Political reforms in China will likely be slow, Carter says

Former president foresees a process of `evolutionary change'

September 05, 2001|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - Former President Jimmy Carter said yesterday that he does not expect elections in China to expand beyond the local level in the near future, reinforcing a widely held belief that the world's last major Communist state has no plans to institute major political reforms in the foreseeable future.

"I don't see any immediate prospect of it, no," said Carter during a news conference at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing. "It's a matter of evolutionary change."

Still, Carter said he was upbeat about the long-term possibility for broader elections in China, where the Communist Party maintains a monopoly on political power.

"If village elections are successful, there is always that good chance that they will move up," Carter said. "This is a matter which will probably be addressed by the next generation of Chinese leaders."

Carter is in China this week as head of the Carter Center, his nonprofit, Atlanta-based organization that has worked with the Chinese Ministry of Civil Affairs since 1998 to help standardize electoral procedures in villages. The Foreign Relations Committee of the National People's Congress, China's largely rubber-stamp parliament, invited Carter to visit.

On Monday, the former U.S. president spoke at a forum on village self-government and rural social development. Today, he is to observe a village election outside Shanghai. Tomorrow, Carter is to meet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who is returning from a trip to North Korea.

Carter said he would ask Jiang about a timetable for expanding elections from the village to the township level, the first formal rung of government administration in China.

China has held village elections for more than a decade in an effort to develop government accountability at the local level. The broader impact on Chinese politics has been limited, because village leaders oversee relatively small populations and limited budgets.

Hopes that the central government would expand elections to the politically more meaningful township level were raised in late 1998 when word filtered out that a small township in southwest China's Sichuan Province had held an illegal election.

Beijing declared the election unconstitutional, but left the winner in his job. What democracy advocates had hoped might become a trend remains little more than an experiment.

Carter said one reason that China has not instituted township elections is the sheer administrative challenge involved.

"There is a quantum jump from holding a village election with an average of about 1,000 people to a township level, which might have 1.5 million," Carter said.

Allowing citizens to choose leaders in a large jurisdiction with a hefty annual budget would run the risk of giving real political power to someone who might be or might become independent of the Communist Party.

While China's Communist leaders sometimes give lip service to instituting broader elections - "the sooner, the better" Premier Zhu Rongji said at a news conference in 2000 - there is no sign that they have any intention of permitting political competition.

When dissidents formed an opposition party in 1998 called the China Democracy Party, the regime responded by arresting the leaders and sentencing them in closed-door trials to lengthy prison terms.

But the success and popularity of local elections has made it essentially impossible for the government to take back the right to vote in China's hundreds of thousands of small villages, Carter said. He said he hopes village elections will provide a foundation for greater democracy.

"In my talk [Monday], I said I hoped that the finest principles of the village elections would be adopted and all the officials in the township ... will be chosen by election," Carter said.

"That's my hope."

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