one-third of village elections monitored by his Georgia-based Carter Center have been held according to law, with universal voter registration and secret balloting. And he says the democratic balloting has been overwhelmingly well-received by the villagers.

"The response has been from the roughly 800 million, they call them, peasants, farmers and villagers, who have experienced this opportunity to choose their own leaders and to hold them accountable," Mr. Carter said. "This has resulted in an almost total absence of unpleasant dissent, and a dramatic reduction in the level of corruption."

China has held elections at the village level for more than a decade. But in November 1998 the government revised laws to standardize procedures to include secret ballots, multiple candidates and private voting booths for the country's 800 million villagers. Officials hope that by allowing direct election of village leaders, they can reduce endemic government corruption and popular discontent in its countryside.

Mr. Carter says that almost a million Chinese villages have now held democratic elections. He is urging China's leaders now to expand elections to the township level, but acknowledged that this would be what he called "a quantum leap" since many Communist Party officials are opposed to the idea. "If I were a Communist Party leader in a township or a village, and I saw some of my historic authority being taken away by locally-elected villagers, I would probably be averse to it," he said.

Despite signs of progress, the Carter Center reports that many elections have been undermined by heavy interference from higher officials or vote buying. But Mr. Carter says he believes village democracy is irreversible, and could eventually spread up the political hierarchy where the Communist Party maintains an exclusive hold on power. "If the village elections prove to be successful and popular, which they certainly are," Mr. Carter said, "first of all it would be almost an impossibility to reverse that decision and to withhold that right from the peasants."

Mr. Carter will observe a village election outside Shanghai on Wednesday, and meet the following day with Chinese President Jiang Zemin.